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Nanotech Scenario Series

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Managing Magic

"Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic."
— Arthur C. Clarke

The coming technological revolution

It seems like magic. A small appliance, about the size of a washing machine, that is able to manufacture almost anything. It is called a nanofactory. Fed with simple chemical stocks, this amazing machine breaks down molecules, and then reassembles them into any product you ask for. Packed with nanotechnology and robotics, weighing 200 pounds and standing half as tall as a person, it can produce two tons per day of products. Control is simple: a touch screen selects the type and number of products to produce. It costs very little to operate, just the price of materials fed into it. In one hour, $20 worth of chemicals can be converted into 100 pairs of shoes, or 50 shovels, or 200 cell phones, or even a duplicate nanofactory!

Impossible? Today, maybe, but not tomorrow. The technology to create such a machine is speedily being developed. A nanofactory will be the end result of a convergence between nanotechnology (molecular scale engineering), rapid prototyping, and automated assembly. These are all present-day technologies. None of them has yet reached its full potential, but each of them is advancing rapidly, driven by powerful economic, social, and military forces. The integration of the three technologies will be far more powerful than the sum of the parts.

Click to enlarge
Molecular Mill       
(Artwork by K.E. Drexler, used with permission)       

Some experts claim that a crash program started today could complete the first working nanofactory within a decade at a cost of between five and ten billion dollars. And once the first one is built, it can start making copies of itself. Five to ten billion dollars is a lot of money, of course, and many people will question if it could not be better spent on something else. But imagine the economic, environmental and humanitarian benefits, when nearly any product can be manufactured on the spot for about $1 per pound. No more shipping costs or time spent waiting. No more wasted resources or hazardous byproducts. No more starvation, homelessness, or poverty.

Already scientists have made chemical reactions happen by directly manipulating the individual atoms. They can draw lines of chemicals only ten atoms wide. They can send electricity down molecular wires. They can attach propellers to molecular motors and analyze their performance. They can make functioning tweezers from DNA molecules. Within a few years, we will have the ability to build three-dimensional, active, molecular constructions. It's a small and predictable step to building robots and chemical plants at the nanometer scale.

It sounds too good to be true: a non-polluting, personal-size machine that within a few hours and for a few dollars can manufacture almost anything—clothing, books, tools, communication devices—but there is a catch. It can also manufacture weapons, poisons, tiny surveillance cameras, and other illicit products. How will this be controlled?

Imagine the possibilities! And the problems...


What we're doing about it

The mission of the Center for Responsible Nanotechnology (a non-profit program of World Care) is to raise awareness of the issues presented by molecular nanotechnology: the benefits and dangers, and the possibilities for responsible use.

Designing and developing molecular nanotechnology (MNT) is a major challenge in itself. It will not be easy, and it will not happen overnight. But it will happen, and it should happen. A greater challenge—and one that has not been addressed—is creating the infrastructure to administer the most powerful technology imaginable in a way that allows its safe and effective use, but that protects investors, users, and innocent bystanders.

"Nanotechnology will give rise to a host of novel social, ethical, philosophical and legal issues. It will be important to have a group in place to predict and work to alleviate anticipated problems."

— US Rep. Mike Honda (D-Cal.)

The technology is already on its way. But who will control it? If MNT is not administered properly, there is great risk of it being used badly—either by the entity that first develops it, or by groups that later gain access to it. Development or control of the technology by a special interest group would probably lead to military or economic oppression. Two competing programs could lead to an unstable arms race. Uncontrolled release would make the full power of the technology available to terrorists, criminals, dictators, and irresponsible users. The safest course appears to be a single, rapid, worldwide development program by an organization that recognizes the necessity of wise administration.

Christine Peterson of the Foresight Nanotech Institute made this point in her April 2003 testimony to the US House Committee on Science:

"In developing a powerful technology, delay may seem to add safety, but the opposite could be the case for molecular manufacturing. A targeted R&D project today aimed at this goal would need to be large and, therefore, visible and relatively easy to monitor. As time passes, the nanoscale infrastructure improves worldwide, enabling faster development everywhere, including places that are hard to monitor. The safest course may be to create a fast-moving, well-funded, highly-focused project located where it can be closely watched by all interested parties. Estimates are that such a project could reach its goal in 10-15 years."

CRN is dedicated to studying the problem of how to make MNT as safe as possible. We will find technological solutions and plan systems of administration. We will work to educate people at all levels about the dangers of nanotechnology, and the possible solutions to those dangers.

Beyond addressing measures of safety and environmental protection, we believe that responsible use of MNT should include consideration for ways to reduce the gap between the haves and the have-nots. This new technology can make a tremendous impact for good; unwise regulation might impede such hopes. As suggested in the Foresight Guidelines: "Experimenters and industry should have the maximum safe opportunities to develop and commercialize the molecular manufacturing industry. In addition, MNT should be developed in ways that make it possible to distribute the benefits of the technology to the four-fifths of humanity currently desperate to achieve material wealth at any environmental or security cost."

Effective administration will not be easy, and it is unlikely that a wise course of action can evolve without guidance. There are too many risks to avoid, too many benefits to preserve, and too many special interests to satisfy. A technology this powerful has implications in the areas of national security, commercial rights, human rights, global environment, and even cultural stability. Any single organization with a narrow focus will create too many regulations while trying to control things that it does not know how to control; too many regulations will create an unregulated black market, which creates unacceptable risks. We believe that MNT must be regulated at a global level, but the regulatory system must be designed with extreme care to be acceptable to the world's population—and to avoid the internal corruption that naturally accompanies so much power. The design of such a system is one of our main concerns.

Simple, non-factory forms of nanotechnology already are being developed, and already are raising safety questions. Although these simple forms are less dangerous—and less useful—than the advanced nanotechnology that is our main concern, we will be addressing today's issues of safety as well as tomorrow's.

The purpose of CRN is to investigate the wise use of molecular nanotechnology, and to educate those who will influence its use, or be affected by it. Through this we hope to see our vision made real: a world in which MNT is widely used for productive and beneficial purposes, and where malicious uses are limited by effective administration of the technology.

CRN is a non-profit research and advocacy organization, completely dependent on small grants and individual contributions.


Copyright © 2002-2008 Center for Responsible Nanotechnology TM        CRN is an affiliate of World Care®, an international, non-profit, 501(c)(3) organization.