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Nanotechnology

Tiny Technology, Significant Risk

Nanotechnology is the science of engineering on a molecular scale, in effect building matter atom-by-atom from the “bottom up.” The prefix “nano” denotes a fraction of one-one billionth, and nanotechnology involves the construction of matter a billionth of a meter in size: roughly the size of several atoms. This developing industrial process would use microscopic machines, themselves only slightly larger than the products being constructed, to assemble atoms into precisely designed molecules. These nanotech machines would be capable of repairing and replicating themselves. In essence, they would become never-before-seen, manmade life forms.

This all may seem very farfetched to those of us used to dealing with the macroscopic world, where the construction of an automobile or skyscraper still seems like a modern miracle. Machines so small that they would escape detection by all but the most powerful microscopes must be the invention of an ingenious science fiction writer. However, leading nanotechnology researchers predict that they will be able to synthesize “artificial bacteria” in the very near term. Not much further down the road, microscopic robots, whether they be entirely mechanical or biological-mechanical hybrids, may be mass produced and released into the environment.

Researchers are often vague when describing what these nanotechnology tools will actually do. Some envision using these tiny machines to manufacture improved computer components or even more durable macroscopic fabrics. Others say that nanomachines will one day operate within the human body, repairing damaged cells, serving as sensors or probes, or even enhancing the body’s performance. One day nanotechnology combined with genetic engineering and computerized artificial intelligence may allow people to choose their feelings, increase their intelligence, or lengthen their life spans indefinitely.

With the potential to redefine “humanity” or even life itself, nanotechnology obviously carries a host of ethical concerns. Unfortunately, the science is likely to advance much more quickly than the ethical debate. What’s worse, once we release these microscopic technologies, we are certain to have a difficult time controlling them. Currently scientists find the prospects of containing an oil spill or removing nuclear contamination daunting, if not impossible, tasks. They have been unable to prevent genetic pollution from biotech plants from cross-pollinating with weeds or contaminating other crops. Just imagine the difficulties we would face confronting a microscopic army of self-replicating nanotech robots designed to invade and alter the human body!

CTA seeks to halt the commercialization of nanotechnology until products containing nanoparticles have been proven safe. CTA also seeks to force federal regulatory agencies to adopt an accurate and standardized definition of nanotechnology and to regulate emerging nanotechnologies as they would other materials whose safety has not been determined.

(Image credit: U.S. Department of Energy Human Genome Program)

For still more information: See the website of NanoAction, our Nanotechnology Project