The Big World of Nanotechnology

Brenda Cooper @ 29-07-2009

What technology is invisible to the naked eye and yet both changing and mimicking the world all around us? The idea of hidden change is what started me down this month’s path of nanotechnology.

The topic has interested me since it was one of Bill Joy’s scary science triumvirates in his famous Wired article “Why the Future Doesn’t Need Us.” If you haven’t read it, it’s worth the time. Joy is a very bright computer scientist suggesting extreme caution with new technologies. While I actually wrote an article largely disagreeing with Joy, I believe he’s right about the need to be cautious with new toys that give us god-like power. I’m just more of an optimist (there’s a lot of good in these technologies) and a realist (the genie is out of the bottle; best to support and shape the potentially disruptive technologies rather than stop the science).

I’m going to assume we can skip the nano-primer that explains nanotechnology is so small you can’t see it, and that we can also agree not to be purists about exact definitions, but can loop tiny manufacturing and tiny computers all together in the general idea that we’re discussing manipulating the world around us at levels you and I can’t see without tools. If you would like an overview, the best one I found online is a YouTube video called Nanotechnology Takes Off – KQED Quest.

As far as the products that are available today, this is primarily a materials science:

For more products, see the inventory at the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies.

Interestingly, product marketing varies from highlighting to hiding the word “nanotechnology.” Although there are hundreds of commercially available products as I write this, much of the literature is still about promise. Here are three articles about promise:

There’s a huge possible long-term potential in nanotechnology, but let me summarize what’s happening now and likely to happen in the next five years or so. As mentioned above, there are nanotechnology products on the market now. Less than I would have predicted five years ago, by the way. Of note, many are not being marketed as new science, but like the GMO foods, they are appearing slowly and with some obfuscation if not actual stealth. I think this will continue.

So far, I’ve heard about the same level of damage rumor as you get from cell-phone use, much of it apparently unsubstantiated so far. That doesn’t mean I’m convinced nanotech is safe. The only truth I’m sure of there is that we are beginning to use it.

Of course, it’s such a broad areas of science that there will probably be savior products (for example, clean up tools for oil spills, or a way to convert bad things to good and deal with waste streams) and problem products (nano in some products may turn out to be carcinogenic). Think about the chemical industry which has done great good and great harm.

Beyond materials science, some of the most interesting research is in medicine. Medical nanotech is mostly dreams and visions for the moment, with some good work going on to create the foundation to help these dreams come true. For example, today’s news (I’m writing this on the 29th of July) includes development of what is being called a nanotechnology swiss army knife. I predict that we’ll start seeing more real health uses soon, but slowly. Many of these will be biology-based, or the marriage of biotech and nanotech that is often called bionanotechnology.

There are probably large potential game-changers in the further future. If we get nano-assembly down and can actually build things molecule by molecule, we may be able to make anything. We have a start – we can already print 3D objects.

That gets me along the line to some of our science fiction stories about nanotech. I’ll talk about two.

Greg Bear’s Blood Music was one of the first short stories and then books that dealt with nano-scale technologies. The noocytes in Blood Music are admittedly far more biotech than nanotech, but the short story acted as part of my introduction to the topic of the very small, and I’ve used nano-medicine in short stories for years now. While it’s a little dated now, the story is one of our classics on the topic.

A more recent excellent example is Nancy Kress’s “Nano Comes to Clifford Falls“, which is the title story of her recent anthology. You can listen to the story at Escape Pod. Nancy explores a world changed by the ability to make almost anything from anything. The opening line is lovely, describing how new technology sneaks into our lives while our backs are turned. It starts out, “I was weeding the garden when nanotech came to my town.”

So that’s a high level spin through some of the current news on nanotech and a tiny bit of prognosticating. I skipped major topics like nanotech weapons so this article didn’t become a novel in its own right.

What great books and stories did I miss? Are you working on nanotech products and have something to share? Do you find nanotech to be fundamentally exciting, or frightening?

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Brenda Cooper’s next science fiction novel, Wings of Creation, will be out from Tor Books in November 2009. For more information, see her website!

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4 Responses to “The Big World of Nanotechnology”

  1. Rick York says:

    One thing that I’ve learned over the years is that the most important law of human behavior is the “Law of Unintended Consequences”. ‘Nuff said

  2. Brenda Cooper says:

    Yes, Rick, I agree. They are going to happen here for sure. Lets hope there are good ones in the mix. Nanotech is sometimes talked about as part of the climate change solution.

  3. Adam says:

    I spent some time doing almost-nano research this past summer (we worked on the micro scale), and I got a great feel for what this field can really become. The lab-on-a-chip projects that are popular in certain circles aim to provide comprable diagnostic tests that would ordinarily be performed in a major hospital (think blood screenings). The only difference is that these tests can be done with equipment that fits in the palm of your hand, requires no power (or battery power), and can be cheaply produced. In areas of the world where people don’t have large health centers for hundreds of miles, such devices (used by someone with moderate experience), could be life-saving in identifying diseases early. Nanotech always make me think of the old sales slogan, “we can do more, with less.”

  4. Brenda Cooper says:

    Thanks for sharing that, Adam. I like the more with less idea on nanotech — I’ll have to remember that as a tag line for when I talk about the subject. That kind of diagnostics reminds me of Star Trek, and we’ve already created a lot of the ideas from there even though we thought they were crazy at the time.