Empowering the Really Little Guys

April 9, 2006 by Glenn Harlan Reynolds

“Individuals are getting more and more powerful,” says author Glenn Reynolds in his insightful new book, An Army of Davids. “With the current rate of progress we’re seeing in biotechnology, nanotechnology, artificial intelligence, and other technologies, it seems likely that individuals will one day–and one day relatively soon–possess powers once thought available only to nation-states, superheroes, or gods. That sounds dramatic, but we’re already partway there”–and nanotechnology may be the “ultimate empowerer of ordinary people.”

Excerpted from An Army of Davids: How Markets and Technology Empower Ordinary People to Beat Big Media, Big Government, and Other Goliaths (Nelson Current, March 2006). Reprinted with permission on KurzweilAI.net April 10, 2006.

All sorts of new technologies promise to empower individuals, but the ultimate empowerer of ordinary people may well turn out to be nanotechnology, the much-hyped but still important technology of molecular manufacturing and computing. Indeed, for all the nano-hype, the reality of nanotechnology may turn out to exceed the claims. The result may be as big a change as the Industrial Revolution, but in a different direction.

Nanotechnology derives its name from the nanometer, or a billionth of a meter, and refers to the manipulation of matter at the atomic and molecular level. The ideas behind nanotechnology are simple ones: every substance on Earth is made up of molecules composed of one or more atoms (the smallest particles of elements). To describe the molecules that constitute a physical object and how they interrelate is to say nearly everything important about the object. It follows, then, that if you can manipulate individual atoms and molecules and put them together in certain configurations, you should be able to create just about anything you desire. And if technologies like computers and the Internet have empowered individuals by giving them drastically more control over the organization of information, the impact of nanotechnology—which promises similar control over the material world—is likely to be much greater. This goes well beyond home-brewing beer, though, as with making beer, nanotechnology involves letting someone else do the hard work at the microscopic level.

Richard Feynman’s first description of nanotechnology still serves:

The principles of physics, as far as I can see, do not speak against the possibility of maneuvering things atom by atom…. [I]t would be, in principle, possible for a physicist to synthesize any chemical substance that the chemist writes down. How? Put the atoms down where the chemist says, and so you make the substance. The problems of chemistry and biology can be greatly helped if our ability to see what we are doing, and to do things on an atomic level, is ultimately developed—a development which I think cannot be avoided.1

Modern nanotechnology researchers want to go beyond synthesizing “substances” (though that has great importance) to use nanotechnology’s atom-by-atom construction techniques to produce objects: tiny, bacterium-sized devices that can repair clogged arteries, kill cancer cells, fix cellular damage from aging, and (via what are called “assemblers”) make other devices of greater size or complexity by plugging atoms, one at a time, into the desired arrangements, very quickly. Other researchers believe that nanotechnology will allow for a degree of miniaturization that might permit computers a millionfold more efficient than anything available now. Still others believe that nanotechnology’s tiny devices will be able to unravel mysteries of the microscopic world (such as cell metabolism, the aging process, and cancer) in ways that other tools will not be able to.

So far, pioneers like Eric Drexler and Robert Freitas have worked out a lot of the details, and research has produced some small devices, but nothing as exotic as those described above. But nanotechnologists are refining both their instrumentation and their understanding of nanofabrication at an accelerating rate. Will they be able to fulfill the field’s promise? Richard Feynman thought so. That raises a lot of interesting possibilities—and questions.

The digital revolution brought us a debate over the difference between virtual reality and physical reality, a distinction the courts are still trying to figure out. But we are also at the dawn of a new technological revolution—the nanotech revolution—that may challenge our definition of what physical reality is. Superman could create diamonds by squeezing lumps of coal, using heat and pressure to rearrange the carbon atoms. Nanotechnology could achieve the same transformation, with considerably less fuss, simply by plugging carbon atoms together, one at a time, in the correct manner—and without the embarrassing blue tights.

This sounds like the stuff of science fiction, and it is: In Michael Crichton’s thriller, Prey, nanotech plays the bad guy. But in real life, nanotech is already being used by everyone from Lee Jeans, which uses nanofibers to make stain-proof pants, to the U.S. military, which uses nanotechnology to make better catalysts for rockets and missiles, to scientists who are using nano-technology to develop workable artificial kidneys.2


Many scientists initially doubted that nanotechnology’s precise positioning of molecules was possible, but that skepticism appears to have been misplaced. That’s no surprise, really, since living organisms, including our own bodies, make things like bone and muscle by manipulating individual atoms and molecules. Yet as criticism has shifted from claims that nanotechnology won’t work to fears that it might, there have been calls to stop progress in the field of nanotechnology before research really gets off the ground. The ETC Group, an anti-technology organization operating out of Canada, has proposed a moratorium on nanotechnology research and on research into self-replicating machines. (At the moment, the latter is like calling for a moratorium on antigravity or faster-than-light travel—nobody’s doing it anyway.)

Proponents of this line of criticism face an uphill battle. What’s attractive about devices that can be programmed to manipulate molecules is that they let you make virtually anything you want, and you can generally make it out of cheap and commonly available materials and energy—what nanotech enthusiasts call “sunlight and dirt.” Selectively sticky probes on tiny bacterium-scale arms, attached either to tiny robots or to a silicon substrate and controlled by computer, can grab the atoms they need from solution, and then plug them together in the proper configuration. It’s not quite molecular Legos, but it’s close. General purpose devices that can do this are called “assemblers,” and the process is known among nanotechnology proponents as “molecular manufacturing.”

This process raises some problems of its own, though. Assemblers that can manufacture virtually anything from sunlight and dirt might, as the result of a program error, manufacture endless copies of themselves, which would then go on to make still more copies, and so on. The fear that nanobots might turn the world into mush is known in the trade as the “gray goo problem,” the apocalyptic scenario raised in Crichton’s novel.

Nanotech’s backers, however, believe the real problem won’t be accident, but abuse. With mature nanotechnology, it might be possible to disassemble enemy weapons. (Imagine bacterium-sized devices that convert high explosives into inert substances, a technique that would neutralize even nuclear weapons, whose detonators are made of chemical high explosive.) On a more threatening note, sophisticated nanodevices could serve as artificial “disease” agents of great power and subtlety. Highly sophisticated nanorobots could even hide out in people’s brains, manipulating their neurochemistry to ensure that they genuinely loved Big Brother. Like nuclear weapons, these devices would be awesome in their destructiveness, and their misuse would be terrifying. Still, the race to harness this power is well underway: Defense spending on nanotechnology is climbing, and civilian spending is over $1 billion a year.3

In a world in which the promises of nanotechnology were realized, practically anyone could live a life that would be extraordinary by today’s standards, in terms of health (thanks to nanomedicine) and material possessions. DNA damaged by radiation, toxins, or aging could be repaired; arterial plaque could be removed; and cancerous or senescent cells could be destroyed or fixed. Organs could be replaced or even enhanced. Researcher Robert Freitas surveys many of these issues in his book Nanomedicine, which explores such topics as “respirocytes”—tiny devices in the bloodstream that could deliver oxygen when the body wasn’t able to, protecting against everything from drowning to heart attacks and strokes long enough to allow medical assistance. And this just scratches the surface in terms of potential enhancements, which might also involve stronger muscles, better nerves, and enhanced cognition—the last being the subject of an ongoing Department of Defense research project already.4

Most physical goods could be manufactured onsite at low cost from cheap raw materials. Imagine owning an appliance the size of a refrigerator, full of nanoassemblers, that ran on sunlight and dirt (well, solar electricity and cheap feedstocks, anyway) and made pretty much everything you need, from clothing to food. The widespread availability of such devices would make things very, very different. Material goods wouldn’t be quite free, but they would be nearly so.

In such a world, personal property would become almost meaningless. Some actual physical items would retain sentimental value, but everything else could be produced as needed, then recycled as soon as the need passed. (As someone who writes on a laptop that was cutting edge last year and is now old news, with its value discounted accordingly, I sometimes think we’re already there except for the recycling part. Don’t even ask about my MP3 player.)

Real property would retain its value—as my grandfather used to say, “They’re not making any more of it,” especially oceanfront acreage—but what would “value” mean? Value usually describes an object’s ability to be exchanged for another item. But with personal property creatable on demand from sunlight and dirt, it’s not clear what the medium of exchange would be. Value comes from scarcity, and most goods wouldn’t be scarce. Intellectual property—the software and designs used to program the nano­devices—would be valuable, though once computing power became immense and ubiquitous, developing such designs wouldn’t be likely to pose much of a challenge.

One thing that would remain scarce is time. Personal services like teaching, lawyering, or prostitution wouldn’t be cheapened in the same fashion. We might wind up with an economy based on the exchange of personal services more than on the purchase of goods. As I mentioned earlier, that’s where we’re headed already to a point. Even without nanotechnology, the prices of many goods are falling. Televisions, once expensive, are near-commodity goods, as are computers, stereos, and just about all other electronics. It’s cheaper to build new ones than to fix old ones, and prices continue to fall as capabilities increase. Nanotechnology would simply accelerate this trend and extend it to everything else. Ironically, it may be the combination of capitalism and technology that brings about a utopia unblemished by the need for ownership, the sort that socialists (usually no fans of capitalism) and romantics (no fans of technology) have long dreamed of.


We’re not there yet, but things are progressing faster than even I had realized. Recently, I attended an EPA Science Advisory Board meeting where nanotechnology was discussed. What struck me is that even for people like me who try to keep up, the pace of nanotechnology research is moving much too fast to catch everything.

One of the documents distributed at that meeting was a supplement to the president’s budget request, entitled National Nanotechnology Initiative: Research and Development Supporting the Next Industrial Revolution.5 I expected it to be the usual bureaucratic pap, but in fact, it turned out to contain a lot of actual useful information, including reports of several nanotechnology developments that I had missed.

The most interesting, to me, was the report of “peptide [ring] nanotubes that kill bacteria by punching holes in the bacteria’s membrane.” You might think of these as a sort of mechanical antibiotic. As the report notes, “By controlling the type of peptides used to build the rings, scientists are able to design nanotubes that selectively perforate bacterial membranes without harming the cells of the host.”6 It goes on to note, “In theory, these nano-bio agents should be far less prone than existing antibiotics to the development of bacterial resistance.”7 What’s more, if such resistance appears, it is likely to be easier to counter. Given the way in which resistance to conventional antibiotics has exploded, this is awfully good news.

Another item involved the use of nanoscale particles of metallic iron to clean up contaminated groundwater. In one experiment, aimed at the contaminant trichloroethylene (TCE), the results were quite impressive: “The researchers carried out a field demonstration at an industrial site in which nanoparticles injected into a groundwater plume containing TCE reduced contaminant levels by up to 96 percent.” The report goes on to observe, “A wide variety of contaminants (including chlorinated hydrocarbons, pesticides, explosives, polychlorinated biphenyls and perchlorate) have been successfully broken down in both laboratory and field tests.”8 Not too shabby.

And there’s more: the development of nanosensors capable of identifying particular microbes or chemicals, of nanomotors, and dramatic advances in materials. These advances shouldn’t be underestimated.

We tend to forget this, but it’s possible for a technology to have revolutionary effects long before it reaches its maturity. The impact of high-strength materials, for example, is likely to be much greater than people generally realize. Materials science isn’t sexy the way that, say, robots are sexy, but when you can cut the weight, or boost the strength, of aircraft, or spacecraft, or even automobiles by a factor of ten or fifty, the consequences are enormous. Ditto for killing germs, or even detecting them in short order. These sorts of things aren’t as exciting as true molecular manufacturing, and they’re not as revolutionary, but they’re still awfully important, and awfully revolutionary, by comparison with everything else.

When I gave my talk at the Science Advisory Board, I divided nanotechnology into these categories:

• Fake: where it’s basically a marketing term, as with nanopants

• Simple: high-strength materials, sensors, coatings, etc.—things that are important, but not sexy

• Major: advanced devices short of true assemblers

• Spooky: assemblers and related technology (true molecular nanotechnology, capable of making most anything from sunlight and dirt, creating supercomputers smaller than a sugar cube, etc.)

I noted that only in the final category did serious ethical or regulatory issues appear, and also noted that the recent flood of “it’s impossible” claims relating to “spooky” nanotechnology seem to have more to do with fear of ethical or regulatory scrutiny than anything else. People in the industry are hoping to keep the critics away with a smokescreen of doubt as to the capabilities of the technology. That probably won’t work, especially as nanotechnology develops and is put to use in more and more ways.

Up to now, talk of nanotechnology has generally involved either the “fake” variety (stain-resistant pants) or the “spooky” variety (full-scale molecular nanotechnology with all it implies). But as what might be called midlevel nanotechnology—neither fake nor spooky—begins to be deployed, it’s likely to have a substantial effect on the nature of the debate. It’s one thing to worry about (fictitious) swarms of predatory nanobots, a la Michael Crichton’s novel Prey. It’s another to talk about nanotech bans or moratoria when nanotechnology is already at work curing diseases and cleaning up the environment.


I think that these positive uses will probably shift the debate away from the nano-Luddites. But, on the other hand, as nanotechnology becomes commonplace, serious discussion of its implications may be short-circuited. I think that the nanotech business community is actually hoping for such an outcome, in fact, but I continue to believe that such hopes are shortsighted. Genetically modified foods, for example, came to the market with the same absence of discussion, but the result wasn’t so great for the industry. Will nanotechnology be different? Stay tuned. Whatever happens, I think that trying to stand still might well prove the most dangerous course of action.

This may seem surprising, but experience suggests that it’s true.

For an academic project I worked on awhile back, I reviewed the history of what used to be called “recombinant DNA research” and is now generally just called genetic engineering or biotechnology. Back in the late 1960s and early 1970s, this was very controversial stuff, with opponents raising a variety of frightening possibilities.

Not all the fears were irrational. We didn’t know very much about how such things worked, and it was possible to imagine scary scenarios that at least seemed plausible. Indeed, such plausible fears led scientists in the field to get together, twice, holding conferences at Asilomar in California, to propose guidelines that would ensure the safety of recombinant DNA research until more was known.

Those voluntary guidelines became the basis for government regulations, regulations that work so well that researchers often voluntarily submit their work to government review even when the law doesn’t require it—and standard DNA licensing agreements often even call for such submission. Self-policing was their key element, and it worked.

When the DNA research debate first started, scientific critics such as Erwin Chargaff met the notion of scientific self-regulation with skepticism. Chargaff predicted modern-day Frankensteins or “little biological monsters” and compared the notion of scientific self-regulation to that of “incendiaries forming their own fire brigade.” Such critics warned that the harms that might result from permitting such research were literally incalculable, and thus it should not be allowed.

Others took a different view. Physicist Freeman Dyson, who admitted that (as a physicist, not a biologist) he had no personal stake in the debate, noted, “The real benefit to humanity from recombinant DNA will probably be the one no one has dreamed of. Our ignorance lies equally on both arms of the balance. The public costs of saying no to further development may in the end be far greater than the costs of saying yes.” Harvard’s Matthew Meselson agreed. The risk of not going forward, he argued, was the risk of being left open to “forthcoming catastrophes,” in the form of starvation (which could be addressed by crop biotechnology) and the spread of new viruses. Critics like Chargaff pooh-poohed this view, saying that the promise of the new technology to alleviate such problems was unproven.9

Meselson and Dyson have been vindicated. Indeed, Meselson’s comments about “forthcoming catastrophes” were made (though no one knew it at the time) just as AIDS was beginning to spread around the world. Without the tools developed through biotechnology and genetic engineering, the Human Immunodeficiency Virus could not even have been identified, and treatment efforts would have been limited. Had we listened to the critics, in other words, it’s likely that many more people would have died. Meanwhile, the critics’ Frankensteinian fears have not come true, and the research that was feared then has become commonplace, as this excerpt from John Hockenberry’s DNA Files program on NPR illustrates:

Hockenberry: In those early days [Arthur] Caplan says people were concerned about what would happen if we tried to genetically engineer different bacteria.

Caplan: The mayor of Cambridge, Massachusetts, at one point said he was worried if there were scientific institutions in his town that were doing this, he didn’t want to see sort of Frankenstein-type microbes coming out of the sewers.

Hockenberry: Today those early concerns seem almost quaint. Now even high school biology classes like this one in Maine do the same gene combining experiments that once struck fear into the hearts of public officials and private citizens.10

This experience suggests that we need to pay close attention to the downsides of limiting scientific research, and that we need to scrutinize the claims of fearmongering critics every bit as carefully as the claims of optimistic boosters. This is especially true at the moment, because, arguably, we’re in a window of vulnerability where many technologies are concerned. For example, in 2002 researchers at SUNY-Stony Brook synthesized a virus using a commercial protein synthesizer and a genetic map downloaded from the Internet. This wasn’t really news from a technical standpoint (I remember a scientist telling me in 1999 that anyone with a protein synthesizer and a computer could do such a thing), but many found it troubling.11

But at the moment, it’s troubling because we know more about viruses than about their cures, meaning that it’s easier to cause trouble by making viruses than it is to remedy viruses once made. In another decade or two, depending on the pace of research, developing a vaccine or cure will be just as easy. That being the case, doesn’t it make sense to progress as rapidly as possible, to minimize the timespan in which we’re at risk? It does to me.

Critics of biotechnology feel otherwise. But their track record hasn’t been very impressive so far. What’s more interesting is who’s not criticizing nanotechnology. Typically Luddite Greenpeace, for instance, has been surprisingly moderate in its response. The environmental organization has sponsored a report entitled “Future Technologies, Today’s Choices: Nanotechnology, Artificial Intelligence and Robotics; A Technical, Political and Institutional Map of Emerging Technologies”12 that looks rather extensively at nanotechnology.

Surprisingly, the report rejects the idea of a moratorium on nanotechnology, despite calls to squelch nanotech from other environmental groups. Instead, it finds that a moratorium on nanotechnology research “seems both unpractical and probably damaging at present.”13 The report also echoes warnings from others that such a moratorium might simply drive nanotechnology research underground.

Though overlooked in the few news stories to cover the report, this finding is significant. With a moratorium taken off the table, the question then becomes one of how, not whether, to develop nanotechnology. The report also takes a rather balanced view of the technology’s prospects. It notes that there has been a tendency to blur the distinction between nanoscale technologies of limited long-term importance (e.g., stain-resistant “nanopants”) and build-anything general assembler devices and other sophisticated nanotechnologies, so as to make incremental work look sexier than it is. This is important: the report’s not-entirely-unreasonable worries about the dangers of nanomaterials are distinguishable from more science-fictional concerns of the Crichton variety. (Remember, Crichton rhymes with “frighten.”) Thus, it will be harder for Greenpeace to conflate the two kinds of concerns itself, as has been done in the struggle against genetically modified foods where opponents have often mixed minor-but­proven threats with major-but-bogus ones in a rather promiscuous fashion.

Indeed, it seems to me that nano-blogger Howard Lovy is right in saying, “Take out the code words and phrases that are tailored to Greenpeace’s audience, and you’ll find some sound advice in there for the nanotech industry.”14 Greenpeace is calling for more research into safety. Now is a good time to do that—even for the industry, which currently doesn’t have a lot of products at risk. Quite a few responsible nanotechnology researchers are calling for this kind of research as well. Such research is likely to do more good than harm at blocking Luddite efforts to turn nanotechnology into a political football—the next Genetically Modified Organism (GMO) derived food. Despite the vast promise of GMO foods (including vitamin-enhanced “golden rice” that can prevent widespread blindness among Third-World children), environmentalist hostility and fearmongering has kept most of them out of the market. As Rice University researcher Vicki Colvin noted in congressional testimony:

The campaign against GMOs was successful despite the lack of sound scientific data demonstrating a threat to society. In fact, I argue that the lack of sufficient public scientific data on GMOs, whether positive or negative, was a controlling factor in the industry’s fall from favor. The failure of the industry to produce and share information with public stakeholders left it ill-equipped to respond to GMO detractors. This industry went, in essence, from “wow” to “yuck” to “bankrupt.” There is a powerful lesson here for nanotechnology.15

She’s right, and the nanotechnology industry would do well to learn from the failings she outlines. As I noted above, some companies and researchers have tended to dismiss the prospects for advanced nanotechnology in the hopes of avoiding the attention of environmental activists. That obviously isn’t working. The best defense against nano-critics is good, solid scientific information, not denial—especially given the strong promise of nanotechnology in terms of environmental improvement.

Nanotechnology legislation recently passed by Congress calls for some investigation into these issues of safety and ethics. I hope that there will be more emphasis on exploring both the scientific and the ethical issues involved in nanotechnology’s growth. That sort of exploration—done by serious people, not the charlatans and fearmongers who are sure to target the area regardless—will be important in making nanotechnology succeed.

The critics won’t shut up, of course, but some aspects of their criticism will have more weight than others, leaving the scaremongering less influential than the scaremongers hope. And if that’s not enough, the argument for nanotechnology’s role in maintaining military supremacy is likely to rear its head. Nanotechnology is likely to be as important in the twenty-first century as rocketry or nuclear physics were in the twentieth. The United States has a fairly competent nanotechnology research program, though many feel its efforts are misdirected. Europe has a substantial but comparatively muted one. Other countries seem very interested indeed.

In the United States, and especially in Europe, research into nanotechnology is facing growing resistance from the same forces that have opposed biotechnology—and, for that matter, nuclear energy and other new technologies. The claim is that concerns about the safety and morality of nanotechnology justify limitations on research and development. Even Prince Charles has weighed in against nanotechnology, although Ian Bell wonders if the real fuss is about something other than the science:

Charles is afraid that the science could, yes, run amok, with minuscule robots reproducing themselves and proceeding to turn the world into “grey goo.”

Many might suspect that the only grey goo we have to worry about is between the ears of HRH, but scientists fear that the prince could do to them what he did to the reputation of contemporary architecture. Charles, clearly, can have no way of knowing what he is talking about, but the fear he expresses is common: do any of us really know what we are doing when we follow where science leads?16

The real problem isn’t a distrust of science. It’s a distrust of people. Such fear is strongest when pessimism about humanity is at a high. Europe, perhaps understandably pessimistic about humanity’s prospects in light of recent history, leads the way in throwing some people’s only favored invention—the wet blanket—over nanotechnology research.

In the more optimistic United States, concerns exist, but they haven’t yet led to a strong interest in regulating nanotechnology. Instead, the U.S. takes an ostrich-like approach to dealing with the realities of the technology; scientific and corporate types try to shift the focus to short-term technological developments while scoffing at the prospects for genuine molecular manufacturing—the “spooky” stuff, as I’ve labeled it. Some promising developments are taking place, both at the National Nanotechnology Initiative and within the nanotechnology industry itself, but it’s still too early to tell whether this turnaround will really take hold.


In the meantime, other cultures, unencumbered by the residual belief in original sin plaguing even the most secular Westerners, show far less reluctance. Perhaps they are less comfortable and more ambitious than we are, as well. Chinese interest in military nanotechnology has begun to alarm some, especially as China is already third in the world in nanotechnology patent applications.17

India’s president, Abdul Kalam, is also touting nanotechnology, and as a recent press account captured, he’s quite straightforward in saying that one reason for treating nanotechnology as important is that it will lead to revolutionary weaponry:

[Kalam] said carbon nano tubes and its composites would give rise to super strong, smart and intelligent structures in the field of material science and this in turn could lead to new production of nano robots with new types of explosives and sensors for air, land and space systems. “This would revolutionise the total concepts of future warfare,” he said.18

Yes, it would. Westerners tend to forget it, but it was a few key technologies—primarily steam navigation and repeating firearms—that made the era of Western colonialism possible. (See Daniel Headrick’s The Tools of Empire19 for more on this.)

It is, no doubt, as hard for American and European Mandarins to imagine being conquered by Chinese troops equipped with superior weaponry as it was for Chinese Mandarins to imagine the reverse two hundred years ago. Will our mandarins be smart enough to learn from that experience? That’s the question, isn’t it?

But in the long run, the growth of nanotechnology means that we won’t just be worrying about countries, but about individuals. With mature nanotechnology, individuals and small groups will possess powers once available only to nation-states. As with all powers possessed by individuals, these will sometimes be used for good, and sometimes for ill.

Of course, that’s just an extension of existing phenomena. My own neighborhood has a few dozen families in it; between them, they probably have enough guns and motorized vehicles (conveniently, mostly SUVs) to wipe out a Roman legion, or a Mongol horde—forces that, in both cases, once represented the peak of military power on the planet. Nobody worries about the military power that my neighborhood represents, because it’s (1) unlikely to be misused, and (2) negligible in a world where most anyone can afford guns and SUVs anyway.

What this suggests is that a world in which nanotechnology is ubiquitous is likely to be less threatening than one in which it’s a closely held government monopoly. A world in which nanotechnology is ubiquitous is a rich world. That doesn’t preclude bad behavior, but it helps. A world with such diffuse power makes abuse by smaller groups, or even governments, less threatening overall. The average Roman or Mongolian citizen didn’t really need guns or SUVs. Back then, the hobbyist machine shop in my neighbor’s basement would have been a tool of strategic, even world-changing, importance all by itself. Now, in a different world, it’s just a toy, even though it could, in theory, produce dangerous weaponry. It’s probably best if nano-technology works out the same way, with diffusion minimizing the risk that anyone will gain disproportionate power over the rest of us.

In his recent book, The Singularity Is Near, Ray Kurzweil notes that technology often suffices to deal with technological threats, even in the absence of governmental intervention:

When [the computer virus] first appeared, strong concerns were voiced that as they became more sophisticated, software pathogens had the potential to destroy the computer-network medium in which they live. Yet the “immune system” that has evolved in response to this challenge has been largely effective. Although destructive self-replicating software entities do cause damage from time to time, the injury is but a small fraction of the benefit we receive from the computers and communications links that harbor them.20

Software viruses, of course, aren’t usually a lethal threat. But Kurzweil notes that this cuts both ways:

The fact that computer viruses are not usually deadly to humans only means that more people are willing to create and release them. The vast majority of software-virus authors would not release viruses if they thought they would kill people. It also means that our response to the danger is that much less intense. Conversely, when it comes to self-replicating entities that are potentially lethal on a large scale, our response on all levels will be vastly more serious.21

I think that’s right. In fact, prophetic works of science fiction—Neal Stephenson’s The Diamond Age, for instance—generally feature such defensive technologies against rogue nanotechnology. Given the greater threat potential of nanotechnologies, we may have to rely on more than Symantec and McAfee for protection—but on the other hand, given the huge benefits promised by nanotechnology, we should be willing to go ahead anyway. And I expect we will.

1. Richard P. Feynman, There’s Plenty of Room at the Bottom, ed. Horace D. Gilbert (1961), 295-96.

2. On the artificial kidneys, see "Nanotechnology Used to Help Develop Artificial Kidney," ABC News Online.

3. Information on the National Nanotechnology Initiative can be found at its website, http://www.nano.gov—but information on classified Defense Department work is, of course, classified.

4. Robert J. Freitas, Nanomedicine, Volume I: Basic Capabilities (Landes Bioscience, 1999). See also Robert J. Freitas, Nanomedicine, Volume IA: Biocompatibility (Landes Bioscience, 2003). On enhanced cognition, see Kelly Hearn, "Future Soldiers Could Get Enhanced Minds," UPI, 19 March 2001, LexisNexis Library, UPI File (describing planned use of nanotechnology to enhance soldiers’ cognition and decision-making under stress).

5. National Science and Technology Council (2004), available online at http://nano.gov/nni04_budget_supplement.pdf.

6. National Science and Technology Council, 27.

7. National Science and Technology Council.

8. National Science and Technology Council, 33.

9. For a summary of this debate, see Judith P. Swazey, et al., "Risks and Benefits, Rights and Responsibilities: A History of the Recombinant DNA Research Controversy," Volume 51, Southern California Law Review (1978), 1019.

10. Available online at http://www.dnafiles.org/PDFs/therapy.pdf.

11. See David Whitehouse, "First Synthetic Virus Created," BBC News, 11 July 2002. Available online at http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/science/nature/2122619.stm.

12. Available online at http://www.greenpeace.org.uk/MultimediaFiles/Live/FullReport/5886.pdf.

13. Available online at http://www.greenpeace.org.uk/MultimediaFiles/Live/FullReport/5886.pdf.

14. Howard Lovy, Nanobot blog, http://nanobot.blogspot.com/2003_07_20_nanobot_archive.html#105905157013774164.

15. Testimony of Dr. Vicki L. Colvin, director, Center for Biological and Environmental Nanotechnology (CBEN), and associate professor of chemistry, Rice University, Houston, Texas, before the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Science, in regard to "Nanotechnology Research and Development Act of 2003," 9 April 2003. Available online at http://www.house.gov/science/hearings/full03/apr09/colvin.htm.

16. Ian Bell, "Upgrading the Human Condition," Sunday Herald (Glasgow), 1 August 2004. Available online at http://www.sundayherald.com/43701.

17. "China’s Nanotechnology Patent Applications Rank Third in World," InvestorIdeas.com, 3 October 2003, http://www.investorideas.com/Companies/Nanotechnology/Articles/China’sNanotechnology1003,03.asp. See also Dennis Normile, "China’s R&D Power, Truth about Trade & Technology," 2 September 2005, http://www.truthabouttrade.org/article.asp?id=4364. ("Ernest Preeg, senior fellow in trade and productivity for the Manufacturers Alliance/MAPI, warns in his just released book, The Emerging Chinese Advanced Technology Superstate (jointly pub­lished by the Manufacturers Alliance/MAPI and the US Hudson Institute in June 2005) that ‘China is right up there with the US in nanotechnology and coming on strong in biotech and in genetically modified agriculture.’")

18. "Indian Scientists Should Make Breakthrough in Nano Technology: Kalam," IndiaExpress.com, 1 July 2004, http://www.indiaexpress.com/news/technology/20040701-0.html.

19. Daniel Headrick, The Tools of Empire: Technology and European Imperialism in the Nineteenth Century (Oxford University Press, 1981).

20. Ray Kurzweil, The Singularity Is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology (Viking, 2005), 415.

21. Kurzweil.

© 2006 Glenn Reynolds


"A student in her dorm room now commands the resources of a multi-million dollar music recording or movie editing studio of not so many years ago. The tools of creativity have been democratized and the tools of production are not far behind (Karl Marx take note). Glenn Reynolds’s beguiling new book tells the insightful story of how an ‘army of Davids’ is inheriting the Earth, leaving a trail of obsolete business models not to mention cultural, economic, and political institutions in its wake." – Ray Kurzweil