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Implications and Applications of Nanotechnology

Any advanced research carries inherent risks. But nanotechnology bears a special burden. The field's bid for respectability is colored by the association of the word with a cabal of futurists who foresee nano as a pathway to a techno-utopia: unparalleled prosperity, pollution-free industry, even something resembling eternal life.

Nanotechnology's bid for respectability is colored by the word's association with a cabal of futurists who foresee nano as a pathway to utopia.

In 1986-five years after IBM researchers Gerd Binnig and Heinrich Rohrer invented the scanning tunneling microscope, which garnered them the Nobel Prize-the book Engines of Creation, by K. Eric Drexler, created a sensation for its depiction of godlike control over matter. The book describes self-replicating nanomachines that could produce virtually any material good, while reversing global warming, curing disease and dramatically extending life spans. Scientists with tenured faculty positions and NSF grants ridiculed these visions, noting that their fundamental improbability made them an absurd projection of what the future holds.

But the visionary scent that has surrounded nanotechnology ever since may provide some unforeseen benefits. To many nonscientists, Drexler's projections for nanotechnology straddled the border between science and fiction in a compelling way. Talk of cell-repair machines that would eliminate aging as we know it and of home food-growing machines that could produce victuals without killing anything helped to create a fascination with the small that genuine scientists, consciously or not, would later use to draw attention to their work on more mundane but eminently more real projects. Certainly labeling a research proposal "nanotechnology" has a more alluring ring than calling it "applied mesoscale materials science."

Less directly, Drexler's work may actually draw people into science. His imaginings have inspired a rich vein of science-fiction literature [see "Shamans of Small," by Graham P. Collins, on page 86]. As a subgenre of science fiction-rather than a literal prediction of the future-books about Drexlerian nanotechnology may serve the same function as Star Trek does in stimulating a teenager's interest in space, a passion that sometimes leads to a career in aeronautics or astrophysics.

The danger comes when intelligent people take Drexler's predictions at face value. Drexlerian nanotechnology drew renewed publicity last year when a morose Bill Joy, the chief scientist of Sun Microsystems, worried in the magazine Wired about the implications of nanorobots that could multiply uncontrollably. A spreading mass of self-replicating robots-what Drexler has labeled "gray goo"-could pose enough of a threat to society, he mused, that we should consider stopping development of nanotechnology. But that suggestion diverts attention from the real nano goo: chemical and biological weapons.

Among real chemists and materials scientists who have now become nanotechnologists, Drexler's predictions have assumed a certain quaintness; science is nowhere near to being able to produce nanoscopic machines that can help revive frozen brains from suspended animation. (Essays by Drexler and his critics, including Nobel Prize winner Richard E. Smalley, appear in this issue.) Zyvex, a company started by a software magnate enticed by Drexlerian nanotechnology, has recognized how difficult it will be to create robots at the nanometer scale; the company is now dabbling with much larger micromechanical elements, which Drexler has disparaged in his books [see "Nanobot Construction Crews," by Steven Ashley, on page 84].

Even beyond meditations on gray goo, the nanotech field struggles for cohesion. Some of the research would have proceeded regardless of its label. Fusing "nano" and "technology" was an after-the-fact designation: IBM would have forged ahead in building giant magnetoresistive heads whether or not the research it was doing was labeled nanotechnology.

For the field to establish itself as a grand unifier of the applied sciences, it must demonstrate the usefulness of grouping widely disparate endeavors. Can scientists and engineers doing research on nanopowders for sunscreens share a common set of interests with those working on DNA computing? In some cases, these crossover dreams may be justified. A semiconductor quantum dot originally developed for electronics and now being deployed to detect biological activity in cells is a compelling proof of principle for these types of transdisciplinary endeavors.

If the nano concept holds together, it could, in fact, lay the groundwork for a new industrial revolution. But to succeed, it will need to discard not only fluff about nanorobots that bring cadavers back from a deep freeze but also the overheated rhetoric that can derail any big new funding effort. Most important, the basic nanoscience must be forthcoming to identify worthwhile nanotechnologies to pursue. Distinguishing between what's real and what's not in nano throughout this period of exploration will remain no small task.

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