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November 2001
Vol. 31, No. 11, pp 60–61.
Touring the Net

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Nancy K. McGuire
Nano in the news

“Smart is so yesterday.” Candace Stuart says that smart cards, smart cars, and smart homes are no longer the latest new thing (1). “Nano” is what’s happening now, as in nanotechnology, nanoparticles, and Nano Bags (water-repellent zip-up accessories for babies).

Nanotechnology isn’t provoking street protests, inciting consumer boycotts, or prompting presidential consultations with the Pope to the same extent as biotechnology. Aside from a few committed activists (2), can we assume that the public’s interest in nanotechnology, the “other” hot research field, is nanosized? Nanotechnology news may not make the front page, but if you search for “nanotechnology” on your favorite news Web site, chances are good that you will find several stories about new-generation computers and tiny machines (3–6).

What the R&D folks are saying
CNN.com ran a story on “amorphous” or “swarm” computing, a process that uses beehivelike clusters of tiny processors to accumulate seemingly random individual behaviors and produce organized collective results (7). BusinessWeek focused on the long-term prospects of the chip-making industry (8). Every few months, Forbes checks in to see what’s new in nanotechnology, from the “could-be” applications (denser hard drives, smaller chips, better medicine) (9) to the “already-are” (nanopowders in sunblock and antifungal foot powder) (10).

The MSNBC site ran a story in August from The Wall Street Journal about the nanosensors in fabrics that Burlington and DuPont are developing (11). These fabrics relay laundry instructions to washing machines, report a wandering Alzheimer’s patient’s GPS coordinates to a caretaker, monitor a sleeping baby’s vital signs, change the color of your shirt, or expand the waistline in your pants a bit after lunch.

The online chat archives are good indicators of what people know, what they think they know, and what they want to know more about. For example, Stanley Williams, a Hewlett-Packard scientist, discussed the rate of development and time to market for nanoscale materials and devices in a live chat sponsored by ABCNews.com (12). Williams said, “The perception of the rate of progress in nanotechnology is really one of inflated expectations. We are, after all, attempting to engineer matter one atom at a time. . . . But in fact, nanoscale materials and devices are already beginning to appear. They are found in everything from photographic film to automobile tires to new medicines. However, these are fairly simple and crude applications of nanoscience. More capable machines are likely to appear on the 5- to 10-year time frame.”

Financiers, lawyers, and handicappers
Someone has to pay for all this R&D, and nanotechnology is receiving serious attention from the federal government. Last April 11, Patrick Thibodeau reported on current priorities for federal research funding (13). CNN obtained this report from IDG.net, a compendium of technology-related magazine articles and newsletters (14). Thibodeau stated, “The Bush administration is planning a major increase in funding for nanotechnology research in next year’s budget, but overall spending by the National Science Foundation, a major source of funding for basic research, will see little increase.”

The legislative and judicial branches of the government have their work cut out for them as well. Michael Becker, Small Times correspondent, brought up some interesting legal issues in his July 30, 2001, article (15). Should a tiny robot that mimics the function of a red blood cell be regulated as a medical device, a drug, or something else entirely? If this nanodevice were to evolve all by itself, would it still be covered under the manufacturer’s patent? If it were used for a military purpose, would it be covered by treaties preventing the use of chemical or biological weapons?

The lawmakers will have some time to work on these issues. It’s going to take a few years for most of these inventions to become realities, and even longer for mass production to become economical. Forbes’s “Nanotech racing form” lays odds on which nanotechnological applications are likely to succeed and when (10).

The sci-fi angle
While we wait for reality to catch up to our imaginations, the visionaries are forging ahead. Ben Bova, author of more than 90 nonfiction books and science fiction novels, chatted with ABCnews.com readers on October 20, 1999, about living forever, nanotechnology, genetic engineering, and space exploration (16). Bova believes that biological applications will not be the first commercial uses of nanotechnology because of the dangers of using nanomachines in the human body. “I don’t think computer implants will be important in the long run, although therapeutic nanomachines may be,” he said. “Modern medicine will evolve, of course, and surgery will increasingly be replaced by regeneration of diseased or damaged cells.”

Why wait? In 1998, Kevin Warwick, a British researcher, spent 9 days with a silicon chip in his arm, and he plans to wire his nervous system this month (17). An article in the Utne Reader written by the aptly named Tinker Ready tells all about Warwick’s self-experimentation (18). Warwick’s arm chip did simple things such as open his office door, but his new implant will try to feed signals from his nervous system into a computer, and perhaps to his wife, Irena. In a February 2000 article for Wired magazine (19), Warwick wrote, “We have the potential to alter the whole face of medicine, to abandon the concept of feeding people chemical treatments and cures and instead achieve the desired results electronically. Cyberdrugs and cybernarcotics could very well cure cancer, relieve clinical depression, or perhaps even be programmed as a little pick-me-up on a particularly bad day.”

Nanotech is not just a medical phenomenon. On November 22, 2000, Chris Wallace of ABCNews.com interviewed Michio Kaku, an internationally recognized authority in theoretical physics and the environment (20). Kaku stated, “I believe that the first starship may be a nanoprobe, perhaps the size of your fist, which will use nanotechnology to miniaturize its propulsion systems.”

Andrew Leonard of Salon.com reviewed John Sundman’s nanotech thriller Acts of the Apostles: “a tribute to geekly passions—and a warning of imminent disaster…a nanotech science fiction thriller packed with everything you would expect a hardcore geek to like. …It’s just what you would hope for from an author who spent 9 years working for Sun Microsystems” (21).

The fear factor
Speaking of hi-tech horror stories, Pat Mooney foretells of an emerging “binano republic” in a report to the Broadbent Commission on Canadian Democracy and Corporate Accountability in March 2001 (22) that was published as a 128-page study the following month (23). Mooney warns of a new worldwide economic order in which goods and services will be provided by corporate oligopolies; miniature sensors, biocomputers, and nanorobots will render individual privacy impossible.

Bill Joy, cofounder and chief scientist of Sun Microsystems, is a better-known nano-Cassandra. Joy (whose outlook is neither joyful nor sunny) explains that “the future doesn’t need us” in a 20,000-word essay for Wired magazine (24). He describes a dystopian world in which “gray goo”, spreading masses of self-replicating nano-whatevers unleashed (intentionally or not) by profit-hungry corporations, compete for resources with, and eventually crowd out, their biological counterparts.

Is anyone in a position of authority taking this seriously? Last January 19, John Gannon, assistant director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and chair of the National Intelligence Council, joined a live chat on ABCNews.com (25). He was there to discuss the unclassified CIA report Global Trends 2015, in which the CIA predicts future threats to the United States. Is the CIA planning a response to malevolent uses of nanotechnology such as miniature devices that spy on people, deliver bombs, spread biohazards, or invade the human body? Gannon responds, “There are many positive technological developments that will improve the quality of life for people, particularly in biotechnology, in nanotechnology, in material sciences. At the same time, while good people will put such developments to good use, we do have to worry about what bad people will do with the same capabilities. And individual governments and the international community need to invest in an effort to understand the implications of these technologies and to take early steps to control potential adverse effects. I would stress that, in the area of new technologies, we do not pretend to know all the answers, which is all the more reason why we need to work together on these challenges.”

Donald Rumsfeld, U.S. Secretary of Defense, wants to be prepared (26). In a June 7, 2001, presentation advocating a missile defense system to NATO allies in Brussels, he stated that “rogue states are acquiring ballistic missiles and weapons of mass destruction; asymmetric threats transcend geography; and the parallel revolutions of miniaturization, information, biotechnology, robotics, nanotechnology, and high-density energy sources are putting unprecedented power in the hands of small countries and terrorist groups.” (Author’s note: I wrote this article in late August. The events of September 11 made this paragraph especially chilling as I reread it during the editing process.)

Maybe nanotechnology will save the world instead. Max Steel, an “extreme teen” who is “infused with super nanotechnology, . . . is stronger, faster, and more powerful than any human.” The best part? He’s available for only $24.99 (27).


  1. www.smalltimes.com/document_display.cfm?document_id=1670
  2. Bailey, R. Chem. Innov. 2001, 31 (7), 46–47.
  3. http://abcnews.go.com
  4. www.businessweek.com
  5. http://edition.cnn.com
  6. www.time.com/time
  7. http://asia.cnn.com/2000/TECH/computing/11/01/paint.on.processors.idg/index.html
  8. www.businessweek.com/investor/content/jul2001/pi20010716_649.htm
  9. www.forbes.com/forbes/2001/0723/096.html#story (Registration required.)
  10. www.forbes.com/global/2001/0205/084.html (Registration required.)
  11. Warren, S. Wall Street Journal Europe, Aug 13, 2001, p 13. This article was originally found on www.msnbc.com/news/611934.asp#BODY.
  12. http://more.abcnews.go.com/onair/dailynews/chat_williams990806.html
  13. www.cnn.com/2001/TECH/industry/04/11/bush.budget.idg/index.html
  14. www.idg.net
  15. www.smalltimes.com/document_display.cfm?document_id=1798
  16. http://abcnews.go.com/ABC2000/abc2000science/Bovachat_991020.html
  17. http://www2.cyber.rdg.ac.uk/implant/NetscapeVersion/index.html
  18. www.utne.com/bTechnology.tmpl?command=search&db=dArticle.db&eqheadlinedata=
  19. www.wired.com/wired/archive/8.02/warwick.html
  20. http://more.abcnews.go.com/onair/DailyNews/chat_kaku1122.html
  21. www.salon.com/tech/col/leon/2001/02/21/hacking_the_overmind/index.html
  22. www.escape.ca/~mclachla/eyeopener/June_01/June_page_3.html
  23. http://allafrica.com/stories/printable/200104180100.html
  24. www.wired.com/wired/archive/8.04/joy_pr.html
  25. http://more.abcnews.go.com/sections/community/2020/cia_emailform.html
  26. www.cbsnews.com/now/story/0,1597,295315-412,00.shtml
  27. www.kbkids.com/w/l/snb.html?txt=Max+Steel&formInfo=T%7Ctxt%7C0%7C50&form

Note: All of the URLs were accessed in November 2001.

Nancy K. McGuire is associate editor of Chemical Innovation.

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