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Total Control:

"Today's manufacturing methods are very crude at the molecular level.  Casting, grinding, milling and even lithography move atoms in great thundering statistical herds.  It's like trying to make things out of LEGO blocks with boxing gloves on your hands.  Yes, you can push the LEGO blocks into great heaps and pile them up, but you can't really snap them together the way you'd like.  In the future, nanotechnology will let us take off the boxing gloves."

- Dr. Ralph C. Merkle, Georgia Tech

  One of our defining traits as homo sapiens is the ability to shape the world around us.  Our opposable thumbs give us positional control over materials, enabling us to do things such as create fire, throw rocks, make tools and build shelter. 

But from the first caveman to sharpen a stick to the way we make cars and computer chips today, we’ve been manufacturing products more or less the same way for thousands of years: grinding, casting, fastening, mixing and so on – moving around atoms in bulk.  How big a bulk?  Well, a single copper penny has about
23,685,867,170,290,000,000,000 atoms – slightly less (relatively speaking) than there are drops of water in all the world’s oceans.

Nanotechnology lets us move atoms and molecules around one at a time, making the leading scientists today look like Fred Flintstone pounding rocks in a quarry. 

Already, nanotech is
making things we have today smaller as well as stronger and lighter.  But much more than that, many believe that it will also let us create new products from the ground up, such as steaks without the cow; new drugs that target only cancer cells instead of chemotherapy that destroys healthy cells too; and other things we have yet to imagine.  (See “The Good” section for many useful applications of nanotech.)

The significance of this breakthrough, if it becomes a reality, can’t be overstated: because everything is made up of atoms, and nanotech plays with those basic building-blocks, it could in theory create or improve anything. 

Ok, so what’s the problem?  Many of the new nanotech products and applications might have an unintended and unforeseen impact on our health, environment, privacy, society and other areas.  (See “The Bad” section for a range of possibilities.) 

For instance, carbon nanotube fibers that exist today are approximately 20 times stronger than steel or Kevlar of the same weight.  Naked to the eye, their basic shape resembles a whisker or straw – which unfortunately also happens to be the shape of an asbestos fiber and the reason it stays lodged in your lungs.  The natural question, then, is what happens when these nanofibers break off and get released into the air? 

Some people point to natural checks-and-balances that are supposed to prevent these scenarios.  Corporate
responsibility and governmental regulatory agencies, it is said, should spur enough research and testing, and the “invisible hand” of the free economy will bring only the best and safest products to market.  Unfortunately, history has refuted these arguments; if anything, we can have faith that the opposite will eventually happen.

To move nanotech ahead responsibly
and again learning lessons from biotechwe need to seriously consider the negative possibilities, instead of brushing them aside, and work to develop real safeguards before we unleash such a powerful technology on our world.
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