"Nanotechnology" is engineering at the molecular level to create new kinds of things, usually without a relation to anything biological, but also including biological applications.
There are countless potential personal and commercial applications of nanotechnology which are harmless, but there are clearly many which are extremely dangerous.
The dangers of nanotechnology include the potential effects of these new kinds of invisible microscopic particles on humans and other biology, and moreso, the risk of a self-reproducing particle similar to a virus but which could utilize a vast range of material in the environment, thereby destroying the environment.
There is a lot of overlap between nanotechnology and biotechnology, and it is forseen that the two will unify sometime in the future. However, we will still be able to discriminate between nanotechnology alien to biological matter, versus nanotechnology developed around biological materials.
In one kind of nanotechnology, new things can be created atom by atom, molecule by molecule, with no relation to anything biological. Theoretically, "machines" could be made at this level. Someday, they will be, if our species and our descendants survive the current technological age.
We already perform engineering at the molecular level in laboratories when we manufacture pharmaceuticals, process fuels, and so on. So what is "nanotechnology"? It is actually a word and a sector not that easy to define clearly.
It is basically engineering at the atomic and molecular level, with the intended result being the mass production of goods with extremely small particle sizes (or coating with extremely thin thicknesses), with "under 100 nanometers" a common threshold on size.
For comparison, human hair range in width from 17,000 to 181,000 nanometers, viruses tend to be around 50 nanometers long, the sizes of individual atoms are roughly 0.1 to 0.5 nanometers, and the molecule glucose is half a nanometer wide.) 100 nm is vastly smaller than anything the human eye can detect, but is fairly large on an atomic scale.
Perhaps the best way to picture this is to imagine the 100 nm size as a football field of 100 yards or meters, where atoms start off next to the goal line within a fraction of the first yard, and you have the entire football field to build any kind of system you want, joining footballs together side by side. A football in a football field is roughly the size of a typical atom in a 100 nm container. In this football field analogy, a typical virus would reach out to the 50 yard line.
Indeed, you can build in 1 dimension, or 2 dimensions, or up in all 3 dimensions another 100 yards in height!
Some people define nanotechnology as creation of "functional systems" the scale of 100 nm. In our football field analogy, it would be like putting together enough footballs in a 100 nm cube to create a functional system.
Many products now misuse this trendy word to call themselves "nanotechnology" when they're barely so at best, just to get attention and self-promote. Some people suggest switching to "molecular nanotechnology", but how could we be sure that will catch on and truly discriminate. "True nanotechnology" or "nano scale engineering" or something like that may also suffer the same abuse.
Of course, we already perform engineering on a molecular level, such as when we produce pharmaceuticals, so the definition of "nanotechnology" can be argued in many cases.
An original concept of nanotechnology was engineering from the bottom up, rather than the top down, for building up new kinds of molecules at the atomic scale, one atom at a time. However, that is just one extreme kind of nanotechnology, out of many kinds, and by far the most difficult. This atom-by-atom definition of nanotechnology has also been the subject of criticism in terms of feasibility, but again, it must be kept in mind that there are many other kinds of nanotechnology, too.
Nevertheless, IBM made history a long time ago, in 1990, when a researcher wrote the IBM logo perfectly with a font thickness of 1 atom by moving 35 individual xenon atoms on a nickel substrate. Ref.
There are electronic applications which could utilize nanotechnology (including "molecular electronics").
However, the greatest commercial promise may be in pharmaceuticals and biotechnology, and these lead the funding at present.
Military applications appear to be second in funding.
Some nanotechnology researchers are looking into ways to manufacture nano products by, for example, a fluid of raw materials whereby a manmade microscopic agent can reproduce in this fluid and in the process create large quantities of nano scale products relatively autonomously. These are manufacturing applications of nanotechnology, and this is an area where some grave threats exist to Earth's biosphere.
The best known human extinction threat of nanotechnology is the creation of a selfreplicating "nanite". It could derive its energy by consuming plant and/or animal matter (eating us like flesh eating bacteria, except potentially far worse), or it could use sunlight and its own method of photosynthesis using elements in the air, water and/or surface material. It could turn the Earth's biosphere into dust or so-called "grey goo" very quickly, rendering Earth practically lifeless. This capability may be decades away, but it might come sooner. It is clearly a possibility.
Before then, it's possible that a nanotechnology laboratory could manufacture a microscopic catalyst or other substance in great quantity which is absorbed by plants or animals and interferes with cellular functions in some way, thereby degrading us to the point of inability to reproduce or function for survival.
It may possibly even reproducing itself like a virus, and unlike anything ever seen before, so that it spreads to potentially wipe out a lot of life.
Keep in mind that 100 nm particles are so small and lightweight that they easily blow around in the air, and can spread worldwide very quickly.
There are tremendous amounts of money being poured into nanotechnology biomedical reseach and development in attempts to treat diseases and aging, as well as human biological enhancement. The desires for the potential human benefits and potential profits from nanotechnology are sure to make many people ignore many risks such as human extinction or sudden ecosystem destruction. We see that rampantly already.
In other words, if there is a chance it may help people look more beautiful, or live longer, or cure their diseases, or make a lot of money in this business, then these desires for personal benefits may make people less inclined to believe other people questioning the safety of nanotechnology, and more inclined to believe the public relations pitches of promoters of this multimillion and multibillion dollar business. You can always find experts to give you a supportive opinion.
Often overlooked are concerns that some kinds of random nanotechnology particles in the environment could actually cause accelerated aging and diseases in a variety of ways including as irritants and entering cells and causing chromosomal damage. Things like these have already been experienced in the laboratory as well as in manufacturing environments where nano scale microscopic particles are in the air.
In most cases, microscopic, man made particles are not an extinction threat, but they do highlight examples of how research and development for commercial gain needs to interface with regulatory agencies trying to keep up with advancing technology.
Brief History of Nanotechnology
There are a few landmark dates for nanotechnology, but the launching of nanotechnology on a large scale began with the general advancement of technology in the 1980s, and was greatly stimulated by the publication in 1986 of a book by MIT's K. Eric Drexler called "Engines of Creation". You can ">read the latest HTML version for free, or download the 2007 edition in its entirety in PDF form for just $1. Otherwise, you can order it from Amazon, though you might get the 1987 version, as Dr. Drexler has apparently relied on digital updates rather than paper ones.
After Drexler advocates Nanotechnology as nearly a cure all for things ranging from human diseases to recycling and even restoring extinct species, he also includes a very important chapter at the end titled "Engines of Destruction". For example, he writes:
Drexler proposes ways to regulate nanotechnology development, but a small minority of people think this would be effective in the Real World. Drexler founded the Foresight Institute in 1986 to help deal with the issues of emerging nanotechnology, and the institute continues to this day, albeit having expanded into other areas, and Drexler is no longer affiliated.
Interest in nanotechnology by industry vastly expanded in the 1990s and then exploded after the turn of the century, dwarfing the earlier theoretical work of Drexler and his predecessors.
Since the year 2000, the US Department of Defense has been pouring large amounts of funding into military applications of nanotechnology "for achieving new levels of warfighting effectiveness"Ref, AAAS, whereby the US military industrial complex promotes the importance of staying way ahead of competitors with these technological advances, which has surely started an arms race with adversaries.
From my experience working in defense a long time ago (space program R&D), it would be difficult for those outside the military industrial complex to know some of the things going on due to secrecy laws, as well as simply being in the interests of the beneficiaries of this financial support. It is often nearly impossible for most people inside the system to know about a "black project", much less people outside the system. (Indeed, I was associated with a black project in the 1980s, now very obsolete, but the general experience makes this clear about black projects in general.) However, there is enough information in the open literature about the massive funding levels to show the general writing on the wall. Money talks.
Governments also have promoted nanotechnology development for their economies, e.g., starting with President Clinton's National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI) in 2000, starting at $ 497 million. This funding expanded under President Bush.
An organization which tracks nanotechnology funding states that between 2000 and 2011, governments spent $ 67.5 billion on nanotechnology. It estimates that private sector funding has exceeded government funding since around 2004, projects that total funding will approach $ 250 billion to date by 2015, and notes that Chinese government funding exceeded US funding in Purchasing Power Parity (PPP) in 2011. Ref
Shortly after the US government announced the National Nanotechnology Initiative in 2000, some leading and highly successful industry technologists started warning about the risks. The best known objection was Bill Joy, best known as the founder and Chief Scientist of the giant computer company Sun Microsystems, who wrote an article in Wired magazine titled "Why The Future Doesn't Need Us".
Predictably, Joy's and Drexler's reservations were criticized in the mass media. A fairly good synopsis, with my own boldface emphasis added:
(Reference paper: "Too Little, Too Late?: Research Policies on the Societal Implications of Nanotechnology in the United States", by Ira Bennett and Daniel Sarewitz, Consortium for Science, Policy, and Outcomes, Arizona State University, January 2005 Draft)
As nanotechnology applications gain success in the biotechnology realm, and desires grow for nanotechnology to address diseases as well as provide beauty treatments and other biological enhancements, you can try to imagine where the nanotechnology economy will be in 2020-2025, and thereby where the human species will be going on the risk scale. This will be before we will have self-sufficient space colonies.
A wise man once said something like: The greatest fortresses can be still be defeated or undermined by one simple and ages old weapon: money. Now we can also say that it's likely the extinction of the human species will likewise be because of the desire to make money and all the power that money brings.
For more information on the risks of nanotechnology, see our Links page.
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