Foresight Nanotech Institute Logo

« Go Back

You are viewing
Foresight Archives

Image of nano

Unbounding the Future:

the Nanotechnology Revolution

Chapter 13

Policy and Prospects

Although exploratory 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 and molecular manufacturing has this paradoxical effect. It makes certain scenarios—such as a mid-twenty-first-century world of poverty, or choking on pollution caused by massive accumulations of twentieth century-style industry—seem 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 (1990)

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 large-scale developments.

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 and technology.

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 twenty years:

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 seriously.

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 AIDS—only partially stemmed by advances in molecular medicine—the 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 changed.

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 motives.

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 Roost

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 time—but 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 disarmament—and believing in unilateral strategies—work 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 people do.

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, but—as the black market in designer drugs shows—secretly, 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 molecular 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 with—pick one: radical anarchists, radical reds, radical greens, or radical racists—in 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 Japan—already marked in the 1980s—has 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 United States.

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 researchers—those still welcome in Japan—were not invited to participate in this particular effort.

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 manufacturing—what 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. Investment soars.

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 move—lethal or nonlethal—against 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 twenty-first century.

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 their achievements.

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. But—as usual—secrecy 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 journals.

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 rejected.

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 change—and despite voices saying, "It was better in the old days," at least for them, and despite real losses—many people of goodwill can look at the world, contemplate the whole, and affirm that this change is, on the whole, a change for the better.


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 easy—laboratory research never is—but 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.

Previous | Next

Unbounding the Future - Table of Contents


Foresight Programs


Home About Foresight Blog News & Events Roadmap About Nanotechnology Resources Facebook Contact Privacy Policy

Foresight materials on the Web are ©1986–2020 Foresight Institute. All rights reserved. Legal Notices.

Web site developed by Stephan Spencer and Netconcepts; maintained by James B. Lewis Enterprises.