Saturday, June 26, 2004


Nanotechnology - a broad term covering the use of techniques to manipulate matter at an atomic scale - is gradually entering the public consciousness. But what is it, and why is it causing debate and disquiet? Already, there are applications of very fine particles (one of the simplest ways nanotechnology manifests itself) in cosmetics. Carbon nanotubes (rather more complex materials, with unique properties) are being made commercially in the UK. But we know for sure when a new technology is becoming important when environmentalist pressure groups get in on the act, issuing dire warnings about how nanotechnology could be the next major issue after genetically modified (GM) food.....

The potential was highlighted by the American futurologist K Eric Drexler, for whom the holy grail is the development of 'nano-bots' programmed to assemble just about anything. At their ultimate, according to Drexler and his ilk, they could produce complex foodstuffs, furniture or indeed just about anything that is currently produced in a conventional factory......

So nano-assembly is at least as difficult as what goes on in biological systems. The other aspect of the utopian vision is that the assemblers should themselves be self-replicating. In this model, once we have created the nano-bots, programmed to perform certain tasks, they reproduce themselves to save us the problem of renewing them. If this ever came to pass, we would truly enter a new age. Almost anything could be produced by making the right mix of nano-bots, adding them to any material which contained the appropriate mix of elements and letting them work. Individual commodities would have virtually no value except perhaps as a rich source of particular atoms. The world economy would be transformed.

Of course, such a future would almost certainly never come to pass. But the hint that such self-replication may even be possible has seriously worried environmentalists. It's quite right and necessary in a free society that critics should be able to point out potential problems, so that new technologies can be introduced in a better way. The problem is that some powerful lobby groups seem dead set against new technologies just because they are new, and promoted by private industry.

The lead has been taken by the Canadian-based ETC group (the Action Group on Erosion, Technology and Concentration), which is 'dedicated to the conservation and sustainable advancement of cultural and ecological diversity and human rights'. In practice, that means it tends to look down on modern industrialised society, is suspicious of new technologies, and regards multinational businesses as the devil incarnate.....

The USA has already been handed the lead in biotechnology, and will increasingly see China rather than Europe as the serious competition. Precaution has reduced the agricultural biotechnology research effort on this side of the Atlantic to a shadow of what it was. If Europe is not to lose another nascent industry, we must ensure that nanotechnology does not, indeed, become 'the next GM'.

More here.

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