Nanotech Boom Expected To Force Legal
By Doug Tsuruoka
Imagine a robot that's 80,000 times
smaller than the width of a human hair.
The device would be tiny enough to slip into a human egg and
alter its genetic code. That would let it design "improved" humans
who are smarter and resist disease.
Such a robot is one of the many promises of nanotechnology - the
science of very small things. The potential is huge for the emerging
field. But the legal and ethical issues stirred by nanotechnology
are enormous as well.
Lawmakers are closely watching these developments. That means as
nanotechnology evolves, rules and regulations could follow.
"Law always develops behind new technology," said Mark Grossman,
who chairs the technology law group at Becker & Poliakoff PA in
Fort Lauderdale, Fla. "It's in the nature of the beast, and
nanotechnology is no different."
The National Science Foundation (news
sites) predicts that nanotech could generate annual sales of $1
trillion by 2015. And Congress this month is finalizing items in the
president's 2004 budget that would give almost $1 billion to
The past three years, researchers at companies such as IBM Corp.
and Intel Corp. have made strides in using magnetism or other forces
to form linelike patterns on a molecular level. That could lead to
molecule-sized chips, which would make it possible to build
supercomputers no bigger than a wristwatch. Or there could be nano
robots the size of bacteria that do the work of red blood cells.
In the last year alone, scientists have developed molecular
motors, atom-sized switches and nano devices that detect proteins.
As nanotech moves from science fiction to reality, some say the
laws surrounding it are lagging behind.
Grossman compares laws governing nanotech to where Internet law
was in 1995. They're virtually nonexistent.
Over the last year, analysts say, nanotech has figured in state
statutes approved in Indiana, California and Florida. Nearly all the
laws dealt with promoting nanotechnology in those states.
Nanotech will inevitably run into legal issues, just like
Internet gambling and music piracy.
Grossman says most businesses aren't aware how nanotech will
effect key sectors of the U.S. economy. Impacted fields will include
information technology, medicine, manufacturing, advanced materials
and environmental control.
The laws that have covered products and technology since the
Industrial Revolution may not apply to nanotech.
Some of the legal questions include:
-Can you patent an atomic or molecular structure?
-How do you protect an atom or molecule-sized device from being
-How do you regulate and tax trade in devices too small to be
-Should nano devices that alter human genes or cells be
-Should government limit how nanotech is used in surveillance or
other security technology?
-What health, safety and product liability issues are raised by
devices and processes too small to be seen by the naked eye?
Some legislators think the government should prepare now for such
Rep. Mike Honda, D-Calif., introduced a bill earlier this year
that would create a national board to advise the president on
nanotech policy issues.
The bill has been referred to the House Committee on Science.
Washington, meanwhile, continues to pour money into nanotech
President Bush (news
sites)'s 2004 budget calls for $849 million in funds for the
National Nanotechnology Initiative. That's a 10% boost from 2003.
The House in May passed another nanotech funding bill totaling $2.36
billion the next three years.
The money will be used by a host of federal agencies to pursue
Current federal outlays on a yearly basis for nanotech research
represent a 600%-plus boost over 1997.
When government and the private sector invest billions in
emerging fields like nanotech, they rarely think of legal
consequences, Grossman says. That's especially true in cases where
more than one party teams up to nurture a technology.
"A lot of the contracting that needs to be done is infantile at
best, and illiterate at worst," Grossman said. "They don't take time
to consider the legal and business issues that are confronting them.
They don't take time to negotiate clear understandings between the
Some say the gap between nanotech and current laws isn't that
T.S. Twibell, an associate attorney with the Kansas City, Mo.,
law firm Kurlbaum Stoll Seaman Mustoe & McCrummen, writes about
nanotech legal issues.
He says existing federal and local laws are adequate to cover
nanotech without serious revision.
Laws already on the books relating to genetic engineering, for
instance, could be used to cover nanotech.
But such laws may fall short if there are big advances in
nanotech, Twibell says. "That's the time when we may need ethical or
other laws to address the peculiarities of nanotechnology," Twibell
Legal and ethical questions raised by nanotech shouldn't be taken
lightly, says Ted Schettler, science director for the Science and
Environmental Health Network, a group of doctors and scientists who
advise on environment and health policy.
"Nano particles may have unique biochemical properties that we
should know about before we turn them loose in the world of
medicine, consumer products and other things," said Schettler, a
One big question, Schettler says, is how nano devices will
interact with human tissue. It still isn't clear if there will be
adverse effects. It also isn't known if nano devices will enter
parts of the body that they're not supposed to, Schettler says.
If you think such issues are purely theoretical, think again,
says Don Eigler, a top IBM nanotech researcher. Nanotech isn't
decades away, he says; it's already here.
Simple nano devices are already used in some types of chip and
data storage technology, Eigler notes.
More advances could be just around the corner. "In science,
things just happen," he said. "You just can't predict when somebody
is going to have a real breakthrough idea."
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