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Questioning nanotechnology

John Hepburn is an engineer, activist, a genetic engineering campaigner for Greenpeace, and a dear old friend of mine. In the process of researching the science, politics and commercial practice of genetic engineering, John has found that the far-less known area of nanotechnology has been steadilly creeping - or gushing - under the radar of the public mind, with potentially far more ominous implications. Thankyou John for permitting us to publish this introduction to the issue here. It certainly acts as a counter to Jeffrey D Sachs' Embracing Science. Hamish.

NanotechnologyIt turns out that size really does matter. Or, to be more precise, it’s the size of matter that matters. Scientists are manipulating matter at the nano scale (one billionth of a metre) and finding that common materials assume radically different properties compared to their larger scale counterparts. The new nanotechnology is being heralded as the next industrial revolution that will redefine life as we know it. But who asked for their life to be redefined? I certainly didn’t. Did you?

If you haven’t been asked for your views on nanotechnology yet, you’re in the same position as 99.99% of the rest of the population. And it’s not as though the industry is waiting for any kind of nod of public approval. The launching pad of the global nanotechnology industry is being built with around 3,000 new nanopatents a year. In the US, nanotechnology projects have attracted more than $800 Million in public funds (mostly for military applications), making it largest research project since the Apollo moon shot. Globally, nanotech is estimated to grow to be a US$1 trillion industry by 2011 and Australia is running to catch up - with nanotech strategies and development agencies in most States.

The big deal with nanotechnology is the new properties that emerge when materials are manipulated at the nanoscale. The nano-scale material may be more reactive, have different optical, magnetic and electric properties, and be much stronger or more toxic. The list of research projects and possibilities is seemingly endless. In one of the first high profile examples of nanotechnology, IBM spelled out their corporate logo using xenon atoms to make letters that were 5 nanometres high. To put this in context, a human hair is about 80,000 nanometres wide and a red blood cell roughly 7,000 nanometres wide. So when we’re talking nano, we’re talking very very small.

It seems that the exact definition of nanotechnology shifts depending on who you are speaking to – or more importantly – what questions you are asking. If you’re an investor looking for opportunities, or a researcher looking for corporate backing, then nanotechnology is the most exciting area of cutting edge science that is going to be the basis of the next industrial revolution and will redefine both life and non-life as we know it. If on the otherhand, you happen to be asking about whether or not there needs to be some regulation of the health and environmental impacts of nanotechnology, then you’re likely to be told that nanotechnology doesn’t actually exist. After all, it’s really just the same old physics and chemistry that we’ve been doing for decades that has been ‘rebranded’ to help boost science funding.

Surely the nanotechnology industry can’t have it both ways. Or can they? As with the case of genetically engineered organisms, the industry and scientists have managed to successfully argue that nano materials are new and different in order to secure monopoly patents. And then they have then turned around and argued that the materials are in fact the same everyday stuff we’ve been using for decades so they don’t need regulation or safety testing. To date, no regulation has been required despite considerable evidence that manufactured nanoparticles can be hazardous and warrant extreme caution.

There are a wide range of concerns backed by a slowly increasing body of scientific evidence. The fact that nanoscaled substances have much higher and less predictable reactivities, increases their chances of becoming environmental toxins by enabling them bind to molecules and accumulate in organisms at high rates. Nanoparticles are also starting to raise alarm bells in terms of health impacts. Substances under 70 nm are not recognizable to our bodies’ first line of defense, white blood cells, and therefore pass readily into the bloodstream and consequently to all other parts of the body when inhaled. Researchers working in Oxford and Montreal found that titanium dioxide (currently used in sunscreens) nanoparticles catalyze the formation of free radicals in skin cells, which in turn cause damage to DNA, ultimately becoming carcinogenic. In this case it is possible that in our attempt to prevent skin cancer from excessive sun exposure that cancer will develop instead from the substance used as sunscreen.

In response to these and other concerns, The Royal Society in the UK released a report in 2004 recommending that: until more is known about environmental impacts of nanoparticles and nanotubes, their release into the environment should be avoided as far as possible; and that ingredients in the form of nanoparticles undergo a full safety assessment before they are permitted for use in products.

The problem is that nobody is listening. Products containing nanoparticles are already on the shelves, including sunscreens, cosmetics, car parts and silicon chips, and in the not so distant future we can expect them to also be used in food and pharmaceutical products. There is an urgent and growing regulatory gap where product development is being fast-tracked at the expense of ensuring community health and safety. But it is unclear what it’s going to take to trigger a regulatory response. Recommendations from one of the world’s most conservative and well-respected scientific bodies hasn’t seemed to have had much impact. Perhaps the nanotechnology industry is just waiting for the same kind of public backlash that triggered the regulation and wholesale rejection of genetically engineered foods?

Beyond the immediate health and environmental risks, the more complex and far reaching implications of nanotechnology relate to other issues and products that are a little further up the development pipeline – such as molecular manufacturing techniques for putting together products atom-by-atom, the merging of non-living nano-materials and living organisms, and even self-replicating nano-robots.

These transformative technologies raise serious social, ethical and political questions. In addition to economic upheavals, nano-surveillance and military concerns, new developments and the convergence of nanotechnology, biotechnology and artificial intelligence are bringing into question the fundamental relationships that define our society. By blurring the boundary between human and machine they question the very essence of what it is to be a human being.

The transformative power of the new nano and biotechnologies has reached a point where surely it must time for us to take the democratisation of science seriously. Over the past two hundred years, scientists have altered our world in ways that elected officials could only dream of doing. Yet they are accountable to nobody. We need a new way of thinking about science and technology that allows those who are affected by the technology to have a say in it’s development, and that allows the development of technology to be shaped by the needs and aspirations of our community – not the other way around.

This is not a trivial problem by any means. Just as scientists are exploring unchartered territory through the emerging bio and nano technologies, so must we also explore unchartered territory in terms of how these technologies are managed – and crucially, in whose interests.

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Mind Stuff

Geoff, like you I feel the possibilities of this new technology could have wonderful benefits but as Mark Ross points out, who will own the rights to those benefits. Those people who develop the technology will have the rights and as Mark kindly points out there could be many losers.

The reality of human technological progress is that it will always produce winners and losers. History documents this fact quite comprehensively. I’m sure those people who were vaporised in Hiroshima and Nagasaki were losers; same as American soldiers and citizens of Iraq will be losers from inhaling DU. Of course those organisations (or their shareholders) that manufacture those weapons would consider themselves winners, at least in the financial sense.

The worrying thing about the human mind is that in one sense it is extremely creative and technological progress tends to be linear, while on the other hand our emotional development and related social values are somewhat cyclical.

The fact that, after many thousands of years of human development, we still clobber one another with weapons of increasing sophistication supports the above proposition. We began throwing rocks and spears at each other and now there are many countries with the nuclear capabilities. History teaches us that all weapons we develop are eventually used against each other. It is a sad fact that we have yet to come to terms with that part of our brains that is prehistoric.

Now back to nano machines. Have you considered the military possibilities of such machines? Bullets and bombs will be obsolete. Nano-warriors could be developed, they could indentify particular DNA types, or ethnic groups then in a very efficient and timely manner wipe them from the face of the earth. The possibilities are endless and mind boggling.

Yep, you are absolutely correct when you say that we have nothing to fear except hubris, for hubris mixed with ignorance and the ebbs and flows of a social behaviour manipulated by our greedy interests can be very dangerous indeed.

The funny thing is I discussed my version of nano technology to a good American friend nearly thirty years ago. It was a fantasy based on all the good things we could do with a BUS. Basic Unit Synthesizer. Food and product manufactured in the home in seconds. It was also about that time I was reading about multiple dimensions. To my amazement some physicists actually considered this a serious topic. We now have “string theory” where multiple (if not infinite) dimensions are considered a genuine possibility and treated extremely seriously.

Have you ever thought of the possibilities of merging “string theory” with nano technology. Sounds crazy but someone will discuss the possibilities one day, that’s if we all don’t get run over by a BUS.

It would appear the universe is made up of mind stuff; our indigenous brothers and sisters could have told us that a long time ago.

I fear

Actually, Geoff, I do fear a company that marketed  DDT, PCBs and Agent Orange despite the known human costs.

I also fear a company that, through the use of genetic engineering, terminator seeds and the predictable "accident" of cross contamination, seeks to control world crops.

I heartily agree that humans should push forth and explore the boundaries of our knowledge. I just don't know if we should be so quick as to allow that knowledge to be patented and marketed to the exclusion of those that cannot afford it.

Incidentally, I've noticed over time that those who can't afford something are usually those that need it most.

We Have Only Just Begun

Isaac Newton was an alchemist. It is probable he spent as much time experimenting and researching how to change one form of base metal in to another as he spent on "science".

Albert Einstein was more ambitious. He postulated the relationship between energy, matter and time.

Now the scientists are serious about a theory of manipulating matter at the sub-atomic level. Change one form of matter in to another. Including organic matter. Robots that can reproduce themselves exponentially and change a hostile planet in to a human garden of eden. Eliminate material need. The end of capitalism with Monsanto the last out of business. Endless energy. No disease. Replicate a human mind on a microchip. Indeed a whole colony. A nation. And provide it with the ultimate in computer games to keep it amused. Then send it off into the universe, perhaps at the speed of light, on the ultimate imperial adventure, changing and colonising planets and suns on the way.

Bring it on I say. Save Jupiter I hear them say.

This is the next stage of human evolution. We are meant to do this. Anything less would be a betrayal of destiny. We have nothing to fear.

Except hubris.

Ed. Fiona: See you on Jupiter, Geoff? (only jesting in the teeth of death, of course.)

It is an interesting

It is an interesting article, but with all technology there are dangers. Working out the degree of danger is the hardest part. With Nanos, their uses do seem to be endless, but with every new technology, we have the same situation until we evolve our understanding beyond current barriers. Nano technology could give us the holy grail of science, matter trans portion, endless regeneration of life, self replicating fuels.

It could also open a Pandora's box, with no escape from the consequences. Say for instance, a scientist was working on a nano machine designed to eat toxic waste. During a lax moment of concentration, the scientist puts a nano in the wrong place unknowingly. When he tries out the nano machine, it not only devours toxins, but continues to replicate and devour all matter around it. Now that would be pretty scary, it could see our entire world devoured and turned into anti matter or something.

Pretty far fetched, but plausible, the only escape would be to space. But the ever growing replication of nanos would probably move very fast, just as a snowball gathers weight, size and energy, as it runs down a hill. So we wouldn't notice until we saw space begining to appear all around us.

The proper course would be first to develop fail save shut off systems, to stop nanos getting out of control. It could also mean that biological agents could be introduced as methods of war. We wouldn't recognise them, until they killed us.

So Nanos like all technologies, come with associated costs. We just have to continue to go forward with caution.

Stephen Kind & Grey Goo

Alga Kavanagh; a balanced and considered comment, thanks. It worries me a little (to say the least) that the military are heavily involved in this project, as they were with nuclear technology. I read some time ago about the “grey goo” theory you mention and the particular commentator suggested that out of control nano machines could devour the globe in about 40 minutes. Can’t remember the source or the methodology used to come to such a conclusion but it all sounded like a Stephen King story to me. Very scary.

I googled nano technology and found many links but unfortunately my poor reptilian sized brain had difficulty in coming to terms with this technology. It would appear however that a nano machine collecting and rearranging molecules is a very long way off yet, for it is not just a matter of collecting and rearranging molecules and atoms, it is how to keep those atoms and molecules together to form the desired matter. This appears to be a very big problem.

Yes we have heaps of time to sort it out but that may foster complacency. If this technology is fair dinkum I would hope the powers that be begin to address the risks and benefits now. But then again they have the next election to fight.

The Alchemist's Dream

Great article, John, a bit scary though.

Like the alchemist's dream, it seems that the chase for scientific discovery is becoming a vulgar chase for gold.

I understand that science requires a serious financial investment, but surely there are some technologies whose ramifications are far too global to trust to people who are looking for a return on their dollar.

I doubt Monsanto has my best interests at heart.

Ed. Fiona: Can't imagine why you should have these doubts, Mark, or am I just feeling cynical tonight?

What's Wrong With Alchemy Anyway?

Of course Mansanto has your best interests at heart.

No people no market. No market no profits. No profits no Monsanto.

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