New Essay: Nanotechnology Now

In our second weekly column, Futurismic’s Armchair Anarchist takes a survey of the state of the art in nanotechnology.

Nanotechnology is a big buzz-word in the realms of science and technology at the moment, and the trend looks set to increase exponentially. All of a sudden, nanotech is everywhere, from computer chips to bicycle frames. But many laymen are unaware of what the term actually refers to. The Wikipedia definition of ‘Nanotechnology’ sums it up as follows:

Nanotechnology is any technology which exploits phenomena and structures that can only occur at the nanometer scale, which is the scale of several atoms and small molecules. The United States’ National Nanotechnology Initiative website defines it as follows: “Nanotechnology is the understanding and control of matter at dimensions of roughly 1 to 100 nanometers, where unique phenomena enable novel applications.”

Common misconceptions of nanotech often stem from scenarios in science fiction stories. Arguably the best known is Eric Drexler’s ‘gray goo’ scenario, in which autonomous self-replicating nanobots run amok, converting all matter into copies of themselves in an exponential chain reaction. This worst-case scenario has largely been debunked by experts in the field, though it is accepted that it could result from a deliberately-created Doomsday device. ‘Grey goo’ is a misinformed extrapolation of the ‘universal constructor’ posited by the mathematician John von Neumann.

So what is nanotechnology actually doing in the world outside of fiction? Developments at the nanoscale are revolutionising many spheres of science and technology in a variety of ways.

Most widespread is probably its penetration into materials science. The increasingly ubiquitous ‘carbon nanotube’ is bringing the twin benefits of great strength combined with low mass to a variety of applications from the mundane to the marvellous. At the street level, there are ultra-light bicycle frames being made from nanotube composite materials. At the other end of the scale, they are making possible the sort of projects that would once have been considered ‘blue sky thinking’, like the LiftPort Group’s space elevator.

Computing is benefiting from nanoscience too. The most obvious boost to computing power stems from the increasing ability of chip manufacturers to produce semiconductor architecture at smaller resolutions than before, increasing the speed of processors while reducing their power demands and heat wastage,, and ensuring that Moore’s Law holds out for the foreseeable future. But nanotechnology also encompasses the growing field of quantum computing, which involves manipulating the behaviour of atoms and molecules at a sub-molecular level to accomplish computing feats that would be difficult or impossible to do using traditional brute-force methods.

The world of medicine is increasingly interested in the use of nanoscale phenomena to help and heal human bodies. Applications in this field range from the use of nanotubes as scaffolds for tissue to regenerate around, to the potential development of nanobots that will live inside the body and perform various operations, such as cleaning the blood, fighting bacteria, delivering medicines in response to detected conditions and treating diseases of every kind. Some of these applications are purely ideas at this time, but the rate at which technological advancement is accelerating would indicate they may not stay as just ideas for very long. Just recently, scientists were discussing the notion that the first human beings to benefit from a massive increase in technologically-aided personal longevity may already be living. They believe that pretty soon there will be almost nothing we cannot cure or fix.

Of course, there is plenty of long-range speculation about the applications of nanotech as well. Ray Kurzweil is one of its most vocal advocates, and believes fervently that these technologies will be ubiquitous within the next handful of decades. A concept familiar to science fiction readers (and distantly related to the ‘grey goo’ meme) is that of the nanofactory. Nanofactories are essentially devices that, when presented with a ‘program’ of design specifications, will be able to manufacture almost anything from simple objects like cutlery or combs, right up to advanced electronics like phones and computers. The benefits of such devices are obvious, but it is becoming increasingly accepted that there are a good few potential cans of worms waiting in the wings. Nanofactories could be misused in a variety of ways: for the manufacture of weapons both simple and complex or of illegal or controlled substances, for example. Issues concerning intellectual property rights will become increasingly important – the current debate about open-source code will take on a whole new dimension in a world where ‘code’ means not just the software you run on your computer, but instead the software that *creates* your computer, or car, or home. There is also the bugbear of waste – if we can create items pretty much at will, we could become rapidly surrounded by discarded examples of technological redundancy. All these issues are being addressed by organisations such as the non-profit ‘Center for Responsible Nanotechnology’ , who aim to ease the transition into a world where this technology becomes commonplace.

If all this comes to pass (as the evidence all seems to suggest that it will), the concept of what it is to be human will be altered irrevocably, with nanotechnology both surrounding us and colonising our bodies. We will then inhabit an existence much like that described by Ray Kurweil in his books on the subject; as he puts it in the tagline to ‘The Singularity is Near’, we will have reached the point where humans will have transcended biology through our technology. From that point on, there is no way of telling where nanotechnology might take us. In the nearer future though, we can expect to be presented with the easier-to-digest phenomenon of items and devices that are smaller, lighter, stronger, faster and more efficient. That will probably be more than enough to cope with for now.

To list all sources for this essay would take a list as long as the essay itself. Instead, I will point to a few sites that are relevant to the subject for those who wish to explore it further. A site devoted to examining our approach to the world described by Ray Kurzweil in his books on technological futurism. excellent site devoted to promoting a future world made better and greener by technology, including many articles on nanotech. great gateway site to loads of web-based information on developments at the nanoscale.