The Hill

The Newspaper for and about the U.S. Congress

MAY 7, 2003

Will nanotech control us, or can it be controlled?

The House Science Committee held a spirited debate on hypothetical invasions by “grey goo” and other unforeseen side effects of nanotechnology in its recent markup of H.R. 766, the Nanotechnology Research and Development Act of 2003.

The “goo” was a reference to sci-fi scenarios, such as Michael Crichton’s 2002 novel Prey, in which swarms of nanorobots began preying on living creatures and reproducing — a possibility witnesses at an earlier hearing had been specifically asked to address.


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 said.

“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 earlier interview.
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 said.

“In contrast, genetic engineers are starting with material that’s inherently self-aware and ambitious.”

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 something else.”

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 nuclear proliferation.

“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 end.”

“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 said.

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 nanotech.

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 testified.

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 nanotechnology.