nanomachines one day be launched into our bloodstreams to monitor
health and combat disease? Or will "self-replicating nanobots"
proliferate out of control until they completely overrun the planet?
A runaway plague of rogue nanobots wouldn't violate basic scientific
laws, but that doesn't make it realistic. This extreme outcome is
not likely, but it's not impossible either — and that's exactly what
critics of the technology are worried about.
It is foolhardy
to venture predictions about what science will achieve this century.
Scientific predictions have been notoriously awry in the past. In
1933 Lord Rutherford, the greatest nuclear expert of his time,
famously dismissed as "moonshine" any practical relevance of nuclear
energy. So in thinking about the future, we would do well to follow
two guidelines. First, we should leave our minds open, or at least
ajar, to concepts that now seem on the wild, speculative fringe of
possibility. And second, we should remember that while new
discoveries will offer marvelous prospects, they will also have a
dark side. Some fear that nanotechnology could prove to be one of
the 21st century's darker technologies, as potentially disruptive
and dangerous as nuclear weapons.
Nanotechnology is just one
of a suite of advances — including biotechnology, genetics and
robotics — about which some ethicists, politicians, consumer
watchdogs and even a few scientists are concerned. They fear that
these developments may have spin-offs so dangerous that, when the
genie is out of the bottle, the outcome may be impossible to
control. The long-term effects of genetically modified food, gene
therapy and even the
radiation from mobile phones are just
not known, critics argue, so why are we rushing to develop these
safeguard against such danger is to deny the world the basic science
that underpins these advances. So, should scientists stop their
research — even if it is in itself safe and ethical — simply because
of unease about where it might lead? Should we go slow in some
areas, or leave some doors of possibility permanently closed? Should
we restrict science's traditional freedom of inquiry and
In 1975, prominent molecular
biologists did just that by proposing a moratorium on what were then
novel types of gene splicing experiments. This moratorium soon came
to seem unduly cautious, but that doesn't mean that it was unwise at
the time, since the risk was then genuinely uncertain. But it would
be far harder to achieve anything similar today. The research
community is much larger, and competition — enhanced by commercial
pressures — is more intense.
To put effective brakes on a
field of research would require international consensus. If one
country alone imposed regulations, the most dynamic researchers and
enterprising companies would simply move to another country,
something that is happening already in stem cell research. And even
if all governments agreed to halt research in a particular field,
the chances of effective enforcement are slim. There will surely be
a cloned baby at some point, for instance, regardless of the
But perhaps the most insurmountable problem is
that most scientific discoveries can be applied both for good and
for ill, and the specific uses of any single technology cannot be
foreseen. The inventors of lasers, for example, had no idea that
their work could be used in eye surgery. Today, the same techniques
that could lead to voracious nanobots could also lead to effective
new treatments for some of the world's most intractable diseases.
The truth is, we simply don't know where new technologies
will lead, and we can never be fully secure against scientific error
or scientific terror. Today's advances offer tremendous
possibilities and tremendous risks — and we're just going to have to
learn to live with both.