Nanotechnology and the Fear for Life on Earth

(myths and science fiction regarding nanotechnology)

Will the production of nanotechnology result in real dangers to our biosphere?

  • While nanotechnology involves some possible safety risks, there are also a few clear myths and because nanotechnology is so new, it is sometimes difficult to separate "nano fact" from "nano fiction".
  • The concept of self-replicating nanomachines, also known as "grey goo", was created by a visionary scientist named Eric Drexler.
  • Founder of the "Foresight Institute", a nonprofit organization to educate about nanotechnology, Drexler also introduced the term "nanotechnology" in his 1986 book Engines of Creation.
  • Drexler intended his description of grey goo to serve as a cautionary tale about the potential dangers of the emerging field.
  • With Chris Phoenix, Drexler co-authored the article titled "Safe Exponential Manufacturing" in the Institute of Physics's journal Nanotechnology.
  • In the article, he said that "runaway replication" of grey goo was unlikely and that using nanotechnology as a means of production can be "thoroughly non-biological and inherently safe".
  • "I expected the contemplation of the broad societal impacts of nanotechnology to cause some discomfort, but did not expect that depictions of swarms of self-replicating nanobugs would dominate popular perceptions of advanced nanotechnology," said Drexler.
  • "Nor did I envision that the term 'nanotechnology' would come to describe a wide range of almost unrelated research fields, and that efforts to disassociate those fields from concerns about 'grey goo' would spur false scientific denials of the original concepts."
  • It is noted that the name grey goo, which sounds as though it were invented for use in science fiction stories, is perhaps partly to blame for the public's fear.
  • In spite of the attention given to the idea of grey goo, so far, the American public has been remarkably sensible about nanotechnology, despite various scare stories that have shown up.
  • Aside from possible nanoparticle toxicity, the public's greatest concerns are potential loss of privacy and, longer-term, some kind of nanotech-related arms race.
  • Unfounded fears about nanotechnology only distract people from real biological dangers unrelated to the nano realm; for example, something that would be of much greater concern are biological entities that we know exist today and which can be incredibly harmful to us as a society; such things as ebola, avian flue, or smallpox.
  • Nanotechnology has dramatic potential to change the way goods are produced in ways that scientists are just beginning to understand.
  • One of the reasons why it is not easy to differentiate fact from fiction in nanotechnology is that some of the most fantastic claims about its possible applications might turn out to be true.
  • Many of the more dramatic scenarios, such as nanorobotic medical devices that clean out arteries, will someday be shown to be correct; however, it will probably take decades to achieve.
  • In spite of the enthusiasm of scientists and investors, nanotechnology is still in the early stages of its development and scientists generally agree that it will take a long time to achieve what some believe will be beyond our wildest dreams.
These excerpts came from Earth & Sky,
"Earth & Sky's Jorge Salazar looks at realistic concerns surrounding nanotechnology,
and the research studies designed to study them", April, 2005,
with significant modifications.

Additional topics are available at Nanotechnology: Index of Articles.