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Don't worry, be happy:

"Shall I refuse my dinner because I do not fully understand the process of digestion?"

- Oliver Heaviside, physicist


Nanotechnology isn’t just about making things smaller.  That’s like mistaking electricity for just a replacement for candles and oil lamps.  In the distant future, nanotech will enable a world we can’t even begin to imagine – just like with the discovery of electricity, we still couldn’t imagine computers or the many industries they have spawned, not to mention countless other products.

Today, nanotech is starting to make its way into our lives – making spill- and wrinkle-resistant clothing, stronger and lighter sports equipment, self-cleaning windows that break down dirt and many other applications. 

We will continue to see improvements in ordinary products and advances in particular industries such as electronics.  For instance, nanotech is helping to develop organic light emitting diodes (OLEDs) that can emit their own light – brighter, thinner, faster, lighter, more energy efficient – that enable ultra-thin display screens to be viewable from any angle without loss of quality, contrast or color.

But that’s just the tip of the iceberg.  Here’s a quick survey of some of the things nanotechnology is predicted to enable in the near and distant future:

      Transportation: With new materials, vehicles will be lighter and stronger, using less fuel and withstanding more damage.  Space travel will be made inexpensive and no longer limited to the elite few.

      Computers: As processing chips become smaller, faster and more powerful, computers will also shrink in size, allowing them to be truly ubiquitous and embedded in clothing and even in our own bodies.  Some will be as small as bacterium, and data storage the size of sugar cubes can hold the entire contents of the Library of Congress.

      Military: Soldiers will wear an exoskeleton that can change its flexibility and become instant armor.  Clothes will be able to store energy to deliver superhuman strength when needed, such as for jumping over a 20-foot wall.  Weapons can be miniaturized, and like bombs today, “smart” bullets can be programmed to hit specific targets.

      Energy: More powerful and smaller batteries will enable devices to also become smaller and operate longer.  Efficient molecule-sized solar cells can be mixed into road asphalt to continually harness the sun’s energy.  Fossil fuels and coal will be replaced with renewable energy sources, even turning garbage into fuel.

      Environment: We may be able to rebuild our thinning ozone layer and clean up the environment with nanobots that eat oil spills and other contaminants.  More efficient manufacturing processes mean less pollution.  We won’t need to clear-cut trees to make paper anymore.

      Medical: Surgeries will be performed with tools 1,000x more precise than the sharpest scalpel today.  Cosmetic surgery won’t even require surgery – eyes can perhaps change color, and noses can change shape without cutting.  Medical monitoring devices can be implanted to detect diseases.  New drugs can target cancer cells and viruses for disassembly or to fix defective genes or otherwise deliver precise treatment.  To the extent that getting old is like any other physical disorder, repairing cells can slow, halt or reverse the aging process.

      Distant future: Because everything is made up of atoms, and nanotech enable us to build things atom by atom, many experts predict – supported by plausible, scientific reasons – that we will be able to manufacture anythingAmong other things, we can make food from dirt and water, eliminating famine worldwide.

Undoubtedly, much good can come out of nanotechnology.  But there will also be unintended bad consequences, as with any new technology.  Proponents argue we can already see that the good outweighs the bad, even if we don’t understand all the implications of nanotech. 

And it’s not even clear we even need to understand it all before we continue with research & development and use nanotech products.  We can’t predict the unforeseen, and even if we could, if that were a requirement, the light bulb wouldn’t have been invented before we fully understood all that electricity does and implies.  We learn by doing and can manage risks as we uncover them - or so the argument goes...

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