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