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.
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
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
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
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.
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
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
"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
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
"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."