Give Nanotechnology a Chance

Commentary, Disruption, Anders Sandberg

Scientists and thinkers regard nanotechnology, the manufacture of materials and machines with atomic precision and size, as the next technical revolution. While the debate rages on its eventual capabilities, the concept itself is becoming a target for environmentalist attacks.

A Winnipeg-based organization, the ETC Group, an acronym for Action Group on Erosion. Technology and Concentration, started the first major public attack on nanotechnological safety. It has worked hard to bring up the issues of nanotechnology internationally, and has gained a favourable reception among many. Pat Mooney, the group’s executive director, claims not to oppose nanotechnology per se. He believes that it has a huge potential for improving our health and the environment. His worry is that the science is unregulated and must be brought under control to prevent human harm or undesirable social consequences.

Mooney warns about nanoparticles. Pieces of nanomachines or materials on the order of a billionth of a meter in size might exhibit unexpected dangers. Ordinary silica can cause silicosis if small particles are lodged in the lungs, so it is not unreasonable to think that nanoparticles could cause grief.

This is a wise choice of targets, since it is far easier to get regulators worried about something familiar than an entirely new range of possibilities. It is also far easier to get across internationally. While the grand possibilities of nanotechnology are seen by Americans as potentially relevant, in Europe the perspective is far more directed towards practical applications in the very near future.

ETC claims that nanoparticles’ biological and ecological effects are unknown. On one level this is true; we do not know everything about nanoparticles, something that all researchers in the field agree should be remedied. On another level it is false; we already have much information about nanoparticles’ biological effects to suggest proper policies as we wait for further information. Robert Freitas Jr’s Nanomedicine devotes an entire volume to the issue of making nanomachines compatible with living tissues. The interim judgement appears positive. Most nanoparticles studied so far do not exhibit any toxic effects, and the risks of random nanoparticles are likely low.

Despite this lack of known danger, ETC has proposed a shutdown of all research and development and a moratorium on commercial production of new nanomaterials. They have also called for an international forum for examining new technologies and for evaluating new technologies’ scientific, social and economic effects, before their introduction into society.

The problem is that ETC dilutes the concept “nanotechnology”. Anything from cosmetics with nanoparticles to speculative molecular machines is viewed as nanotechnology, and supposedly risky. A wide range of processes produce nanoparticles, including the burning of diesel fuels. Should a moratorium be placed on them until they can be proven safe? By promoting the most dramatic promises and threats of nanotechnology, while at the same time extending the term to cover even standard processes, ETC makes it look like potentially devastating risks are being ignored.

Many concerns are already being addressed by nanotechnology organizations, such as the National Nanotechnology Initiative in the United States. The dangers are not being ignored, but rather treated with the customary scientific habits of review. It is easy to make this look like the authorities are idle, since few in the public follow scientific publications.

ETC coined the term atomtechnology for all technologies that manipulate molecules, atoms and subatomic particles, as well as manipulation of living and nonliving matter to create new or hybrid organisms and devices. ETC deliberately links nanotechnology with biotechnology, chemistry and nuclear technology into a single vast field, a strategy that heightens alarms. To make people uneasy about one of them makes them uneasy about the rest. Overall, ETC reports often quote a vast number of authoritative sources within the fields being criticized, take the information out of context and add conclusions that do not follow from the full text.

The prevention of nanocontamination is a means to another end for the group, a purpose in the order of “getting technology under control.” Mooney writes: "Extreme care should be taken that, unlike with biotech, society does not lose control of this technology." Few technologies are surrounded with more stringent rules and oversight organizations as biotechnology. Is this a technology out of control?

To some, even a highly regulated technology would be outside of control simply by existing. ETC has much experience in attacking biotechnology, and it is from this context of opposing technology in itself that their criticism of nanotechnology comes. By pointing out safety concerns far in advance of any truly radical applications, they hope to bring in a restrictive regulatory regime and, as restrictive regulations often do, slow development.

ETC only cares about technology policy, and little about its economic implications. If we can meet them on those grounds, and be guided by facts and a long-range vision, then the potential of nanotechnology has a chance for successful exploitation. We should be wary about those who, by stoking fear, seek to cancel the future before it arrives.