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Tiny Changes, Exponentially Multiplied

Mike Treder
Executive Director, The Center for Responsible Nanotechnology

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All living things, plants and animals, begin with a single cell. But, thanks to exponential multiplication, a complex organism can be created. Cells are tiny, invisible to the human eye. You can’t see your cells multiplying, but they are, billions of them all the time, replacing damaged or worn out cells. Without these tiny changes, and others that go on within those cells, you would not be alive.

Tiny changes also keep our economy moving. Goods and services produced in the U.S. this year will be worth more than eleven trillion dollars. A large majority are small items: movie tickets, oil changes, DVDs, etc. Every time a dollar changes hands, the gross domestic product (GDP) increases. Even a new car or house—a big purchase for most of us—is just a tiny fraction of the total GDP. But little by little, those tiny changes add up to something big.

Three Greek words—nano (dwarf or tiny), techne (craft or skill), and logos (science or learning)—combine to make nano-techno-logy: applying science at a tiny scale to the craft or skill of building.

Within twenty years, perhaps in less than ten, nanotechnology will revolutionize the manufacturing industry. A new desktop manufacturing appliance called a nanofactory will make a wide range of amazingly powerful products at extremely low prices. The key again is tiny changes, microscopic machines inside the nanofactory that combine microscopic parts, millions every minute, to produce larger and more complex parts.

Nanofactories will produce structural materials that are stronger than steel and lighter than plastic for about a dollar a pound. Miniature supercomputers and powerful but almost invisible motors could be built into any product. Think what might be made!

Miracle predictions about nanotech’s potential are common, as are dire warnings about the technology’s risks. So, are the pessimists or the optimists right? In this case, both are.

Researchers, politicians, and business boosters have good reason to promote the advantages and benefits of nanotechnology. But to be truly responsible to their stakeholders, they also should acknowledge the possible downsides.

Several nonprofit organizations have questioned the environmental impacts, health dangers, and increased economic imbalance of nanotechnology, as they should. Those risks are real. But a responsible message to their stakeholders also must include the possible benefits in each of these areas.

Nanotech’s effect on society will go far beyond making powerful products. It is how those products are used that will change our world in many ways, some for better and some for worse.

Predictions by the U.S. National Nanotechnology Initiative of a product market topping one trillion dollars by 2015 will seem laughably conservative if nanofactories are invented by then. Applications in computing, electronics, communications, construction, transportation, energy, and health care will be more valuable by at least an order of magnitude, not to mention spending by military and security interests.

A few nanofactories won’t make much difference to the world, just a tiny change. But one product of a nanofactory will be another nanofactory, made within a day for a couple of dollars. By using each new nanofactory to make another, the number produced will double every day. Within the first three months, we could have megatons of nanofactories. But why would we want so many?

Billions of people, perhaps a third of the world’s population, live on less than two dollars a day. If allowed, global distribution of low-cost nanofactories could enable huge strides in alleviating poverty, improving living conditions, and offering rapid modernization. Fierce debates over how this should be done—or if it should be done—will take place, with great shifts of power, wealth, and human lives in the balance.

A lot depends on what company, consortium, or country builds the first nanofactory. If one corporation owns the original patents, their stockholders will hit the jackpot. That company might choose to keep the price artificially high for a new nanofactory, even though they could be produced for next to nothing. In that case, only the comparatively rich would enjoy the benefits.

Imagine the outcry of the have-nots when they see the gains they are being denied. And even if there is no commercial barrier, what happens if totalitarian or repressive leaders object to having citizens equipped with nanofactories? Would it be ethical to impose abundance upon their population, superseding national sovereignty? Is it ethical to let people suffer and die, while so many others live the good life?

Nanofactory technology introduces a host of difficult questions: How should the benefits be made available? Who should decide? Should regulations be applied to prevent the manufacture of weapons or other dangerous products? If so, how could this be enforced across borders?

Could a single nation, or bloc of nations, effectively maintain control of nanofactory production and distribution? By doing so, they would achieve a wholly unprecedented advantage over their competitors. The temptation would be great, but it might not be possible, short of using military force (which could become absolute almost overnight), to prevent smuggling of the technology to other countries.

Tiny changes inside an appliance that sits on a countertop will lead to huge changes, and huge challenges.

  • The same technology that could provide inexpensive networked computers for everyone in the world also could make networked cameras so governments can watch our every move.
  • The same technology that could provide lifesaving medical robots also could make untraceable weapons of mass destruction.
  • The same technology that could provide trillions of dollars of abundance also could produce a vicious scramble to own everything.

Virtually every aspect of human life and society will be affected by nanotechnology, and significant benefits and risks can be foreseen for each. From the economy to the environment, from health and medicine to policing and criminology, from surveillance and privacy to arms control and geopolitics, each issue faces both opportunity and threat.

Anyone investigating the technology’s implications must recognize that simple solutions will not work. Tiny changes in one area can trigger big disruptions in another.

For example, economic upheaval caused by a shift in the manufacturing infrastructure might be prevented by strict commercial licensing of all uses of the technology. But this solution has two problems. First, digital protection schemes for commercial products have often proved quite easy to crack. Second, if the technology is so restricted that it cannot disrupt existing economic systems, continuing poverty will kill millions of people each year, fueling backlash, social unrest, espionage, and black markets.

Each risk must be reduced by some means that does not exacerbate others. Achieving this will not be easy, and will require creative and sensitive planning. Because nanofactories likely will be developed within the next fifteen years, that endeavor should begin immediately.

Although this essay seems pessimistic, it should be emphasized that the larger picture is not necessarily bleak. The very factors that make nanofactory technology hazardous also provide unprecedented opportunities for positive outcomes. Even a small fraction of the raw capability would be sufficient to satisfy the world's humanitarian needs for generations to come. Another fraction could multiply the economy and enrich anyone with sufficient access to the abundant manufacturing potential. And only a small fraction of products will be unacceptably dangerous.

What is required is not blanket permissiveness or blanket restriction, but careful administration of each separate risk and benefit. Every affected stakeholder group—which means almost everybody—should strive to understand all the implications of advanced nanotechnology, recognize both risks and benefits, and develop wise solutions. Working together, we can lay the foundations for responsible, comprehensive, and balanced global management of this transformative technology.

This essay is original and was specifically prepared for publication at Future Brief. A brief biography of Mike Treder can be found at our main Commentary page. Recent essays written by Mr. Treder can be found at the Center for Responsible Nanotechnology. He receives e-mail at mtreder@crnano.org. Other websites are welcome to link to this essay, with proper credit given to Future Brief and Mr. Treder. This page will remain posted on the Internet indefinitely at this web address to provide a stable page for those linking to it.

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© 2005, Mike Treder, all rights reserved.

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