m-pulse / a cooltown magazine
February, 2003

small talk:
nanotech terms

nanotechnology: The science of purposeful manipulation of matter at the atomic level to achieve a defined goal. Can include devices created to operate at the nanoscale, which is measured in nanometers.

nanobot: A hypothetical microscopic robot built with nanotechnology. Such robots could assemble other nanotech tools, potentially using self-replicating capabilities, as it would take thousands of nanobots to build anything humans could use.

nanometer: One billionth of a meter, which is 10 times the diameter of a hydrogen atom. Anything smaller than 100 nanometers is considered to be nanoscale.

gray goo: Term popularized by K. Eric Drexler's 1986 book Engines of Creation: The Coming Age of Nanotechnology. Describes the substance that could result if self-replicating nanobots reproduced out of control.

a nanotech nightmare? the truth about prey, author michael crichton's worst-case scenario for the future of nanotechnology

A misunderstood field of technology and a frightening new novel from the bestselling author of Jurassic Park and The Andromeda Strain have many wondering: Will nanotechnology help save the world - or destroy it?

By Rick Mathieson

Big things are in store for tiny technologies - if they don't kill us, first.

That's the lure of Prey, Michael Crichton's provocative new sci-fi thriller about a mechanical plague of microscopic robots unleashed on an unsuspecting world.

An Andromeda Strain for the new millennium, the book delves into the more precarious aspects of emerging research in nanotechnology, genetics, and distributed intelligence.

Here, the danger doesn't come from killer microbes, but from cybernetic nanoparticles, smaller than a human hair, that have been programmed with artificial intelligence to create a self-replicating swarm of predators.

Released in December (2002), the book is a hot property. It topped January's New York Times Bestsellers List. And Fox has already optioned it for a new movie.

But far from the media spotlight, the book has also ignited an alarming debate within the high-tech community about the promise and perils of nanotechnology.

"One half of the community seems to think nanotechnology is going to lead to utopia, while the other half think it's leading to doomsday," says Larry Bock, CEO of nanotech startup NanoSys.

To some, nanotech promises a future where molecule-size machines seek out and destroy cancer cells, enable self-powered homes and automobiles, eat oil slicks and imbue everyone and everything with pervasive Internet connectivity.

But others wonder if nanotechnology could one day be used to create the apocalyptic plague Crichton has envisaged.

"Prey is a fictional horror story…[but] there is cause for concern," says Christine Peterson, president of the Foresight Institute, a Palo Alto, Calif.-based think tank focused on nanotechnology and social policy. "We have to start asking: Could these machines do something that they're not supposed to do, accidentally? And can they be abused?"

Only one thing is certain: A number of amazing new nanotechnologies are under development right now. And they promise to bring science fiction into the realm of science reality in a way that will change all our lives.

weird science

At its most essential, nanotechnology is the science of using individual atoms or molecules as components of very tiny machines that operate at a scale of less than 100 nanometers. A single nanometer is a billionth of a meter - or 75,000 times smaller than the width of a human hair.

At the nanoscale, material properties can be combined, controlled and manipulated in ways not possible with conventional materials - enabling entirely new properties and even the combination of the organic and the engineered, the natural and the manmade, as never before possible.

Think supercomputers made of bacteria, or materials 100 times stronger than steel - but at the fraction of the weight.

"When we can really start working with atoms and molecules, and we can manipulate them quite routinely, we will reach a point of unification for the engineering and medical sciences," says Robert C. Haddon, head of the Center for Nanoscience Innovations in Defense at UC Riverside (www.ucr.edu) "In chemistry, engineering and biology, all of sudden we're all working with the same stuff."

While the field is still in its infancy, major companies, from Hewlett-Packard to IBM to Intel - and startups, from Technanogy to Nano-Tex to ZettaCore - are pumping big bucks into nanotech research.

So far, the results span from the mundane (stain-free, wrinkle-free clothes, for instance) to the truly mind-boggling.

MIT, for example, recently won a $50 million grant to launch the Institute of Soldier Nanotechnologies. Working with DuPont, HP, Raytheon and others, the program will develop nanotechnologies for use in new "battle suits" - high-tech garments that sniff out and protect soldiers against chemical and biological weapons.

By 2008, researchers hope to design the suits to automatically shield soldiers from bullets, provide advanced communications systems, and even offer exoskeleton capabilities to enable soldiers to jump 20 feet in the air or lift heavy objects.

"The military knows that to be second to get a powerful technology is not a very good place to be," says Peterson.

Meanwhile, NanoSys recently raised $15 million in capital to work on, among other things, photovoltaic nanotechnologies that could turn paint and other materials on homes and buildings into solar power-generating energy plants.

And Bell Labs, working with scientists at Oxford University, recently developed a tiny motor using DNA. While that may sound inconsequential, some say the breakthrough could conceivably lead to devices programmed to seek out a cancer cell, mix up a concoction of chemicals, and then inject it into the growth. Others are cautiously optimistic.

"There's a lot of hype out there, and a lot of misunderstanding," warns Evelyn Hu, acting director of the California NanoSystems Institute, a research program launched by UC Santa Barbara and UCLA.

"It's not like we're going to shrink down a ship full of scientists and sail down the bloodstream like Fantastic Voyage. But whether it's through a nanobot or some other mechanism, we will see dramatic improvements in the way we administer, pinpoint and monitor treatments externally through remote imaging or sensory transmission coming from nanotechnology [within] the [patient]."

Meanwhile, tech giant IBM's Millipede project is bringing data storage down to the atomic level. And HP recently won a patent for a process to build computers that fit in an area smaller than the head of a pin.

The company's quantum science research lab is also actively working on ways to produce wires that are only two nanometers thick - about the size of six atoms - potentially enabling nano-computers to connect to, and operate, larger devices. This could one day lead to a whole new world of intelligent, interconnected devices and environments - erasing the current boundaries of Moore's Law in the process.

Moore's Law, the dictate that states that the number of transistors a chip can hold doubles every 18 months as transistor size shrinks, will someday hit the limits of what's possible without a technological breakthrough. That breakthrough will doubtless come through nanotechnology.

In fact, nanotech is already paying off. The NanoBusiness Alliance (www.nanobusiness.org) says nanotech companies are already generating billions of dollars of revenues. The US government has poured $1 billion into nanotech research over the last two years. And The National Science Foundation predicts the market for nanotech products and services will reach $1 trillion by 2012.

But that's only if nanotechnology can overcome some serious concerns about its potential risks.

small 'pox'

At the top of those concerns: The nightmare scenario first laid out by Bill Joy, the co-founder and chief software architect for Sun Microsystems.

Two years ago, Joy warned in a Wired magazine article that if nanoscale robots were ever given the ability to self-replicate in order to speed up the process of creating nano-size tools, terrorists could program them to kill people who are genetically distinct, or who live in a specific geographic region.

Alternatively, they could accidentally be released into the world, where they could build new systems by stealing atoms from the surrounding environment - devouring the earth in what K. Eric Drexler famously described in his 1986 book, Engines of Creation: The Coming Era of Nanotechnology as a devastating "gray goo."

Thus the inspiration for Crichton's tall tale about small tech - combining the concept of nanobot replicators with tomorrow's advances in computing power, bio-engineering and artificial intelligence.

It's also complete hogwash, say many experts.

"We're just starting to work on little gears," says Jim Talton, CEO of Nanotherapeutics, Inc., which is working on nanoparticles for drug delivery. "Jumping to thinking about little robots attacking people is a long way away. I'm more concerned about North Korea than I am about rampant nanobots."

"There's just so much hype out there," adds Bock. "That stuff is so far from reality, it's the equivalent of me going out and buying Harry Potter's broomstick tomorrow."

Such sentiments are widespread among the nanotech community.

"It really just depends on what you mean by nanotechnology," says Kevin Walter, chief technology officer for startup Technanogy.

"Anything done at the nanoscale is nanotechnology. Chemistry and biology are nanosciences. It's more likely something will happen in those fields than it is that we'll create sophisticated, self-replicating nanobots that destroy the world."

For his part, Crichton declined to be interviewed for this article. But while most think Prey is just a chilling "what if" fantasy, not everyone believes nanotechnology is completely free of danger.

Some environmental groups are concerned that because of their tiny size, nanoparticles could somehow contaminate biological systems - causing cancer or genetic mutations.

Indeed, the ETC Group, a controversial environmental advocacy group, has called for a complete moratorium on manufacturing nanomaterials, warning that they might interact in unpredictable ways if let loose into the environment. Worse: They warn that the same nanoparticles being tested as bloodstream carriers for medicines could also be manipulated to carry toxins.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is looking into the matter. And so are the Department of Agriculture and the Food and Drug Administration.

"In his scenario, Crichton is assuming pretty advanced artificial intelligence and techniques for creating molecular machines - something that's 40 or 50 of more years into the future," says the Foresight Institute's Peterson. "I don't think of Prey as a realistic possibility, but nanotechnologies can be dangerous."

To mitigate the potential problems of nanotech, the Foresight Institute has drafted guidelines that say in part that molecular machines must not be able to replicate in a natural, uncontrolled environment, and industry self-regulation should be encouraged.

"From an arms control perspective, and from a safety perspective, we may also need to develop nanotechnologies to fix other people's mistakes," she says.

To that end, the National Nanotech Initiative has explicitly earmarked funding to examine the ethical and societal implications of nanotechnology.

"We may hope that by the time [this ever becomes an issue], we will have settled upon international controls for self-reproducing technologies," Crichton writes in the introduction to Prey. "We've learned to put hackers in jail. Errant biotechnologists will soon join them."

Of course, from Jurassic Park to Prey, that's always been Crichton's signature theme - the need to temper man's reckless pursuit of new technologies that overstep Mother Nature.

"In the tradition of the great writers of speculative fiction, Crichton takes what's possible in science and technology today and takes it one step further," says Hu.

"I can't say there's not going to be any negative consequences of any scientific step we take - look at bio-terrorism," she says. "Every important scientific step holds with it the tremendous power to do good, and also tremendous power to disrupt the environment. That's been true throughout history. And it's certainly true today. But I don't think we're in any imminent danger."