Nanotechnology is coming

by Ralph C. Merkle, Principal Fellow, Zyvex

This is the English original of an article translated into German and published in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung of Monday, September 11 2000 on page 55.

In the coming decades nanotechnology could make a supercomputer so small it could barely be seen in a light microscope. Fleets of medical nanorobots smaller than a cell could roam our bodies eliminating bacteria, clearing out clogged arteries, and reversing the ravages of old age. Clean factories could eliminate pollution caused by manufacturing. Low cost solar cells and batteries could replace coal, oil and nuclear fuels with clean, cheap and abundant solar power. New inexpensive materials over fifty times stronger per kilogram than those used in today's rockets could open up space and make lunar vacations no more expensive than vacations to the South Pole. Material abundance for all the people of the earth could become a reality.

Not long ago, such a forecast would have been ridiculed. Today, the President of the United States has called for a $500 million National Nanotechnology Initiative and invites us to imagine "...materials with ten times the strength of steel and only a small fraction of the weight -- shrinking all information housed at the Library of Congress into a device the size of a sugar cube -- detecting cancerous tumors when they are only a few cells in size." Scientists around the world agree this is all possible (though with big disagreements about exactly how long it will take and exactly what it will look like).

At its heart, the coming revolution in manufacturing is a continuation of trends that date back decades and even centuries. Manufacturing has been getting more precise, more diverse and less expensive for over fifty years. Looking ahead, in a few decades we'll be able to manufacture products with the ultimate in precision: the finest features will be made from individual atoms and molecules -- the fundamental building blocks of matter from which all the objects in the world around us are made. The diversity of products will be staggering: we'll be able to make almost any arrangement of atoms consistent with physical law. And we'll be able to make things inexpensively -- a dollar a kilogram or less.

The remarkably low manufacturing cost comes from self replication. Molecular machines can make more molecular machines, which can make yet more molecular machines. While the research and development costs for the first such systems are likely to be quite high, the incremental manufacturing costs of a system able to make more systems like itself can be very low. Wood, for example, is a complex product made from tens of thousands of proteins and a host of complex molecular machines. Yet we think nothing of slicing a piece of wood into a convenient slab and using it for a table. The reason, of course, is that wood is inexpensive, and it is inexpensive because it is made by self replicating systems: trees.

While nanotechnology does propose to use self replication, it does not propose to copy living systems. Living systems are wonderfully adaptable and can survive in a complex natural environment. This is much more than we need, much more difficult to design and much less economical than simpler alternatives. Instead, nanotechnology proposes to build molecular machine systems that are similar to small versions of what you might find in today's modern factories. Robotic arms shrunk to submicron size should be able to pick up and assemble molecular parts like their large cousins in factories around the world pick up nuts and bolts and put them together.

Now that the feasibility of nanotechnology is widely accepted, we enter the next phase of the public discussion: what policies should we adopt to best deal with it? The Foresight Institute ( was founded in 1986 primarily to facilitate public understanding and discussion of the policy issues surrounding the development and deployment of nanotechnology. The Foresight community knew, even then, that nanotechnology was feasible. This allowed discussions over a decade ago about the best policies for dealing with this new technology. Policy discussions were effectively impossible elsewhere because they would almost immediately be sidetracked by debates about feasibility. For those of us who participated in those earlier discussions, today's can at times produce an overwhelming sense of deja vu.

Self replication is at the heart of many policy discussions. Unfortunately, our intuitions about self replicating systems can be lead seriously astray by a simple fact: the only self replicating systems most of us are familiar with are biological. We automatically assume that nanotechnological self replicating systems will be similar. Nothing could be further from the truth. The machines people make bear little resemblance to living systems, and molecular manufacturing systems are likely to be just as dissimilar.

Consider, for example, the difference between a bird and an airplane. Both fly. Yet the image of a 747 going feral, swooping out of the sky to clutch an unsuspecting horse in its landing gear, seems incongruous. Machines lack the wonderful adaptability of living systems. A 747 requires Jet A fuel, a refined source of energy that is delivered to it by an elaborate system that includes oil fields, pumps, tankers, refineries, fuel lines, and trucks. It can convert this artificially refined fuel into energy using engines that can run on little else. Cut off from refined fuel, airstrips, maintenance crews, spare parts, navigational systems and all the other paraphernalia that keeps it flying and a 747 is just a large piece of scrap metal. A bird, in contrast, can live on berries, seeds, worms, insects, small rodents, fish and bits of bread tossed to it by amused tourists. Its living and remarkably adaptable digestive system can convert all these and more into energy and essential raw materials for power and self repair. It thrives in the complex and ever changing natural world.

Much of the discussion about self replicating molecular machine systems is concerned with the possibility that they might accidentally replicate uncontrolled and so destroy the world. This fear is based heavily on the assumption that artificial systems will, in some deep sense, resemble living systems and will be able to function effectively in the complex and ever changing natural environment. Yet this premise is far from the truth, and the conclusion is at best suspect. Artificial self replicating systems, designed for economic objectives, should be as unable to function in a natural environment as a 747.

While this risk seems slight, the Foresight Institute has none-the-less written a set of draft Guidelines ( to inform developers and manufacturers of molecular manufacturing systems how to completely avoid it. If, as expected, it proves difficult and uneconomical to develop and deploy systems able to replicate in the natural environment, little explicit enforcement of the Guidelines would be required. If some developers seek marginal advantages at great cost and with utter disregard for safety, the Guidelines could form the basis for a more formal mechanism of inhibiting such behavior. The Guidelines include such common-sense principles as "Artificial replicators must not be capable of replication in a natural, uncontrolled environment." Building on over a decade of discussions of a very wide range of scenarios, the first version of the Guidelines were based on a February 1999 workshop in Monterey, California. They have since been reviewed at two Foresight workshops. Because our understanding of this new technology is and will continue to evolve, the Guidelines will evolve with them -- representing our best understanding of how to insure the safe development of nanotechnology.

Of greater concern than accidental problems created by otherwise well meaning groups is the possibility of deliberate abuse. While the development of nanotechnology is likely to take a few decades, and the early developers are likely to be large organizations with major resources that can afford substantial development efforts, in the long run nanotechnology is going to be available to a wider range of groups -- including terrorist organizations and others of malign intent.

As a society we have only begun to examine nanotechnology-based weapons systems. Much further analysis is needed before we can be confident of our conclusions. That said, the analyses that have been done to date show that nanotechnology-based weapons can be countered by the prepared defense. It is worth emphasizing the word "prepared," as the scenarios that pit an aggressor who has developed nanotechnology-based weapons against a defender who has failed to develop nanotechnology-based defenses can be stunningly lopsided in their outcome. The prepared defender, on the other hand, can detect and counter attacks by smaller groups (e.g, terrorists, mad bombers, etc).

These conclusions lead to an obvious policy: be prepared. Research and development into the basic capabilities of nanotechnology should continue, and should specifically include research into the less pleasant capabilities of this new technology so that we can effectively develop detection systems and countermeasures.

There are many alternative courses of action. The three most conspicuous seem to be: ban it, guide it, or let the free market reign.

Banning nanotechnology research and development is based on the assumption that a ban would let us avoid any potential downsides, and in particular the downsides caused by an enemy who deploys nanotechnology-based offensive weapons. Unfortunately, we have no reason to believe that such an enemy would honor a ban. A 100% effective ban might accomplish the desired objective, but a 99.99% effective ban would simply insure that the technology was developed by the least scrupulous 0.01% of humanity while the rest of us remained defenseless. This is hardly the desired outcome, and in fact would make the world a more dangerous place.

Guiding the development of the technology is a more complex undertaking, but insures that the more enlightened countries of the world would be able to use nanotechnology-based defenses if they were attacked by an opponent. This policy would also make the economic benefits of nanotechnology available to all, even those who today live in grinding poverty. For some of us an improved standard of living might mean only a second computer and a longer vacation, but for many it would mean adequate medical care and food. Nanomedicine could improve the health and well being of the entire population.

For example, higher crop yields could be achieved by intensive green house agriculture. Plants grown in controlled environments (with optimal temperature, CO2, water, nutrients, etc) can grow year round and produce an order of magnitude more food per acre than existing methods. Nanotechnology could make the computer controlled environmental enclosures inexpensively. This would not only provide more food, it would reduce the total number of acres devoted to growing food. Habitat destruction caused by agriculture is one of the largest environmental problems that we have: rolling back that damage would go a long way in helping us restore the environment.

Finally, we could adopt a laissez faire policy: let the free market reign. There are strong proponents of the free market who argue that government intervention is likely to have unexpected deleterious effects. Slowing the development of nanotechnology would clearly cause both economic loss and prolong human suffering. These adverse outcomes could be reduced if regulations and controls were avoided altogether.

In summary: advances in technology have given us greater control over the material world and improved our standard of living. Few among us would wish to go back to the 13th century and live in a pre-industrial world where food was scarce, disease common, and early death the rule rather than the exception. Looking ahead, advances in technology should give us more powerful computers, better health care, more abundant food, and a higher standard of living. At the same time, these new technologies create new concerns that we must address to insure that they will, on balance, benefit the human condition.

The discussion about nanotechnology has just begun. As its power and capabilities are better understood and grow closer to realization, the discussion will extend to a wider and wider audience. For the next few years, the public discussion is likely to be marred by serious inaccuracies and confusions -- this seems to be an unavoidable phase in any widespread public discussion of a new technology. The most significant confusions are likely to center on the nature of artificial self replicating systems designed for manufacturing purposes, and the capabilities of nanotechnology-based weapons systems. Fortunately, the full consequences of nanotechnology are unlikely to effect us for a few decades -- providing time for further research and education. Policies based on open discussions and a clear understanding of the technology will best prepare us for the future -- whatever the direction we choose to go.

Further reading:

Brief introduction to nanotechnology with links to further reading

Making nanotechnology happen: The Nanofactory Collaboration

A technical analysis of some risks and how to counter them: Some Limits to Global Ecophagy by Biovorous Nanoreplicators, with Public Policy Recommendations