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the bad




Ignorance is not bliss:

"Innocence about science is the worst crime today."

- Sir Charles Percy Snow, scientist and novelist

No one disputes that there will be many positive benefits from nanotech, but what about the bad?  Is nanotech ultimately worth the costs, like electricity and probably nuclear energy?  Or is the price too high, as in the case of asbestos and DDT?

If it is too high, we need to know now, not when it’s too late and already unleashed upon our world.  (We believe that a wholesale moratorium on nanotechnology research or products is likely to be both premature and an overreaction; but that doesn't mean that there are no negative effects that we can work to mitigate.)
  Here’s a quick look at some of the negative consequences predicted for nanotechnology:

      Health: Nanoparticles have been shown to be absorbed in the livers of research animals and even cause brain damage in fish exposed to them after just 48 hours.  If they can be taken up by cells, then they can enter our food chain through bacteria and pose a health threat like mercury in fish, pesticides in vegetables or hormones in meat.  The increasingly-popular carbon nanotube (20x stronger and lighter than steel) looks very much like an asbestos fiber – what happens if they get released into the air?  Being carbon-based, they wouldn’t set off the usual alarms in our bodies, making them difficult to detect.

      Environmental: If nanomaterials really are as strong as diamonds, how decomposable or persistent are they?  Will they litter our environment further or present another disposal problem like nuclear waste or space litter?  In the distant future, will self-replicating nanobots – necessary to create the trillions of nanoassemblers needed to build any kind of product – run amok, spreading as quickly as a virus, in the infamous “gray goo” scenario?

      Privacy: As products shrink in size, eavesdropping devices too can become invisible to the naked eye and more mobile, making it easier to invade our privacy.  Small enough to plant into our bodies, mind-controlling nanodevices may be able to affect our thoughts by manipulating brain-processes.

      Terrorism: Capabilities of terrorists go hand in hand with military advances, so as weapons become more powerful and portable, these devices can also be turned against us.  Nanotech may create new, unimaginable forms of torture – disassembling a person at the molecular level or worse.  Radical groups could let loose nanodevices targeting to kill anyone with a certain skin color or even a specific person.

      Society: With all the potential abuses of nanotech, many experts advocate a strong system to regulate and monitor nanotech developments.  But because nanotech laboratories can be small and mobile, surveillance needs to be practically everywhere – devolving a free society into a Big Brother scenario.  Also, what is the impact on the economy?  If nations can make anything they want, will they lose all incentive to trade?  What about morality – should we be playing with god-like powers?

And there are many other possible impacts that people are worried about.  (See our article here for more discussion.)  Given a laundry list of pros and cons, what now?  Can we weigh the good versus bad to see whether we should move forward with nanotech or not?  The answer might not be that simple:

First of all, how do you even start comparing the good against the bad?  Is it an acceptable price to sacrifice 100 lives due to harmful nanoparticles in the environment to have stain-resistant pants?  How about 1,000 lives for stronger, lighter, more efficient products?  What about 100,000 lives?  What if nanotech saves 100,000 lives to make up for those lost?  How about saving 1,000,000 lives?  Some people think that it’s morally wrong to knowingly sacrifice any lives – people aren’t replaceable commodities or entries in an accounting ledger.

Even if we can agree to a formula to weigh the good versus bad, can we accurately tally up both columns?  Most likely not.  We can’t see that far and have never been any good at predicting consequences of new technology, at least in the long run.  In 1876, Western Union dismissed the telephone as useless with all its shortcomings as a serious means of communication.  In 1943, IBM’s CEO predicted there would be a demand for only five computers in the entire world.  (Follow this link for more examples.)

For a serious discussion on advancing nanotech, we need to do more than a risk-reward analysis.  We have to consider broader reasons for and against nanotech and carefully evaluate each.  That’s our mission – to open a productive dialogue that will help the nanotech industry move forward responsibly, rather than burying or denying the bad news.



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