News and commentary about the Great Frontiers

ISS007-E-10807 (21 July 2003) --- This view of Earth's horizon as the sunsets over the Pacific Ocean was taken by an Expedition 7 crewmember onboard the International Space Station (ISS). Anvil tops of thunderclouds are also visible. Credit: Earth Science and Remote Sensing Unit, NASA Johnson Space Center

Image Credit: ISS007-E-10807 (21 July 2003) – Earth Science and Remote Sensing Unit, NASA Johnson Space Center

The Current Nanorevolution


Prince Charles and environmentalists warn of the possible dangers of nanoparticles entering the human body. Eric Drexler and Richard Smalley argue about the feasibility of “molecular manufacturing”. Recent science fiction novels warn of nanobotic swarms and gray goo that will devour the Earth. But where are we today? Is nanotechnology science fiction?

The current state of the art is no where near the visions of opponents and proponents. Yet, regardless, nanotechnology is revolutionizing the world. Nanotechnology is here, TODAY. The biggest use of nanotechnology is as nanoparticles to help enhance existing products, such as sunscreen and makeup. Nanotechnology is being used to demonstrate the building of cheap solar cells on flexible materials like plastic, the removal of heat from hot microprocessors, and dense and nonvolatile memory. The first products using nanotechnology as such mechanical and digital components are expected sometime next year. Work is ramping up for working models of assemblers, the proposed building blocks for a future of unlimited productivity.

It is telling that opponents of nanotechnology no longer argue that such technology is science fiction. Instead, they are at this very moment putting together the first proposals for new laws and restrictions to curb or even ban nanotechnology. Studies have been launched to determine the effects of nanotechnology on the environment and inside people. On the other side, new projects to accelerate the development of nanotechnology are reaching the funding stage. Profits for some existing nanotechnology companies are doubling every year.

All this is happening while only a small percentage of the public actually knows what nanotechnology is. Science and progress never require consensus. The time by which policy lags behind the state-of-the-art in technology is now measured in years. The point? Debate, laws, pros and cons are all really just background noise to a technology that is perhaps progressing faster than our current ability to deal with it.

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