Technological Nightmares (Lecture): Nanotechnology

Series: Pardee Center Distinguished Lecture Series
Date: October 2003
Location: Frederick S. Pardee Center for the Study of the Longer-Range Future, Boston University, Boston, MA


Some innovations have given rise to controversy. Nanotubes were discovered in 1991. The word nanotechnology was invented in the early 1980s. It comes from nanometer, a billionth of a meter, which is a measure of the size of atoms and molecules. Soot is made of carbon. When carbon is vaporized in an inert gas such as helium and allowed to cool slowly, it forms what is called a buckyball. A new form of carbon was discovered in 1985, called carbon-60 or buckyball (or fullerenes), so named because its structure resembles the geodesic dome invented by Richard Buckminster Fuller. It is incredibly strong, chemically inert, and conductive. Buckytubes, or nanotubes, add millions of extra sets of hexagons of carbon atoms to the middle of the soccer ball molecule. They can function as semiconductors and replace silicon.

In September 2003 there was a conference in Santa Fe, New Mexico, on constructing a 60,000-mile-high elevator to carry cargo into space. It would use nanotubes, which have many times the strength of steel. The science fiction writer Arthur Clark gave the keynote address from Sri Lanka via satellite. His 1978 novel The Fountains of Paradise predicted such a space elevator.

Haifa’s Technion-Institute of Technology has developed a new pump device which will allow diabetics to inject themselves painlessly and easily with insulin and which will also assist in the injection of additional medications and immunizations. The Nanopump is a tiny silicon array of dozens to hundreds of micro-needles hardly detectable to the human eye, which, when placed on the skin, deliver medication via a pump.

In Michael Crichton’s 2002 novel Prey, minute “nanobots” (nanorobots) invade and take control of human bodies. Nanotechnology can, according to some, be dangerous to the environment and to human health. Nanotubes—cylindrical, carbon-based molecules—are nanotechnology’s favorite building block. Bill Joy, the chief scientist at Sun Microsystems (which he has left), published an article in Wired in 2000, “Why the Future Doesn’t Need Us,” with the subtitle “Our most powerful 21st century technologies—robotics, genetic engineering, and nanotechnology— are threatening to make humans an endangered species. They are so powerful they can spawn whole new classes of accidents and abuses.” They are something a little like life and a little like a computer program. They create the “gray goo problem.” The gray goo would be a phalanx of nanomachines programmed to create yet more nanomachines until they run out of raw material—and, for raw material, read planet.

The applicable folktale for those who fear the effects of nanotechnology is “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice”: you get the process started, but the self-replicating nanobot escapes, and you cannot turn the thing off. The message of Prey is that biotechnology in the 21st century is as dangerous as nuclear technology was in the 20th. (Its horrors were vividly described in Nevil Shute’s On the Beach .) The dangers arise from knowledge, from our inexorably growing understanding of the basic processes of life. The message is that biological knowledge irresponsibly applied means death.

Dr. K. Eric Drexler (Engines of Creation) fears that nanotechnology could lead to a future in which self-assembling and self-replicating nanobots are in control, that they could reduce the biosphere to “gray goo.” Bill Joy thinks nanotechnology is so dangerous that it should be abandoned. The small but vocal Canadian Action Group on Erosion, Technology and Concentration has called for a complete moratorium on the use of synthetic nanoparticles. Its concerns were picked up by the Prince of Wales, who is worried by a report of a “gray goo” threat, a nightmare vision in which molecule-sized robots keep replicating themselves until they crowd out all life on the planet.

All these fears may be absurd. Dr. Richard E. Smalley, a passionate advocate of nanotechnology who believes that nanobots are impossible, said to Bill Joy: “I say get up and turn on the lights, Bill, because this nanobot future is just a silly nightmare.”

Nevertheless, nanoparticles may have toxicological risks. If inhaled, they could become lodged in the lungs and move to the blood and the brain.

There are three types of technology. The first is frightening from the start. When the first atom bomb was detonated at Alamogordo, New Mexico, in 1945, everybody knew about its terrible potential for destruction. There is a clear need for government regulation. The second, such as information technology (IT), is much more benign. It has its drawbacks such as the digital divide (the great inequality of access to IT), and it presents threats to privacy. A minimum of regulation is indicated. The third, like biotechnology or nanotechnology, is in between. It has promises and dangers. For example, one of the products of nanotechnology could be cheap and efficient photovoltaic materials, which are used to generate electricity from sunlight. There are numerous other potential uses of great promise, including the prolongation of our life span. People are divided about the degree of control needed.

This is a chapter from Technological Nightmares (Lecture).
Previous: Introduction  |  Table of Contents  |  Next: Terror and Error




Longer-Range, F. (2008). Technological Nightmares (Lecture): Nanotechnology. Retrieved from


To add a comment, please Log In.