Nanotechnology: Views for consideration of the Royal Society and Royal Academy of Engineering. (based on ‘The Nanoneme Syndrome’ Technoetic Arts 1, 2003, 7-24)

The following edited excerpts may be of value to your mission. As a member of the Californian Nanosystems Institute and researcher at IBM Zurich Research Laboratories for 19 years together with the chair of Design | Media arts at UCLA, we addressed issues in nanotechnology that are all too often ignored: culture. I hope it stimulates interest in some of the issues to address.

Nanotechnology is more a new science than a technology, and the industry being constructed around it, predictably uses old ideas and imagery. During its current rise to prominence, a strange propagandist “nanometer” has emerged in our midst without being clearly realized by any of the participants. It is layered with often highly unlikely ideas of nanotech products that range from molecular sensors in underwear, smart washing machines that know how dirty the clothes are, to artificial red blood cells and nanobots that repair our bodies, all the way up to evil swarms of planet-devouring molecular machines. Sensation-based media happily propagates this powerful and misleading cocktail combining scientific data, graphically intense visualizations together with science fiction artwork. In the past few years, mixed up nano-memes have emerged, where the differences between science fiction novels, front cover stories and images of reputable journals are becoming differentiated by the proportion of fiction to fact rather than straight factual content.

Venture capitalists, the military, governments around the world as well as educational institutions seduced by this syndrome are portraying nanotech as the savior of our rapidly declining economies and outdated military systems. Dovetailing on the recent frenzied exponential rise and fall of information technologies, and to a degree by biotechnology, the need for a new cure-all has been identified.

Two terms often used interdependently are nanoscience and nanotechnology. The term nanotechnology predates nanoscience. The dreams of a new technology were proposed before the actual scientific research specifically aimed at producing the technology existed. Nanotechnology, in its short lifetime, has attracted a variety of interpretation, and there is little agreement, even among those who are engaged in it, as to what it actually is. Typically, it is described as a science that is concerned with control of matter at the scale of atoms and molecules. A nanometer (nm) is one billionth of a meter, written in scientific notation as 1 x 10-9 m. Nano is Greek for dwarf. Historically, the word nanotechnology was first proposed in the early seventies by a Japanese engineer, Tanaguchi, implying a new technology that went beyond controlling materials and engineering on the micrometer scale, that dominated the 20th Century. Whereas, the micron age was more or less an extension of scaling the macroworld, the nanoworld operates on different laws and sacling.

As soon as most of us confront the scale that nanotechnology works within, our minds short circuit. The scale becomes too abstract in relation to human experience. Consequently, any intellectual connection to the nanoscale becomes extremely difficult. Scientists have tried to explain this disparity by comparing the nanometer to the thickness of a human hair: the average thickness of a human hair is ~5 x 10-5m, which is 105 (50,000) nm. Or, the little fingernail: around 1 cm across, which is equal ten million nanometers. Recently, Nobel Laureate Sir Harry Kroto described the nanometer by comparing the size of a human head to that of the planet earth -- a nanometer would be the size of a human head in relation to the size of the planet if the planet were the size of the human head. But, even that is difficult to intuitively grasp or visualize. What type of perceptual shift in our minds has to take place to comprehend the work that nano science is attempting and what would be the repercussions of such a shift?

On another level, as a metric, the nanometer is just a starting point of understanding complexity. Even the concept of precise fabrication at the ultimate limits of matter does nanotechnology injustice because it implies an industrial engineering model. When working on this kind of scale, we immediately reach the limits of rational human experience, and the imaginary takes over. Researchers, science fiction writers and Luddites alike have gone into overdrive with the fantasies associated with the world driven by nanotechnology. One prevalent fear is mind control, while the dream is, as always, of immortality and power.

By some mysterious juxtaposition of events, the beginning of the 21st century is symbolized by the decoding of the genome, fears of distributed terrorist cells and nanotechnology as the big promise of total control of matter from the atom all the way up living systems. In the last ten years alone, over 455 companies based on nanotechnology have been formed in Europe, US and Japan, 271 major universities are involved in nanotech research and 95 investment companies are focusing on this new science. Over 4 billion dollars has been invested globally in nanoscience in 2001 and the bar is being raised. But, unlike info-tech and to a degree, biotech, nanotech is very much in its infancy of development and principally in the research phase. Perhaps this is what makes it so attractive to such a varied audience – the field is wide open for visionaries and opportunists alike, representing new uncharted territory resembling the early stages of space exploration of the 20th century and mission-oriented approaches to science and technology. Indeed, NASA foresees this potentially disruptive technology as being instrumental in exploring space to answer such questions, as “Are we alone in this universe?”

Although nanotechnology is used widely to refer to something very tiny, this new science will eventually revolutionize and impact every single aspect of our lives. It will do this on all scales all the way up from the atom to the planet earth and beyond. The very modus operandi of science is already changing under its influence. Nanoscience not only requires input from practically every scientific discipline, but it also needs direct and intense collaboration with the humanities and the arts. It is highly probable that this new technology will turn the world, as we know it, upside down, from the bottom up.

Nanotechnology works at a scale where biotech, chemistry, physics, electrical and mechanical engineering converge, and thus has real potential to impact every aspect of our lives. We will see an impact on everything from our social systems to buildings, furniture, clothes, medicine, bodies and minds. Most of all, where we believe it will make a fundamental shift is in our conscious and unconscious minds. As the perception of reality shifts to the collective level, we will find ourselves in an entirely new world, with very different values and motivations. However, any radical proposition, with such enormous and global implications, will have to face fierce opposition from those who have so much invested in the old, mechanistic, world-view. We have witnessed, in the 20th century, many great innovations have been squashed by corporate, industrial and national interests – transportation and energy being at the top of the list. It appears to us that resistance to a technology that will change fundamentally the way humans think, may be much greater, given the usual time period of 20-50 years it takes for technology to penetrate into the general society. We are about to witness some great ideological struggles, much greater than seen in past centuries. The stage has already been set for this new era with the basic moral and rights to own one’s genetic code, exemplified by the patenting of genes and cloning.

James K. Gimzewski FIoP, FREng and Victoria Vesna UCLA, June16th 2003