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Unbounding the Future:

the Nanotechnology Revolution


The human race is approaching the great historical transition to thorough, inexpensive control of the structure of matter, with all that implies for medicine, the environment, and our way of life. What happens before and during that transition will shape its direction, and with it the future.

Is this worth getting excited about? Look at some of the concerns that bring people together for action:

  • Poverty
  • Endangered species
  • Weapons systems
  • Freedom
  • Deforestation
  • Jobs
  • Toxic waste
  • Nuclear power
  • Social security
  • Life extension
  • Housing
  • Space development
  • Global warming
  • Acid rain
  • AIDS, Alzheimer's disease, heart disease, lung disease, cancer . . .

Each of these issues mobilizes great effort. Each will be utterly transformed by nanotechnology and its applications. For many of these issues, nanotechnology offers tools that can be used to achieve what people have been striving to accomplish. For many of these same issues, the abuse of nanotechnology could obliterate everything that has been achieved.

A good companion to the precept "Think globally, act locally" is "Think of the future, act in the present." If everyone were to abandon short-term problems and today's popular causes, the results would be disastrous. But there is no danger of that. The more likely danger is the opposite. The world is heading straight for a disruptive transition with everything at stake, yet 99.9 percent of human effort and attention is going into either short-term concerns or long-term strategies based on a fantasy-future of lumbering twentieth-century technology.

What is to be done? For people more concerned with feeling good than with doing good, the answer is simple: Go for the warm feeling that comes from adding one more bit of support to an already-popular cause. The gratification is immediate, even if the contribution is small. For people more concerned with doing good—who can feel good only if they live up to their potential—the answer is less simple: To do the most good, find an important cause that is not already buoyed up by a cheering multitude, a project where one person's contribution almost automatically makes a big difference.

There is, today, an obvious choice for where to look. The potential benefits and drawbacks of nanotechnology generate a thousand areas for research, discussion, education, entrepreneuring, lobbying, development, regulation, and the rest—for preparation and for action. A person's contributions can range from career commitment to verbal support. Both can make a difference in where the world ends up.

Opinion Matters

What people do depends on what they believe. The path to a world prepared to handle nanotechnology begins with the recognition that nanotechnology is a real prospect.

What would be the response to a new idea as broad as nanotechnology, if it were true? Since it doesn't fall into any existing technical specialty, it wouldn't be anyone's job to provide an official, authoritative evaluation. Advanced molecular manufacturing can't be worked on in the lab today, so it wouldn't matter to scientists playing the standard careers-and-funding game. Still, some scientists and engineers would become interested, think about it, and lend support. Science News, covering the first major conference on the subject, would announce that "Sooner or later, the Age of Nanotechnology will arrive." This is, in fact, what has happened.

But what if the idea were false? Some curious scientist or engineer would soon point out a fatal error in the idea. Since the sweeping implications of nanotechnology make many people uncomfortable, a good counterargument would spread fast, and would soon be on the lips of everyone who would prefer to dismiss the whole thing.

No such counterargument has been heard. The most likely reason is that nanotechnology is a sound idea. Reactions have been changing from "That's ridiculous" to "That's obvious." The basic recognition of the issue is almost in place.

When nanotechnology emerges from the world of ideas to the world of physical reality, we will need to be prepared. But what does this require? To understand what needs to be done today, it is best to begin with the long term and then work back to the present.

Where We Will Need to Be

When the world is in the process of assimilating molecular manufacturing, years from now, it would be best if people were ready and if the world situation favored peaceful, cooperative applications. Balanced international progress would be better than dominance by any nation. Cooperative development would be better than technological rivalry. A focus on civilian goals would be better than a focus on military goals. A well-informed public supporting sound policies would be better than a startled public supporting half-baked schemes.

All these goals will be best served if politicians aren't forced to act like idiots—that is, if the state of public opinion permits them to make the right decisions, and perhaps even makes bad decisions politically costly. The basic objective is straightforward: a world in which as many people as possible have a basic understanding of what is happening, a picture of how it can lead to a better future, and a broad understanding of what to do (and not to do) to reach that future. The outlines of a positive scenario would then look something like this:

Environmental groups and agencies have thought through the issues raised by nanotechnology, and know what applications they want to promote and what abuses they want to prevent. Likewise, medical associations, associations of retired persons, and the Social Security Administration have thought through the issues raised by dramatically improved medical care and economic productivity, and are ready with policy recommendations. Business groups have done likewise with economic issues, and business watchdog groups are ready to expose policies that merely serve special interests. Labor groups have considered the impact of a deep, global economic restructuring on the jobs and income of their members, and have proposals for cushioning the shock without holding down productivity. Religious leaders have considered the moral dimensions of many applications, and are ready with advice. Military analysts and arms control analysts have done the painstaking work of thinking through strategic scenarios, and have developed an agreed-on core of policies for maintaining stability. International committees and agencies have made the new technologies a focus of discussion and planning, and backed by a healthy climate of opinion, they make international cooperation work.

Overall, supported by a framework of sensible public opinion and sensible politics, the complex process of adapting to change is working rather well. In field after field, group after group has put in the hard work needed to come up with policies that would advance their real interests without wrecking someone else's interests. This is possible more often than most would have expected, because molecular manufacturing makes possible so many positive-sum choices. There are still big battles, but there is also a large core of agreement.

In this time of transition, some people are actively involved in developing and guiding the technologies, but most people act as citizens, consumers, workers, friends, and family members. They shape what happens in the broader world by their votes, contributions, and purchases. They shape what happens in their families and communities by what they say, what they do, and especially by the educational investments they have made or supported. By their choices, they determine what nanotechnology means for daily life.

How We Can Get There

A world like this will require years of preparation. What can people do over the coming years to help this sort of world emerge, to improve the prospects for a peaceful and beneficial transition to new technologies? For the time being, the main task is to spread information.

People within existing organizations can nudge them toward evaluating nanotechnology and molecular manufacturing. A good start is to introduce others in the organization to the concepts, and talk through some of their implications. Follow-up activities will depend on the group, its resources, and its purposes.

For the time being, drafting of new regulations, lobbying of Congress, and the like all seem premature. Getting nanotechnology into the planning process, though, seems overdue. We invite existing organizations with concerns regarding medicine, the economy, the environment, and other issues of public policy to put nanotechnology on their agendas, and to join in debating and ultimately implementing sensible policies.

Some groups are doing relevant research work. Many could bias their choice of projects to favor goals in the direction of molecular systems engineering. For nanotechnology to be taken really seriously, some research group will have to build a reasonably capable molecular manipulator or a primitive assembler. This will require an interdiscipinary team, years of work, and a total cost unlikely to exceed one tenth that of a single flight of the U.S. Space Shuttle.

Other researchers can help by providing further theoretical studies of what advanced molecular manufacturing and nanotechnology will make possible. These studies can help groups know what to anticipate in their planning.

Some scientists and engineers will want to steer their careers into the field of nanotechnology. More students will want to study a combination of physics, chemistry, and engineering that will prepare them to contribute.

We encourage people of common sense and goodwill to become involved in developing nanotechnology. For those who have—or can gain—the necessary technical backgrounds, becoming involved with its development is an excellent way to influence how it is used. For better or for worse, technical experts in a field have a disproportionate influence over related policies.

During these years, there will be a growing need for grass-roots organizations aimed at public education and building a base for political action. Having a few thousand people ready to write five letters to Congress in some crucial year could make the difference between a world that works and a world destroyed by the long-term effects of a shortsighted bill.

What happens will depend on what people do, and what people do will depend on what they believe. The world is overwhelmingly shaped by the state of opinion: people's opinions about what will and won't happen, what will and won't work, what will and won't prove profitable or beneficial for themselves, for their families, for their businesses, for their communities, for the world. This state of opinion—as expressed in what people say to each other, and whether their actions conform to their words—shapes decisions day to day. During these years, it will matter greatly what people are saying to one another about the future, and how to make it work.

Getting Started

With help from new technologies, we can renew the world—not make it perfect, not eliminate conflict, not achieve every imaginable dream, yet clear away many afflictions, both ancient and modern. With good preparation, we can perhaps even avoid creating too many new afflictions to take their place.

Who is responsible for trying to bring this about? Those who want to fight poverty, to earn their share of the benefits to come, to join in a great adventure, to meet people who care about the future, to save species, to heal the Earth, to heal the sick, to be at the cutting edge, to build international cooperation, to learn about technology, to fight dangers, to change the world—not necessarily all together, or all at once.

To help deal with the main problem today, lack of knowledge, you can encourage friends to read up on the subject. If you've liked this book, please lend it.

The Foresight Institute publishes information and sponsors conferences on nanotechnology and its consequences. It provides a channel for news, technical information, and discussions of public policy, and it can help put you in contact with active people and organizations. To stay in touch with developments that will shape our future, please write or call:

The Foresight Institute

PO Box 61058

Palo Alto, CA 94306

Voice: 415-917-1122
Fax: 415-917-1123

electronic mail:

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