Molecular Manufacturing: Societal Implications of Advanced Nanotechnology

April 10, 2003 by Christine Peterson

The best way to reduce risks from molecular manufacturing would be an open, international R&D program with broad cooperation by the democracies, including a parallel arms control verification project. This requires a decision to pursue the goal and substantial funding. But both of these are currently blocked by the lack of consensus on the technical feasibility of molecular manufacturing. So we urgently need a basic feasibility review by unbiased scientists.

Testimony presented April 9, 2003 at the Committee on Science, U.S. House of Representatives Hearing to examine the societal implications of nanotechnology and consider H.R. 766, The Nanotechnology Research and Development Act of 2003.

First, I’d like to thank the Committee on Science for taking on the task of addressing the societal implications of nanotechnology. This challenging topic may emerge as the most difficult issue facing policymakers over the coming decades.

Humanity’s drive to improve our control of the physical world is intrinsic to our species and has been in progress for millennia. A vast international economic and military momentum pushes us toward the ultimate goal of nanotechnology: complete control of the physical structure of matter, all the way down to the atomic level.

Confusion about nanotechnology

Before attempting to address societal issues, we need to clarify which stage of nanotechnology is being examined. Today the word is used in two very different ways:

• Near-term nanotechnology: Industry today uses the term to cover almost any technology significantly smaller than microtechnology, e.g. nanoparticles. These new products will have positive and negative health and environmental effects which should be studied, but their societal effects—both positive and negative—will be modest compared to later stages of the technology.

• Advanced nanotechnology: Technology enabling broad control at the level of individual atoms: "The essence of nanotechnology is the ability to work at the molecular level…to create large structures with fundamentally new molecular organization." (ref 1) It is this stage of nanotechnology which will have major societal impact, and the remainder of this testimony will focus here.

Molecular manufacturing: the long-term goal

Advanced nanotechnology, known as molecular manufacturing, will give the ability to construct a wide range of large objects inexpensively and with atomic precision. It will take us beyond materials and devices to complex systems of molecular machines, inspired by—but in some ways superior to—those found in nature.

Molecular manufacturing systems can be envisioned as factories operating at the nanometer level, including nanoscale conveyor belts and robotic arms bringing molecular parts together precisely, bonding them to form products with every atom in a precise, designed location (ref 2).

It is important not to minimize the technical challenge of such a complex systems engineering project. Indeed, new tools must be developed before beginning a direct attack on the problem. Nonetheless, ongoing research is building the needed technology base, and will eventually place enormous payoffs within reach.

These prospects have been known since the first technical publication on the topic in 1981 (ref 3), and substantial thought has been devoted to potential societal implications of molecular manufacturing. Foresight Institute was founded in 1986 to maximize the societal benefits and minimize the problems expected from advanced nanotechnology.

Potential benefits of molecular manufacturing

Gaining molecular-level control over the structure of matter will bring a wide variety of positive applications (ref 4):

Medical uses: Molecular machine systems will be able to sense and rearrange patterns of molecules in the human body, providing the tools needed to bring about a state of health, regardless of a disease’s cause (ref 5).

Environmental applications: Using molecular manufacturing techniques, it will be possible to construct our products with zero chemical pollution, recycling leftover molecules. Environmental restoration could be carried out at the molecular level, detecting and inactivating unwanted chemicals (ref 6).

Raising sustainable living standards: Molecular manufacturing will be able to cleanly and inexpensively produce high-quality products using common materials (especially carbon, which is in excess in the atmosphere in the form of carbon dioxide) and solar energy (ref 6).

Low cost to access to space: The strong, lightweight materials enabled by molecular manufacturing will greatly lower the cost of access to space and space resources, making their active use affordable for the first time.

These benefits should be attainable though the combined results of (1) a well-funded R&D program, (2) private sector efforts to bring down costs, and (3) public policy aimed at addressing the issues listed below.

Potential negative effects of molecular manufacturing

Powerful technologies bring problems as well as benefits, and advanced nanotechnologies are expected to bring problems of several sorts:

• Accidents: Any powerful technology—from fire to biotech—must be controlled to avoid accidents. In the case of molecular manufacturing, rearranging matter at the molecular level can either improve or destroy a system. Molecular machine systems able to build complex objects could build copies of themselves, possibly overdoing this activity from a human point of view, as bacteria do.

An approach to the problem: This issue has been examined and a set of safety rules has been drafted for review; these are expected to evolve as we gain more knowledge about safety issues (ref 7). Implementation will require the cooperation of the private sector, and early endorsement of safety guidelines could ease public concerns about the technology.

• Economic disruption: Technological change continually disrupts employment patterns, but molecular manufacturing is expected to accelerate this significantly: once certain specific points of development in this technology are reached, very rapid change can take place.

An approach to the problem: Increase workforce flexibility through education and training.

• Lack of access: Excessive or incorrect patenting of fundamental machine parts at the nanoscale may reduce commercial competition and make molecular manufacturing products too expensive for many to benefit.

An approach to the problem: Increase private sector competition by discouraging patenting of basic molecular machine parts needed by all companies doing molecular manufacturing. Consider using "open source"-style intellectual property protection for publicly-funded R&D so that this work is available to all (ref 8).

• Deliberate abuse/terrorism: Of the potential problems molecular manufacturing may bring, this is regarded as the most serious and most challenging to address. Three main areas of concern have been identified: (1) very rapid construction of conventional weapons, making traditional arms control more difficult, (2) totalitarian control of civilian populations by surveillance using nanoscale sensors, and (3) new weapons made possible by the technology, which can be thought of as "smart" chemical weapons.

An approach to the problem: Encourage an open, international R&D program with broad cooperation by the democracies, including a parallel arms control verification project (ref 6). Improve today’s chemical weapons arms control procedures.

Reducing risks from molecular manufacturing

Individuals and organizations with legitimate concerns regarding advanced nanotechnology have suggested delays in development, even moratoria or bans. While these reactions are understandable, this approach was examined over a decade ago and rejected as infeasible (ref 4). Today, both public and private spending on nanotechnology is broadly international. Expected economic and military advantages are driving a technology race already underway. If law-abiding nations choose to delay nanotechnology development, they will relinquish the lead to others.

Non-U.S. locations have at least three advantages in the nanotechnology race: (1) labor costs for scientists and technologists are usually lower, (2) intellectual property rules are sometimes ignored, and (3) the former "brain drain" of technical talent to the U.S. is slowing and in some cases reversing. The U.S. and other democracies have no natural monopoly in developing this technology, and failure to develop it would amount to unilateral disarmament.

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.

Specific ethical considerations

A study of ethical implications of advanced nanotechnology would need to address at least these factors:

The different kinds of nanotechnology and their likely windows of impact,

A wide spectrum of different scenarios, including ones in which a significant molecular manufacturing R&D project is already in progress elsewhere,

The potential consequences of "saying no" to the technology, as well as those of saying yes. These may be unevenly distributed; for example, those in poor countries might be hurt more by a delay—especially of environmental applications—than those in the U.S.

In most cases, society does not "say no" or "yes" to a technology, but instead moves forward with appropriate controls. Ethical issues arise in defining the dimensions and consequences of such controls.

To date, the dialog around nanotechnology has been polarized, with only one viewpoint—near-term nanotechnology—being included in policymaking. A meaningful discussion of ethics and consequences requires us to ensure that a wide variety of opinions are represented in any downstream policy body or Presidential Commission on nanotechnology.

Bottleneck: Lack of feasibility review

While the basics of molecular manufacturing have been in the literature for over a decade, controversy still continues about the technical feasibility of this goal.

We urgently need a basic feasibility review in which molecular manufacturing’s proponents and critics can present their technical cases to a group of unbiased physicists for analysis.

If we are in fact on the pathway to building molecular machine systems, with all the benefits and problems that implies, policymakers need to know now in order to respond appropriately as this opportunity approaches.

The United States has a history of technological success in large systems engineering projects—it has been one of our primary strengths. But nanotechnology research is already worldwide, and there is no guarantee that the U.S, an ally, or other democracy will be the first to reach molecular manufacturing, and failure to do so would be militarily disastrous.

Such an ambitious R&D project requires, first, a decision to pursue the goal, and then substantial funding. Both of these are currently blocked by the lack of consensus on the technical feasibility of molecular manufacturing. Until this issue has been put to rest, neither a funded molecular manufacturing R&D project nor effective study of societal implications can be carried out.



1. "National Nanotechnology Initiative: The Initiative and its Implementation Plan"

2. Nanosystems: Molecular Machinery, Manufacturing, and Computation by K. Eric Drexler (Wiley, 1992).

3. "Molecular engineering: An approach to the development of general capabilities for molecular manipulation," K. E. Drexler (1981), PNAS 78:5275-5278.

4. Engines of Creation by K. Eric Drexler (AnchorPress/Doubleday, 1986),

5. Nanomedicine, Volume 1: Basic Capabilities by Robert Freitas (Landes Bioscience, 1999),

6. Unbounding the Future: The Nanotechnology Revolution by K. Eric Drexler and Chris Peterson with Gayle Pergamit (Morrow, 1992),

7. "Foresight Guidelines on Molecular Nanotechnology,"

8. "Open Sourcing Nanotechnology Research and Development: Issues and Opportunities" Bryan Bruns (2001), Nanotechnology 12(3): 198-201, Updated version: