Nanotechnology's descent into matter's minuteness
The long rectangular device that powers an experiment in Rod Ruoff's lab could fit in a pack of chewing gum and looks equally unspectacular.Skip to next paragraph
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You can't see it move. The springs on either side of its tiny motor push nothing heavier than carbon tubes so small they're measured in millionths of a millimeter. Nevertheless, scientists here at Washington University and around the country believe such experiments in nanotechnology could one day change the world.
By building machines and materials with atomic precision, researchers believe they'll create faster computers, lighter spacecraft, and airplane wings so efficient they'll adjust to airflow like a flexible skin. Medical robots would snatch a page from science-fiction's "Fantastic Voyage" and travel through the body fixing things. Computer components the size of a molecule could put a supercomputer into the palm of your hand.
But the same technology that holds out such promises also conceals inherent dangers. Wing sensors could easily become invisible listening devices. Tiny robots that manipulate atoms could carry designer viruses into the battlefield or a public building.
Such fears remain speculative. But the science of nanotechnology is moving so fast that such scenarios could become far too real in a few decades. So what should a society do? Plow ahead in search of the good? Or slow down for fear of the bad? That ethical debate is just now bubbling to the surface as academia, the federal government, and business begin a full-scale assault on the smallest frontiers of science.
"With the control of matter that we are talking about, there will be unimaginable inventions," says Dr. Ruoff, who heads the Laboratory for the Study of Novel Carbon Materials. If the optimists are right, anything people can design on a computer they will be able to make out of matter.
What is nanotechnology?
Nanotechnology involves such a steep descent into the minuteness of matter that it was considered science fiction until a few years ago. Nanometers are 100 times smaller than the fine lines computer companies currently etch on silicon chips, 5,000 times smaller than a human hair. At that level, scientists are manipulating clumps of atoms and sometimes individual atoms.
It's this incredibly small scale that fuels the hope - and hype - surrounding nanotechnology. Theoretically, engineers will one day be able to rearrange materials at the atomic level to create almost anything they want within the constraints of chemistry. A car body that's as hard as diamonds and lighter than steel? No problem, according to the visionaries. A space vehicle that's cheap to launch? Make way for handsized satellites with several components shrunk to nanoscopic scale.
And no need to take up scientists' valuable time assembling all those atoms. Just make tiny robots - nanobots - to make other nanobots. Once you've assembled 1 million of them, turn them loose to build whatever you can dream up.
It's these self-replicating nanobots that fuel most of the futuristic fears. What if they got loose? Or a terrorist set them free in a large city? All the fears now bound up with the spread of biological weapons ride on the back of future nanotechnology robots.
Bill Joy, cofounder and chief scientist of Sun Microsystems, in this month's edition of Wired magazine warns: "I think it is no exaggeration to say we are on the cusp of the further perfection of extreme evil, an evil whose possibility spreads well beyond that which weapons of mass destruction bequeathed to the nation-states, on to a surprising and terrible empowerment of extreme individuals."
It's not just nanotechnology that scares the well-respected Mr. Joy. It's the combination of genetic engineering and robotics brought to the nanoscale that feeds his apprehension that human beings could build machines that replace them. His article is entitled: "Why the Future Doesn't Need Us."