Nanotechnology

The technology of the very small-scale. Nanotechnology works on the scale of nanometres (one billionth of a metre). At this scale, matter behaves in peculiar ways: chemical and magnetic properties are different; colours change (gold particles can be orange, purple, red or green). Here, science is dealing with individual atoms and molecules; it can put them together to produce not only materials but molecular-scale artefacts which have not existed nor even been imagined before. Nanotechnology gives the scientist a measure of power which could transform life more profoundly than the Industrial Revolution itself, and could do so irreversibly. This technology is powerful and dangerous. And it is not receiving the public attention it deserves.N1

At first sight, nanotechnology appears to promise or threaten nothing with the potential to change the world, and its applications already include such banal triumphs as invisible sunscreens: nano-sized titanium dioxide reflects the ultraviolet light that causes sunburn, but it is smaller than the wavelength of visible light, so is invisible when smeared on the skin. Nanoparticles can improve the quality of clays, and they can be used in coatings which make windows water-repellent (self-cleaning) and fabrics stain-proof. And new products are now coming along, including paints with extremely hard surfaces; nanoparticles which can react with persistent environmental pollutants such as polychlorinated hydrocarbons (PCBs) and make them harmless, or lock up metals such as mercury into insoluble compounds which cause no trouble; and membranes which can improve the efficiency of fuel cells and batteries, sharpen up images on computer screens and provide cheap water purification. Nanostructures have the potential to reduce or replace the use of platinum in catalytic converters and to improve fuel efficiency. In the near future, there is the prospect of improved lubricants, new magnetic materials, durable medical implants such as heart valves and hip replacements, ceramics that can be machined, targeted drug delivery to specific cells in the body, and battle suits which can limit injuries and provide first aid when they occur.N2

Well, it all seems rather standard stuff—some of it very useful, but nothing really to set the pulse racing, given the familiar onward march of technology. It becomes more interesting, however, when we consider the material needs of local lean economies, for this is a technology which can, atom-by-atom, build molecular structures to order. Carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, aluminium and silicon can be expected to be abundant resources for any locality; and that endowment of common elements could be enough to produce materials with almost any property that might be needed. As the Center for Responsible Nanotechnology enthusiastically tells us, “When most structure and function can be built out of carbon and hydrogen, there will be far less use for minerals, and mining operations can be mostly shut down.”N3

And, if you are building new materials atom-by-atom, you might as well build new equipment at the same time—for instance, nanocircuitry for super-powerful information processing, or nanorobots (“nanobots”) that can repair cells in the human body. At this scale, the distinction between materials and equipment breaks down. But, of course, the problem is that the process of building things on this scale takes a long time. How long? It depends absolutely on the structure and the nature of what is being made, of course, but in the case of a complex structure such as a DNA strand, the production of a few ounces of material built atom by atom would take approximately 20 million years. To give an idea of the scale of such a project, Mark and Daniel Ratner write,

If one atom were the size of a teaspoonful of water, this many atoms would be the size of the Pacific Ocean.N4

Too long to be useful, you might think. But no, nanoscience has a solution for that, too: just one little prototype added to a piece of an existing structure could indeed take some time to make, but then this could become the template round which other atoms organise themselves. Electrical and magnetic interactions between molecules are much weaker than the strong bonds that actually hold the molecules together, but they are strong enough to assemble structures on that scale, and once the pattern of magnetic forces has been set up on a small fragment, other atoms will form around it like crystals, organised in the intended pattern. The structure “self-assembles”.N5

Now, think about this for a moment. If a structure can assemble itself, that might suggest that it could be designed to assemble other structures identical to itself.

It was the nanoscientist Eric Drexler who developed the concept, coining the term “assemblers”:

. . . [E]nzyme-like second generation machines will be able to use as “tools” almost any of the reactive molecules used by chemists—but they will wield them with the precision of programmed machines. They will be able to bond atoms together in virtually any stable pattern, adding a few at a time to the surface of a workpiece until a complex structure is complete. Think of such nanomaterials as assemblers.

Because assemblers will let us place atoms in almost any reasonable arrangement, they will let us build almost anything that the laws of nature allow to exist. In particular, they will let us build almost anything we can design—including more assemblers.N6

The term for this is “self-replication”. In 2004 the Royal Society published a report which, amongst other things, considered whether self-replication is possible. It concluded that it is not:

The working group found no convincing evidence that self-replication, a characteristic of a living organism, is possible.N7

And the point matters rather a lot, because if nanomaterials can reproduce themselves, they might do so faster than we would wish, or supply us with self-replicating constructs which we do not want. Reassuringly, the Royal Society tells us that Drexler has since retracted his position, and points us to the paper in which he does so.N8 Some retraction—here is Drexler’s own version of it (the paper is co-authored with Chris Phoenix):

Although runaway replication cannot happen by accident, no law of nature prevents its deliberate development. . . . A programmable mechanochemical fabricator . . . should be able to be directed to build a copy of itself.N9

. . . and indeed the debate has now moved on from the question of whether it is possible, to the question of how the dangers intrinsic in self-replication can be mitigated. The most prolific of the scientists participating in the debate is Ray Kurzweil. He talks of “engineers’ pessimism”, arguing that this is standard in technology—scientists tend to make modest projections of the future on the basis of the progress of their own work, but there is a gap in their logic, for today’s advances can make tomorrow’s advances more effective, bigger, quicker. It is this effect that has produced the compound growth in the power of the microchip (doubling in power every eighteen months for thirty years and still going strong), and in the thought-to-be-impossible speed with which the human genome has been mapped. And this effect also brings increased investment, so that there is a double exponential growth, with advances building on each other and racing ahead at a speed which surprises almost everybody.N10

Self-replication, then, cannot be dismissed. The prospect of self-replicating nanostructures is real, and so is that of small ‘nanofactories’ (of the size, say, of a desktop PC), within which nanoscale self-replication takes place, and which can then proceed to make objects on a large scale, including copies of themselves. It is a truly extraordinary prospect, but there it is, in the literature of this new science of nanotechnology.

Here is an example, from the Center for Responsible Nanotechnology:

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 of chemicals can be converted into 1,000 pairs of shoes, or 50 shovels, or 200 cell phones, or even a duplicate nanofactory!N11

For the foreseeable future, such a machine is improbable. It would need to be spectacularly clever to go straight from the raw materials of (for instance) pure acetylene and acetone, to nanoassemblies on the scale of molecules, then to self-replicating assemblies of billions of molecules, and then on to the components of large structures which can then proceed to produce more large structures of virtually any specification. From any remotely sensible present-day point of view, the notion is ridiculous, and yet it is important, for three reasons:

First, there is a version of nanotechnology-based manufacturing called “convergent assembly”, using building blocks consisting of a few billion atoms—smaller than a bacterium but large enough to be useful. Starting from that higher level of aggregation, it would be possible, as the nanoscientists Chris Phoenix and Mike Treder write, to build “anything from cars to computers”.N12 The power of convergent assembly shifts the whole frame of reference within which we can apply common sense. Suddenly we have to recognise we are in a new world of technology in which it becomes very hard to make judgments which reflect our own view of ourselves as reasonable people. The criteria against which we can edit our own judgment for reasonableness are no longer as reliable as we would wish as defences against the absurd.

Secondly, a machine that can make a car can undoubtedly be made to make another version of itself. Those little factories could then proceed to produce whatever they were programmed to produce, such as nanoscale weapons. If the weapons are produced by a minifactory that can self-replicate, then the weapons themselves could self-replicate.N13

Thirdly, the above discussion is itself a little primitive because it considers just molecular-nanotechnology—which could be otherwise known as robotics-information-nanotechnology (RIN). Add genetics to that—GRIN—and replication becomes routine. Starting when? Bill Joy, the celebrated chief scientist at Sun Microsystems and the inventor of the Java programming language, reflects,

The breakthrough to wild self-replication in robotics, genetic engineering, or nanotechnology could come suddenly, reprising the surprise we felt when we first learned of the cloning of a mammal.N14

The power of the technology makes it hard to resist with any consistency and consensus. The scale on which GRIN technology works—the building blocks it uses and the nanomaterials which it can produce—enables it to interact directly with the cells of the human body and use the same electrical language as the brain. Some of the advances that are made possible by this, though astonishing, could conceivably be welcomed—and are undoubtedly presented—as a good thing. For instance, if some varieties of nanobot could find, invade and repair diseased or ageing cells within the human body, others could greatly increase intelligence: even the unreliable meanderings of human thought require 1026 calculations per second; nanobiological intelligence, in the form of nanobots, could vastly exceed this rate by the middle of the century. Memories, suggests Kurzweil, could be expanded a trillion-fold. He may be exaggerating, of course, but one wonders how much difference it would make if he had overestimated this by a million or so?N15

The nanobots could be introduced into the brain by injection, or by swallowing, or via the lungs. They could then take up positions in close proximity to every interneuronal connection, from which they could both communicate with the brain and receive communications—or orders—from outside it. It may not be your own brain which is controlling your thinking. Already scientists at the Max Planck Institute have succeeded in controlling the movements of a living leech from a computer.N16

And from there, anything is possible, including applications which could not conceivably be welcomed. Self-replicating pathologies, on the principle of, for instance, fast-acting cancers, could be released, either by accident or design. GRIN-based weapons of mass destruction could be targeted to genetically distinct races or particular areas. Or aggressive, super-intelligent robots programmed to reproduce, to lodge in the brain and to solve problems could succeed in controlling the thinking and movements of living people.N17

 

In sum, this is a technology which is inherently difficult to control, even in principle. We can be reasonably confident of a bomb not going off unless someone causes it to do so—and it goes off only once. In contrast with this, nanotechnology—and, particularly, GRIN technology—will be designed to make up its own mind, to adapt, to solve problems, and then to self-assemble new generations which will inherit those adaptations and solutions. This ability to pass on characteristics acquired during a lifetime—a phenomenon which is by general agreement not recognised in biology—will be programmed into GRIN technology, opening the way to fast evolutionary advance. “Fast” here refers to evolutionary adaptations taking place on a scale of days, or even hours.

And this could happen soon. Kurzweil writes,

The means and knowledge will soon exist in a routine college bioengineering lab (and already exists in more sophisticated labs) to create unfriendly pathogens more dangerous than nuclear weapons. As technology accelerates towards the full realisation of biotechnology, nanotechnology and “strong” AI (artificial intelligence at human levels and beyond), we will see the same intertwined potentials: a feast of creativity resulting from human intelligence expanded many-fold combined with many grave new dangers.N18

A technology with such dangers must surely have much greater potential as a source of catastrophe than of good—so there is a case for calling a moratorium on it now, before that potential is fulfilled. As Bill Joy argues,

The only realistic alternative I see is relinquishment: to limit development of the technologies that are too dangerous, by limiting our pursuit of certain kinds of knowledge.N19

And there would be a sort of long-term sanity in doing so; it would be evidence of a civilisation intelligent enough to know what it ought not to do. Joy cites Carl Sagan’s long view of planetary civilisations: some of them . . .

. . . see their way through, place limits on what may and what must not be done, and safely pass through the time of perils. Others, not so lucky or so prudent, perish.N20

But relinquishment may not be possible. Nanotechnology is advancing on many fronts, invading almost every field of advanced science. It is distributed in laboratories around the world. It may well be that the worst that the technology can do will be done. That worst is a pathogen built on the molecular scale and released into the environment. It could reproduce itself in host organisms such as animals and plants. Its medium could be air or water. Already present in the language is “grey goo”—molecular particles able to reproduce themselves and floating in the wind. What matters is not the form, but the implications—and, according to Kurzweil, the implications are that we must avoid at all costs being left without a defensive technology when it happens:

When we have “grey goo” (unrestrained nanobot replication), we will also have “blue goo” (“police” nanobots that combat the “bad” nanobots). . . . The surest way to prevent the development of the defensive technologies would be to relinquish the pursuit of knowledge in broad areas.N21

And the Center for Responsible Nanotechnology brightly agrees on the need for nanobot defences—a nanoscale Star Wars—as another reason for hurrying on with developing the technology:

Widespread detection networks may be necessary to deal effectively with grey goo. A system that can sample large volumes of air or water for sub-micron particles, and respond with sufficient speed to clean up an infestation, could only be built by molecular nanotechnology.N22

Man-made viruses that infect computer networks, if not exactly under control, are at least contained. All they can directly damage is computers. Man-made nanoscale robots, collectively endowed with super-intelligence, which infest air, water, plants, humans and other animals, and which act directly on, and colonise, control or destroy the bodies and brains of their hosts, are out of control. All this is disputed, as Joy notes, on the grounds that, for instance, “We’ve heard all this before . . . ” (Wolf Fallacy ). He wonders aloud: “I don’t know where these people hide their fear.”N23

Nanotechnology is one of the big problems facing our civilisation. The potential for trouble is at least as big as energy resource depletion and climate change. It is bigger than, though related to, the threat of terrorism. It has already started: its full development may be unavoidable. It can offer the gambler’s mirage of the-future-as-jackpot—extraordinary new powers for the mind, diseased and ageing cells that cure themselves, goods that make themselves—not all that far from the utopian vision of fish that catch themselves, bake themselves and serve themselves up at the table. In its developed and constructive form, it could indeed be cheap and feasible as a source of local materials—in fact, just what local lean economies will need. With promise like that, it has, and will have, advocates. It is a knowledge technology: once the knowledge exists, it is virtually unstoppable, and the next phase is likely to be GRIN, the convergence of genetics, robotics, information technology and nanotechnology. It is not, however, a rational technology; it is a form of surrender. It invites human society to revert to a kind of childhood, to leave the decision-making to a higher authority, to surrender itself to a technology with its own momentum and inertia, its own criteria, its own judgment—its own agenda (Metamorphosis). The time will come when society is forced into horrified disagreement with those judgments; the time may come when it is not human rationality, but another one, that prevails.

The decentralised, localised society of the future may not be short of options. It may have local sources of materials and the skills to use them. It may have sustainable methods of food production. It may have moved beyond the technical fix, sustaining itself in a closed-loop system. If all these things are true of it, it will have grown up. The threat of the nanobot, however, may never go away. The technology is seductive: it could do much to make local lean economies robustly self-reliant in materials, but the knowledge carries a curse—it is a case of damned if we do, and damned if we don’t. It could well be necessary to develop the technology to build defences against the consequences of developing it.

And yet, in the energy-strapped, climate-changed, post-market future, freelance out-of-control destructive science may not flourish as it does at present. It may even be that the apex of the danger is now. After the turning point to the Lean Economy, there will be other priorities: to focus instead on the tangible and visible, on the human scale, on surviving and coping, on making a place, on taking delight in May mornings, on making a living, on thinking lean.

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David Fleming
Dr David Fleming (2 January 1940 – 29 November 2010) was an economist, historian and writer, based in London. He was among the first to reveal the possibility of peak oil's approach and invented the influential TEQs scheme, designed to address this and climate change. He was also a significant figure in the development of the UK Green Party, the Transition Towns movement and the New Economics Foundation, as well as a Chairman of the Soil Association. His wide-ranging independent analysis culminated in two critically acclaimed books, Lean Logic and Surviving the Future. A film about his perspective and legacy - The Sequel: What Will Follow Our Troubled Civilisation? - was released in 2019, directed by BAFTA-winning director Peter Armstrong. For more information, including on Lean Logic, click the little globe below!

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