week 9 / (nano)technology - the bugbear of our generation? / ben marafino

Richard Smalley writes:

“A few weeks ago I gave a talk on nanotechnology and energy titled “Be a Scientist, Save the World” to about 700 middle and high school students in the Spring Branch ISD, a large public school system here in the Houston area. Leading up to my visit, the students were asked to write an essay on “Why I Am a Nanogeek.” Hundreds responded, and I had the privilege of reading the top 30 essays, picking my favorite five. Of the essays I read, nearly half assumed that self-replicating nanobots were possible, and most were deeply worried about what would happen in their future as these nanobots spread around the world. I did what I could to allay their fears, but there is no question that many of these youngsters have been told a bedtime story that is deeply troubling.

You [Drexler] and people around you have scared our children. I don’t expect you to stop, but I hope others in the chemical community will join with me in turning on the light, and showing our children that, while our future in the real world will be challenging and there are real risks, there will be no such monster as the self-replicating mechanical nanobot of your dreams.”

[from http://pubs.acs.org/cen/coverstory/8148/8148counterpoint.html]

With developing technologies comes some kind of concern, and usually from the most unexpected of fronts. The scientists working on the first atomic bomb took quite morbid bets on whether their contraption, not content on merely exploding, would ignite the Earth’s atmosphere. Today, these sorts of qualms have managed to stick around, but we are much wiser with the passage of years and inventions – all one has to do is witness the recent furor over the Large Hadron Collider at CERN. Apparently it seems that this sort of criticism has been relegated to a fringe element – those who really have no idea about what it is that they’re raising the alarm about – in this case, the chances of the LHC producing a black hole that threatens to swallow the Earth, and us all whole.

The same sort of furor has been raised regarding the potential of molecular self-assemblers, or ‘nanobots.’ Theoretically, it is possible that these nanobots could be engineered to make copies of themselves, given sufficient quantities of raw materials in the vicinity. A somewhat ominous clause, isn’t it? Suppose that these nanobots run out of their artificial supplies, and turn to the surrounding environment for new sources of spare parts – there, they begin to feed indiscriminately on whatever might provide them molecular sustenance – perhaps us humans? In the process of consuming us – and the planet, and whatever else… - might they end us as a race? A doomsday scenario, if there was one. Thankfully, the chances of such an eventuality (not quite the word now, is it?) are limited, for reasons that Smalley posits: namely, that it’s difficult to construct an efficient nanobot capable of manipulating single atoms. He essentially asserts that such atomic-scale manipulators have got “fat fingers”: “Chemistry of the complexity, richness, and precision needed to come anywhere close to making a molecular assembler–let alone a self-replicating assembler–cannot be done simply by mushing two molecular objects together. You need more control. There are too many atoms involved to handle in such a clumsy way.”

In his piece, Smalley also goes on to excoriate Drexler – among others - for needlessly raising the alarm about the possibility of these nanobots running amok. In the spirit of his words, we need not turn nanobots into our children’s newest bugbear, particularly when they haven’t been invented yet – and we don’t know whether it’ll even be possible? Such irresponsibility, according to Smalley, detracts from the real risks – the real wolves of the future, and chemists like themselves have got the responsibility to allay these fears and to bring our focus to bear on more pressing problems. Many parallels can be found in the LHC craze, but the two instances don’t quite measure up in intensity or foundedness of their arguments. With nanobots – sure, there might be a cause for worry there, but once you’ve considered the technical practalities, there’s really nothing left to make a fuss over. Not so for the LHC – really, the creation of a destructive black hole is a possibility that borders on the farcical, and that’s before you consider the worked probabilities (which are ridiculously low).

Perhaps we’ll just have to accept that all this fussing is an intrinsic consequence of new technologies and grin and bear it, while staying on the reasonable side of the argument.

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