Science fiction or social prognostication,
such images had fueled concern in committee members
Reps. Brad Sherman (D-Calif.) and Chris Bell (D-Texas).
They asked that 5 percent of research funds — the same
as in the Human Genome Project — be set aside to study
the societal and ethical implications of nanotechnology,
the science (and art) of creating computers and other
machines from individual molecules.
But at markup the committee voted that
down. Sherman argued that the vote was shortsighted.
“This technology is every bit as explosive
as nuclear weapons. We’re taking [research] money to
explore where we are going as a species,” Sherman
“Will we recognize a 900-pound entity with
two 50-pound brains, four hands and six feet as one of
us? Will we play soccer with it?” Sherman said in an
Sci-fi-like warnings about
nanotech by writers such as Crichton and by scientists
had spurred Sherman to ask such questions.
Doctors now implant embryos from in vitro
fertilization; Sherman said he thinks they soon may soon
be implanting chips into our brains so that “the guy
that flunked the bar on his first try becomes the law
professor and the Supreme Court justice at age 26.”
In wondering where the human species will
be in 100 years, he suggested that one of the last
significant choices for humanity may be deciding whether
a genetically engineered carbon-based living organism or
a silicon-based computer-like entity will replace humans
as the world’s dominant species.
“The one problem we don’t know whether …
[the computer folks] can solve is creating a computer
that’s self-aware and ambitious. Unless a computer
demands to be paid minimum wage, it won’t be,” Sherman
“In contrast, genetic engineers are
starting with material that’s inherently self-aware and
He said cloning is the least interesting
of all the new technologies.
“Certainly another Brad Sherman might be
annoying, but it isn’t something society doesn’t know
how to deal with. But a new level of human being is
Sherman said it was important for us to
start now to learn what scientists think may happen, and
to look at the social and ethical implications.
He noted that Einstein warned President
Franklin Roosevelt about nuclear weapons in 1939. Within
the next decade, the United States had used them and the
Soviet Union had acquired them, launching an era of
“I think that this time the Einsteins out
there owe us more than … [six] years’” advance notice of
potential problems of a new technology.
Bell said he thinks it’s good to be
looking at societal and ethical questions “at the front
“Government is much too reactive — not
nearly proactive enough,” he said.
“History has many
examples of promising technologies whose hidden costs
were only determined after widespread adoption,” he
Bell’s immediate focus is more prosaic
than Sherman’s alien species because his district
includes Rice University, which has a Center for
Biological and Environmental Nanotechnology.
Bell started paying attention to nanotech
after hearing Rice professor Richard Smalley talk about
the effect superstrong lightweight materials could
ultimately have toward reducing energy usage — an issue
Bell said he is concerned about even though he comes
from an oil state.
Dr. Vicki Colvin, executive director of
the nanotech center, testified at an earlier House
hearing on both the “yuck” and the “wow” of
Of more immediate concern to Colvin than
nanorobots run amok is the size of nanoparticles. They
can enter individual cells, causing health and
environmental problems very different from the effects
of the same molecules in bulk. For example, silver as a
bulk metal is relatively benign, but if nanoparticles of
silver are ingested, they get inside cells, turning the
skin blue and causing yet-unknown problems.
“Ignorance of the long-term costs of
nanotechnology could cripple the field,” Colvin
Another witness at that hearing, Dr.
Langdon Winner of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, said
he feared that strong social forces drive those
promoting new technologies.
“In contrast, those who have concerns
about how the technology may develop and what its
long-term outcomes will be tend to speak later and more
hesitantly,” Winner said.
Rep. Sherwood Boehlert (R-N.Y.), chairman
of the House Science Committee, acknowledged the problem
in his remarks at the earlier hearing.
“The social consequences of technology are
the most difficult to predict and even more difficult to
forestall,” he said, but added that Congress and
researchers need to figure out as much as they can and
do what they can to plan for future problems.
The National Science Foundation predicts
that in a decade or so there will be a $1 trillion
global market for