Unbounding the Future:
the Nanotechnology Revolution
Policy and Prospects
engineering research can show certain technological
possibilities, gaining this knowledge can have a paradoxical
effect on our feeling of knowledge, on our sense of how
much we know about the future. It gives us more information, but
it can reveal a range of possibilities so vast that we feel as if
we know less than we did before.
The prospect of nanotechnology
manufacturing has this paradoxical effect. It makes certain
scenariossuch as a mid-twenty-first-century world of
poverty, or choking on pollution caused by massive accumulations
of twentieth century-style industryseem very unlikely
indeed. This is useful information in trying to understand our
real situation and trying to make sensible plans for the future.
And yet the range of new possibilities opened up is broader than
we could have imagined before. On the negative side, one can
imagine building engines of destruction capable of devastating
the world as thoroughly as a nuclear war. On the positive side,
one can imagine futures of stable peace with levels of health,
wealth, and environmental quality beyond any historical precedent
and beyond present expectations.
Within this spectrum of possibilities (and off to its sides)
is a range of futures we can't even imagine. Our actions, day by
day, are taking us into one of those futures. Not to some future
of our present plans or dreams or nightmares, but to a real
future, one that will grow from the intended and unintended
consequences of our actions, one that we and our descendants will
actually have to live in.
Scenarios are useful tools for thinking about the future. They
don't represent predictions of what will happen, but instead they
present pictures of worlds that one can imagine happening. By
looking at these pictures and seeing how they fit together, we
can try to get some idea of which events are more likely and
which are less likely, and to get some idea of how the choices we
make today may affect the shape of things to come.
Scenario 0: Ordinary Expectations
Nanotechnology will have little direct effect on the world
until it is well developed, many years from now. The expectation
of nanotechnology, however, is influencing how people think and
act today. Yet even this expectation is still in the early stages
of development and will likely have little effect on world
affairs for years to come. In sketching scenarios, it seems
sensible to begin with the standard worldview, at least for the
next few years, and then to look at how nanotechnology and the
expectation of nanotechnology might later begin interacting with
As this is being written, old projections of East European,
Middle Eastern, and world affairs have recently been upended, and
expectations are fairly muddy. Still, one can identify the broad
outlines of a conventional-wisdom view of expected events in the
coming years and decades:
Technology doesn't change much in the next five years, or
indeed in the next fifty. Computer power continues to grow
rapidly, but with few important effects. The great challenges
of technology are environmental: dealing with greenhouse
gases and acid rain and the problems of toxic waste.
In parallel, more and more nations climb the ladder of
technological capability to such thresholds as the ability to
launch satellites, build nuclear weapons, and manufacture
computer chips. With the worldwide flow of technical
information and the worldwide emphasis on technological
development, more and more second-rank countries follow close
on the heels of the technological leaders.
Consumer electronics continues to improve, but this leads
to a better-entertained population rather than a
better-informed one. Exciting announcements like
high-temperature superconductors and low-temperature fusion
continue to appear, but after hearing cries of
"Wolf!" and seeing only puppy dogs and fairy tales,
most people discount news of purported breakthroughs.
Even in the thirty-to-fifty-year time frame, most
newspaper stories and respected analysts assume there will be
little technological change. Fifty-year projections of
carbon-dioxide accumulation in the atmosphere assume that
most energy will continue to come from fossil fuels.
Thirty-year projections of economic crisis due to an aging
population and a shrinking work force assume that economic
productivity doesn't change greatly.
In terms of productivity and wealth, the United States
continues to lose ground relative to the booming economies of
Eastern Asia: to Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, and Singapore.
In political terms, the Ordinary Expectations scenario is
less clear, but expectations seem to run something like this:
The breakup of the Eastern bloc and the collapse of communism
as a "progressive" ideal lead to a freer and more
democratic world. In Eastern Europe, and perhaps in Central
Asia, independent countries emerge, each with an industrial
base and a population having substantial education in science
The relative decline of the United States economically and
of the Soviet Union militarily loosen some of the ties that
today bind the world's democracies to one another. The
decreased threat of Soviet military power weakens alliances.
As NATO loosens, and as the nations of Europe integrate their
economic and political lives, gaps between the United States
and Europe grow. As Soviet pressure on Japan weakens, the
U.S.-Japanese military alliance weakens and trade frictions
loom larger in comparison.
In this environment, protectionist pressures increase. An
economic crash grows more likely. A shift from friendly
relationships to peaceful hostility becomes an ominous
possibility. The rise of multiple, nearly equal centers of
economic and technological capability provides incentives for
greater integration and cooperation, but also motives for
great competition and secrecy.
In the long term, however, limited resources and the costs
both of pollution and of pollution controls bring economic
growth to a halt in an increasingly impoverished world.
Population growth during this time has slowed, but creates
great economic and environmental pressures. Resource
conflicts escalate into war. The climate has changed
irreversibly, the old forests are nearly gone, and extinction
has swept a majority of species into nothingness.
Variations on the first five to ten years of the Ordinary
Expectations scenario can provide a backdrop for scenarios
covering the rise of nanotechnology in, perhaps, the next ten to
Scenario 1: Pollyanna Triumphant
We are living in a world like that of the Ordinary
Expectations scenario where, after years of anticipation,
primitive but fairly capable assemblers have recently
been developed. For the first time, the media, the public,
and policymakers take the prospect of nanotechnology
It looks very good to them. Technical work has shown that
nanotechnology, once developed, can be used in a clean,
controlled way, and that it can ultimately displace polluting
industries while greatly increasing wealth per capita. The
anticipated health benefits are enormous, and after years of
a growing death toll from AIDSonly partially stemmed by
advances in molecular
medicinethe public has become very sensitive to the
regular reports of human infection by exotic primate viruses from Africa. Concern
about the stability of Earth's climate and ecosystems has
grown as forests have shrunk and weather patterns have
The prospect of breaking out of this cycle is appealing.
It is clear that nanotechnology is no danger when in the
hands of people of goodwill, and a relatively peaceful decade
has allowed many people to forget the existence of other
And so, with miraculously undivided popular support drawn
from a grand coalition of environmentalists seeking to
replace existing industry, industrialists seeking a more
productive technology, health advocates seeking better health
care, low-income groups seeking greater wealth, and so on and
so forth, companies and governments plunge into
nanotechnology with both feet and without reservation.
Development proceeds at a breakneck pace, and everyone who
wants to participate in this great venture is welcome.
Primitive assemblers are used to build better assemblers,
which are used to build yet better assemblers, in
laboratories and hobby shops around the world.
Products begin to pour forth. The economy is thrown into
turmoil. Military equipment also begins to pour forth, and
tensions begin to build. A military research group with more
cleverness than sense builds a monster replicator, it eats
everything, and we all die.
This scenario is absurd, at least in part because published
warnings already exist. Since the 1960s, uncritical applause for
new technologies has been limited to the now-defunct controlled
presses of Eastern Europe (and similar places), and even there
the resulting environmental disaster has become a matter for
public debate, criticism, and correction.
In the expanding free world of today, the benefits, costs, and
dangers of any great new technology will be thoroughly examined,
expounded upon, and lied about from many different directions. We
may or may not manage to make wise choices as a result. But one
thing seems sure: Pollyanna will not triumph, because Pollyanna
doesn't have the facts on her side.
Scenario 2: Chicken Little Rules the
Again, we are in the world of the Ordinary Expectations
scenario, and primitive assemblers have recently been
developed. Again, the prospect of nanotechnology is being
taken seriously for the first timebut it is somehow
portrayed as being just more of the same, but worse.
Environmentalists view it not as an alternative to the
polluting industries of the twentieth century, but as an
extension of human power, and hence of the human ability to
do harm. Horror stories of technology gone mad are spun to
support this view.
Arms control groups are justifiably alarmed by
nanotechnology and emphasize its military applications.
Groups seeking arms control via disarmamentand
believing in unilateral strategieswork to prevent the
development of nanotechnology everywhere they can, that is,
everywhere within their political reach. To maximize their
political leverage, they portray it as an almost purely
military technology of immense and malign power.
Special interest groups in industry see molecular
manufacturing as a threat to their business and join the
lobbying efforts to prevent it from happening. Unions,
neglecting the prospect of greater wealth and leisure for
their members, focus instead on possible disruptions in
established jobs. They, too, oppose the development of the
new technology. As a result, we hear not about how
nanotechnology could be used in health care, environmental
cleanup, and the manufacture of improved products, but about
the insidious threat of tiny, uncontrollable military monster
machines that will smash our industry.
After a few years of hearing this, public opinion in the
industrial democracies is firmly "against the
development of nanotechnology," but this is more a
slogan than an enforceable policy. Laws are nevertheless
passed to suppress it, and the focus of public debate returns
to the old themes of poverty and disease and the newer themes
of climatic change and environmental destruction. Solutions
seem as distant as ever. No right-thinking person would have
anything to do with nanotechnology, so only wrong-thinking
But the initial debate hadn't become serious until
assemblers were developed, and research had gone still
further before the laws were passed. By then, nanotechnology
was just around the corner.
Developing nanotechnology is primarily a matter of tools,
just as was developing nuclear weapons. Decades earlier,
nuclear-weapons capability had spread from one to two
countries in forty-nine months, and to another three in the
next fifteen years, despite the requirement for large
quantities of exotic materials in each device. By the 1980s,
there was already a huge international trade in chemical
compounds, and many thousands of chemists who knew how to
combine them to make new molecular objects, working not only
in university research labs, in corporate research labs, and
in civilian and military government research labs,
butas the black market in designer drugs
showssecretly, in criminal research labs.
Even in the 1980s, a scanning tunneling microscope had
been built as a high school science-fair project in the
United States. There is nothing large-scale or exotic about
synthetic chemistry or about precise positioning of molecules. And in our
scenario, primitive assemblers have already been developed
and techniques for constructing them published (as is
standard practice) in the open scientific literature.
And so the attempts to suppress the development of
nanotechnology succeed only in suppressing the open development
of nanotechnology. But governments cannot be sure that other
governments are not developing it in secret, and they have
now heard so much about its military potential that this is
impossible to ignore. Around the world, governments quietly
set up secret research programs: some in democracies, others
in the remaining authoritarian states.
There are even underground efforts. Once a primitive
assembler or even an AFM-based
manipulator is in hand, the remaining challenges are
chiefly those of design. In the 1980s, personal computers had
become powerful enough to use for designing molecules. In the
years since then, computer power has continued its
exponential explosion. Peculiar elements of the technoculture
join withpick one: radical anarchists, radical reds,
radical greens, or radical racistsin a project aimed at
bringing down "the corrupt world order" of
governments, of companies, of religions, of human beings, or
of nonwhite/nonbrown people. With responsible groups out of
the technology race, they see a real chance of finding the
leverage needed to change the world.
And so years pass in comparative quiet, with occasional
rumors of activity or exposure of a project. Then, from an
unexpected direction beyond the reach of democratic control,
destructive change breaks loose upon an unprepared world. The
sky falls, and Chicken Little is vindicated.
With luck, we will find that this scenario is also absurd.
Public debate in the coming years will surely present a more
balanced picture of the opportunities and dangers posed by the
development of nanotechnology. Thoughtful people with conflicting
views will become deeply involved. The impracticability of
attempting to suppress technologies of this sort will likely
become clear enough to give us a chance of keeping development in
the open, in relatively responsible hands.
Scenario 3: International Technorivalry
A variant of the Ordinary Expectations scenario has played
out for a number of years now. And after years of continuing
turbulence, the net result is this: Japanese economic power
has grown, with other East Asian economies beginning to close
the gap. Their greater investment in long range civilian
R&D, with a focus since the late 1980s on engineering
molecular systems, has enabled them to take the lead on the
path to nanotechnology.
European economic integration and German unification,
combined with the pressure of economic and technological
competition from the United States and Japan, have turned
Europe inward to some extent. Although cultural ties with the
United States keep U.S.-European relations on a basically
warm basis, hostility between Europe and Japanalready
marked in the 1980shas grown. Europe had long enjoyed
great strength in chemistry and basic science, and in the
1980s had led the United States in organizing efforts on molecular
electronics. This has placed them in a strong position
with respect to nanotechnology, behind Japan but ahead of the
The United States remains an enormously productive
economy, but the cumulative effects of an educational system
that neglects learning and corporations that emphasize
quarterly results have made themselves felt. After decades of
emphasizing the short term, people now find themselves living
in the long term they had neglected. The reaction to U.S.
relative economic decline has not been investment and
renewal, but rhetoric and hostility directed toward
"foreigners," particularly the Japanese.
It is thus an isolated and somewhat defensive Japan that
builds the first molecular manipulator and recognizes its
long-term potential. The technology is developed in a
government-funded research laboratory with cooperation from
major Japanese corporations. As the result of increasing
tensions, foreign researchersthose still welcome in
Japanwere not invited to participate in this particular
A series of committee meetings formalizes a tacit decision
made earlier in choosing researchers, and the specifics of
this new development are treated as proprietary. Impressive
results are announced, stirring pride in Japanese research,
but the specifics of the methods involved are kept quiet.
This scarcely delays the diffusion of the basic
technology. After the first demonstration, even the most
myopic funding agencies support projects with the same goal.
A European project had already been started in a French
laboratory: it soon succeeds in building an assembler based
on somewhat different principles. European researchers follow
the Japanese precedent by keeping the details of their
techniques as a loosely held secret, in the name of European
competitiveness. The United States follows suit a year later
in an effort funded by the Department of Defense.
Public life goes on much as before, dominated by the
antics of entertainers and politicians, and by tales of the
fate of the environment or the Social Security system in a
fantasy-future of extrapolated twentieth-century technology.
But more and more, in policy circles and in the media, there
is serious discussion of nanotechnology and molecular
manufacturingwhat they mean and what to do about them.
In Japan, second-generation assemblers have begun to turn
out small quantities of increasingly sophisticated molecular
devices. These are prototypes of commercially useful
products: sensors, molecular electronic devices, and
scientific instruments; some are immediately useful even at a
price of a hundred dollars per molecule. There are plans on
the drawing boards for molecular assemblers that could make
these devices at prices of less than one-trillionth of a
dollar. There are long-term plans (viewed with hope and
anticipation) for full-fledged molecular manufacturing able
to make almost anything at low cost from common materials.
This is exciting. It promises to at last free Japan from
its decades-old dependence on foreign trade, foreign food,
foreign raw materials, and foreign politics. By making
spaceflight inexpensive and routine, it promises to open the
universe to a people cooped up on a crowded archipelago.
Europe leads America but lags behind Japan and looks on
Japanese progress with hostility. Europeans, too, share
dreams of a powerful technology, and begin a race for the
lead. The United States trails, but its huge resources and
software expertise help it pick up speed as it joins the
race. Other efforts also begin, and though they advance
steadily, they cannot keep pace with the great power blocs.
On all sides, the obvious military potential of molecular
manufacturing fires military interest, then research and
development in both publicly announced and secret programs.
Strategists play nanotechnology war games in their minds, in
their journals, and on their computers. They come away
shaken. The more they look, the more strategies they find
that would enable a technologically superior power to make a
safe, preemptive movelethal or nonlethalagainst
all its opponents. Defenses seem possible in principle, but
not in time.
Yet it becomes obvious that molecular manufacturing can
provide defenses against lesser technologies. Even the great,
mythical leak-proof missile shield looks practical when the
defenders have vastly superior technology and a thousandfold
cost advantage building military equipment.
No great power seems particularly hostile. By then, all
have formally or informally been in a peaceful alliance for
many years. Yet there are still memories of war, and the
bonds of alliance and military cooperation are weakened by
the lack of a common enemy and the growth of economic
rivalry. And so squabbles over trade in obsolescing
twentieth-century technologies poison cooperation in
developing and managing the fresh technologies of the
There are a thousand reasons to pursue military research
and development in these technologies, and nationalistic
economic competition helps keep that work secret on a
nationalistic basis. Military planners must concern
themselves not so much with intentions as with capabilities.
And so a technology developed in an atmosphere of
commercial rivalry and secrecy matures in an atmosphere of
military rivalry and secrecy. Advanced nanotechnologies
arrive in the world not as advances in medicine, or in
environmental restoration, or as a basis for new wealth, but
as military systems developed in the midst of an accelerating
multilateral arms race, with the quiet goal of preemptive
use. Negotiations and development run neck and neck, and then
. . . .
Scenario 4: Enough Coherence
Again our world is a variant of the Ordinary Expectations
scenario, but the international environment is in a healthier
condition. Despite trade friction, global economic
integration has continued. Europe, the United States, and
Japan all have a large stake in each other's well-being, and
they recognize it. International military cooperation has
continued, in part as a conscious counterweight to conflicts
over trade. International cooperation in research has grown,
spurred in part by the Japanese desire for closer
international ties. The end of the Cold War has made secret
military research programs less commonplace.
It is in this environment that primitive assemblers are
developed, and it doesn't make a great difference who gets
there first. As is standard in basic research, groups publish
their results in the open literature and compete to impress
their colleagues at home and abroad with the brilliance of
The arrival of the first assemblers spurs serious debate
on nanotechnology and its consequences, and that debate is
reasonably open and balanced. It covers military, medical,
and environmental consequences, with a major emphasis on how
clean, efficient manufacturing can raise the level of wealth
and spread it worldwide.
Military analysts consider the impact of molecular
manufacturing and its potential products, and concerns are
grave, so they undertake classified research programs.
Butas usualsecrecy slows communication among
researchers: those in the classified programs fall behind
their more open colleagues, whose informal
information-swapping runs far ahead of the published
Some forces push toward rivalry; others push toward
cooperation. A healthy pattern emerges: Those decision makers
who take nanotechnology most seriously are precisely those
who see the least reason for future international conflict
among democratic nations. They no longer anticipate growing
conflict over dwindling resources, inequalities of wealth,
and global atmospheric pollution. They see what
nanotechnology can do for these problems, without anyone
taking anything from anyone else. And so, on all sides, those
who take nanotechnology most seriously are those most
inclined to look for cooperative solutions to the problems it
poses. There are exceptions, but the tide of opinion is
against them, and their ideas do not dominate policy.
The public debate on nanotechnology grows, and it ranges
far and wide. Enthusiasts suggest many wondrous applications
for nanotechnology. Some are soon dismissed as being
impossible or just plain undesirable. Some are workable
improvements on the horrid technologies of the twentieth
century; these are developed and applied almost as soon as
they become technically possible. The rest are harder to
evaluate, but in the course of years of hard work and careful
study some of these are developed and adopted, and others are
At first, some people proposed that nanotechnology be
stopped, but they never proposed a credible way to do it.
Realists observing the worldwide technological ferment look
for other options to deal with the dangers.
The world's industrial democracies, taken together, hold
the decisive lead. They have developed mechanisms for
coordinating and controlling technologies with military
potential by regulating technology transfer and trade. These
mechanisms have been developed, exercised, and honed through
decades of Cold War experience not only with nuclear and
missile technologies, but with a host of high technology
products and devices. These mechanisms aren't perfect, but
they are useful.
As concerns about international instability mount, the
industrial democracies work to improve their teamwork: they
reinforce the tradition of free trade and cooperation within
the club, and strengthen regulations that block the flow of
critical technologies to the world's remaining dictators.
As a result of these developments, nanotechnology matures
in an atmosphere dominated more by economic cooperation than
by military competition. The focus of policy is solidly on
civilian applications, with due attention to potential
military threats. Trust is reinforced by the automatic
"mutual inspection" that is a natural part of
cooperative research and development.
Hard decisions remain, and the shouting and the arguments
grow louder throughout the world's media. But where the
problem is clear, and survival or world well-being are at
stake, necessary decisions are made and there is enough
international coherence to implement them.
Years pass and technologies mature. Health improves,
wealth rises, and the biosphere begins to heal. Despite the
turbulence and anguish of changeand despite voices
saying, "It was better in the old days," at least
for them, and despite real lossesmany people of
goodwill can look at the world, contemplate the whole, and
affirm that this change is, on the whole, a change for the
Today's knowledge about molecules and matter is enough to give
a partial picture of what molecular machines and
molecular manufacturing will make possible. Even this partial
picture shows possibilities that make old views of the
twenty-first century thoroughly obsolete.
Science and technology are advancing toward molecular
manufacturing along many fronts, in chemistry, physics, biology,
and computer science. Motives for continuing range from the
medical to the military to the scientific. Research in these
directions is already worldwide, and just beginning to focus on
the objective of nanotechnology.
Already, it is easy to describe how known devices and
principles can be combined to build a primitive device able to
guide molecular assembly. Actually doing it will not be so
easylaboratory research never isbut it will be done,
and in not too many years.
The first, slow assemblers will lead to products that include
better assemblers. Machines able to put molecules together to
make molecular machines will lead to a spiral of falling costs
and improving quality, ultimately yielding many results that
people fervently want: a cleaner environment, an escape from
poverty, health care that heals. These benefits will bring
disturbing changes and unsettling choices, as new abilities
always do. The pace of change may well accelerate, straining the
institutions we have evolved to cope with turbulent times.
Molecular-manufacturing capabilities will lend themselves to
abuse, and in particular, to the construction of weapons by those
seeking power. To minimize the risk of such abuse, we need to
develop broad-based international cooperation and regulation.
Domestically, this focus seems the best way to avoid polarization
between those concerned with solving old problems and those
concerned with avoiding new ones. Internationally, it seems the
best way to avoid a sickening slide into a new arms race.
As shown by the four scenarios just sketched, public opinion
will shape public policy, helping to determine whether these
technologies are used for good or for ill. The Afterword will look at today's state of
opinion and at what can be done to push in a positive direction.
We cannot predict the future, and we cannot predict the
consequences of our actions. Nonetheless, what we do will make a
difference, and we can begin by trying to avoid every major
blunder we can identify. Beyond this, we can try to understand
our situation, weigh our basic values, and choose our actions
with whatever wisdom we can muster. The choices we make in the
coming years will shape a future that stretches beyond our
imagining, a future full of danger, yet full of promise. It has
always been so.