Nanotechnology (“nanotech”) is the science of controlling matter on a molecular scale, usually sized between 1 and 100 nanometers. How small is that? Well, since 1 nanometer is roughly 1/50,000th the width of a human hair, maybe “mind-bogglingly tiny” is a better way of putting it.
The ability to manipulate matter this minuscule has big implications for the future of healthcare, manufacturing, defense and a wide range other applications.
However, like every powerful new technology, there are dangers. For years, people have been calling on the government to pass stricter nanotech laws, and most recently the Nanotechnology Safety Act of 2010 bill was introduced, which seeks to regulate nanotech used in medicine and food.
Worry over nothing?
But is all this worry warranted? Could nanotech really do that much harm? It’s difficult to say, but if nanotech really does fundamentally change the world like some are claiming, the dangers are far more grave than most could ever imagine. For a look into some worst case scenarios, The Center for Responsible Nanotechnology has released a list of nanotech dangers. Five of them are listed below, and they all could end the world as we know it.
1) Grey goo
The “gray goo” scenario is when self-replicating, organic-matter-eating nanobots replicate uncontrollably consuming everything around them, leaving only gray goo and death in their wake. Picture this – there’s a massive oil spill Gulf of Mexico just like the recent BP spill, except instead of using booms and chemical dispersants to clean it up, crews pour nanobots into the water that self-replicate and feed on oil. But something goes wrong. The nanobots start feeding on more than oil. They eat everything. Soon they move to land and don’t stop replicating or eating until nothing is left on Earth but a grey goo waste that the nanobots leave behind.
A microscopic bit of certain substances (like botulism toxin) is all that’s required to kill a human. Nanotech “insects” with tiny needles for injecting humans could also be made on a mass scale. Combine the two and you have enough tiny bug assassins inside a suitcase to kill every person on Earth. And unlike nuclear weapons, there wouldn’t need to be huge factories to accomplish this, nor would smuggling nanotech weapons be difficult.
3) Arms race
With nuclear weapons the possibility of nuclear winter and mutually assured destruction kept threats high, but actual use of nuclear weapons low. With nanotech weapons, there won’t necessarily be environmental fallout, and the weapons could be hyper targeted. With this kind of precision and low collateral damage, governments could be more tempted to use nanotech weapons and preemptively attack those who might attain them. This will make attaining nanotech weapons imperative for every country wishing to defend itself. Even worse, through use of nanotech “bugs” and the like, it might be possible to assassinate world leaders without leaving a trace.
4) Environmental damage (“nano-litter”)
Just like any new technology, nanotech presents environmental problems. Nanotech robots could feed on organic matter, produce waste and replicate themselves on a massive scale. Or plain nano-waste could simply junk up soil or water supplies. It doesn’t take much imagination to see how this could have horrible implications for the environment and health. Without environmental regulations that are adapted to nanotech, companies could easily harm the environment, perhaps doing irreparable harm.
5) Social upheaval
If nanotech factories come to pass, that means people could potentially manufacture anything cheaply and easily in their own homes, including dangerous or illegal items. In turn, world governments’ ability to regulate drugs and weapons could become weaker than it already is. Society could break down in the face of governments’ complete inability to control the flow of contraband, or as a response to perceived government infringement of liberty if authorities ham handedly try to assert their authority. For highly religious societies, the proliferation of “immoral” items could prompt an anti-technology revolution that divides the world more than it already is.
With the pace of technological advancement ever accelerating, you might be surprised at what comes to pass. Then again, nanotech could wind up being a big disappointment, much like those flying cars from the future that never seem to materialize. In any case, you can bet the debate about regulating nanotech will only heat up as more people become aware of its power to change the world.