Registration of interest to the Royal Society and Royal Academy of Engineering and request for initial views on nanotechnology study

In November 2002 ICEPT was commissioned to produce a report entitled: A technical, political and institutional map of emerging technologies: nanotechnology, artificial intelligence and robotics. The three-month deskstudy was written by myself under supervision by Dr Timothy Foxon and Mr Robert Gross, also of ICEPT. It is due for publication very shortly.

Pages 9-35 of the report focuses exclusively on nanotechnology. Section 1 presents an introduction. Following this, the current status of research and development (R&D) is described in section 2, with particular attention being paid to the areas of research attracting the most attention. Much of the work described here cuts across traditional academic boundaries and contains a significant technical element. This is because a firm understanding of the nature of the technology itself is essential in understanding its future impact. In addition, the perspective taken here is global in scope since governments and corporations world-wide are investing in these areas and research is active on several continents. This suggests that, with international flows of information, technological innovation will be transboundary in nature.

The applications and markets of nanotechnology are described in section 3. Specifically, the report aims to highlight the kinds of products which have already been introduced into the global market and those applications due for introduction in the short- and medium-term. In addition, the range of market values that are currently being anticipated are pointed out, although these figures are necessarily highly speculative. Underpinning these R&D and application developments is a wide array of key players. While interest in these technologies is increasing rapidly, particularly in nanotechnology, most of the recent growth of interest comes from those with a strategic interest, such as governments, venture capitalists, large technology-orientated corporations and scientists working in the field.

One problem with many of the hundreds of documents written about emerging technologies every year is that they do not distinguish between science and science fiction, let alone the desirable and undesirable in terms of ethics, choice and safety. Thus, sections 4 and 5 aim to deal with some of these issues: section 4 separates out some of the hype from the more visionary but solidly placed applications, whereas section 5 provides an account of the potential environmental and social risks that such uses could pose in the future. Finally, section 6 highlights some of the key messages that emerge.

In my view, sections 4 and 5 have the most to offer the nanotechnology debate. One reason for this is is the wide range of authoratative literature that already exists with regard to the technical aspects of nanotechnology development. Section 4 concludes that, while many of the nanotechnologies covered in the report appear advanced, most contemporary experimental capabilities in this area are still in their infancy. This means that it is extremely difficult to foresee many outcomes that developments in this field will bring over the next 10 years, let alone assess their likelihood. Initially, it is probable that the impact of nanotechnology will be limited to a few specific products and services, where consumers are willing (or able) to pay a premium for new or improved performance. Looking further ahead, controversy surrounds the possibility of realising some of the wilder visions of a nanotech-enabled future. This is in spite of the fact that many of these ideas stem from quite straightforward concepts founded in solid science; we are unlikely to witness any radical developments during the next 15 years unless a series of fundamental breakthroughs occur between now and then. However, as the range of associated tool and fabrication techniques begin to mature, the field is set to become increasingly commonplace in the coming decades. Ultimately, then, the longer-term structural impact of nanotechnology on a whole range of sectors – in manufacturing, transport, services and domestic practice – could be substantial in 30–50 years. These changes are likely to be gradual as, on the whole, the displacement of an old technology by a new one tends to be both slow and incomplete.

Section 5 points out that, in the meantime, a number of well-founded, short-term concerns surrounding the potential impacts of nanotechnology remain, many of which revolve around issues of human health. Considering past experiences of industry and government mismanagement in this area (most notably through the GM-related controversy), nano-advocates would do well to sit up and take note. For, although an externally imposed nanotech moratorium seems both unpractical and probably damaging at present, industry may find such a fate virtually self-imposed if they do not take the issue of public acceptance seriously. This report shows some nano-advocate awareness of environmentally-sound practice, but concludes that industry must demonstrate a commitment to this by funding the relevant research on a far greater scale than currently witnessed. Most importantly, the reasons for the public confusion currently surrounding the nanotechnology issue should be investigated by the Working Group. In remedying this uncertainty, a starting point would be to view nanotechnology, public attitudes and processes of governance as a co-evolving system, rather than seeing public attitudes as a potential ‘barrier’ to the development of advanced technologies.

Mr Alexander Arnall
Research Associate
Imperial College London Centre for Energy Policy and Technology (ICEPT)