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
with simple chemical stocks, this amazing machine breaks down molecules, and
then reassembles them into any product you ask for. Packed with
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
Click to enlarge
(Artwork by K.E. Drexler, used
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
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?
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
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
Peterson of the
Nanotech Institute made this point in her April 2003
testimony to the
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
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.