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Nanotechnology is the engineering of matter under 100 nanometers–defined as one-billionth of a meter. By comparison, a strand of human hair is about 80,000 nanometers thick. This isn’t science fiction; nanotechnology can be found in everyday products ranging from dental adhesive to windshield treatments that keep automotive glass clear in harsh weather to sporting equipment that promises enhanced performance.
Research and technology development at the atomic, molecular, or macromolecular levels, in the length scale of approximately 1-100 nanometer range, to provide a fundamental understanding of phenomena and materials at the nanoscale and to create and use structures, devices, and systems that have novel properties and functions because of their small and/or intermediate size. The novel and differentiating properties and functions are developed at a critical length scale of matter typically under 100 nm. Nanotechnology research and development includes manipulation under control of the nanoscale structures and their integration into larger material components, systems, and architectures. Within these larger-scale assemblies, the control and construction of their structures and components remains at the nanometer scale. 1
It is still a field of science that is relatively unsettled and a wilderness waiting to be discovered. Until nanotechnology becomes mainstream and is fully discovered, it will thus remain a new frontier. How it will affect society, who and what will be enabled, and when it will be fully implemented remains a future discussion.
Nanotechnology is the precise molecular positioning and purposeful manipulation of individual atoms to form matter into a host of usable products and commodities (a nanometer is a billionth of a meter, about 6 atoms placed side by side). Drexler, an early nanotechnology pioneer from MIT, has been joined by a host of scientists from medical doctors, polymer constructionists, biomedical researchers, electronics researchers, interface discoverers, space physicists, and computer scientists who argue that nanotechnology is the wave of the future.2
During the 2000 White House Conference on Nanotechnology, President Clinton approved funding by the US for the National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI) for US$ 495 million 1. The NNI set some Grand Challenges for research scientists to take up:
- Take the entire contents of the Library of Congress and shrink it down into one sugar cube.
- Detect cancer tumor growth when it is just several cells in size using nanoengineered contrast agents.
- Construct new plastics and other polymers that have the strength of steel without the weight.
- Remove contamination from water and air promoting a cleaner environment.
- Improve computer speed by factors of millions making today’s computers seem slow.
This is quite a surprising conception, since few individuals are aware of this new science, as the entire field has received little media or press coverage and is a well kept secret. For some individuals the unlimited potential of nanotechnology is too good to be true, or at best, science fiction with cynicism and skepticism included. The technology is so radical, so powerful, that it will be hard to accept. The true believer of nanotechnology is highly ethnocentric in his or her vision.
At the forefront of nanotechnology the potentials are rapidly being realized. The three areas of Biotechnology, Biometric Chemistry, and Atomic Positioning will be the first directions of growth in the field of nanotechnology according to many scientists. Even nanomedicine is currently available in the modern medical clinic. Gene therapy is just the start of nanotechnology in the medical field. Mauro Ferrari at Ohio State University is utilizing nanomedicine with state-of-the-art technology to combat genetic diseases. These small vanguards of medical researchers are discovering nanotechniques never used before. For instance, Ferrari is experimenting with nanodelivery of new cells into the human body to replace existing diseased or damaged cells. Other researchers are attempting to construct nanobombs to fight cancer. Still other medical researchers argue that the upcoming change in medicine will offer an unlimited number of nanorobots able to self-copy and replicate (millions and millions).4 Potentially able to swim around in one’s bloodstream these nanorobots will do countless numbers of cellular repairs. Medicine will undergo a drastic change, by maintaining health at the cellular level. Nanotechnology experts contend these nanorobots could extend human longevity to hundreds of years by simply keeping cells in the human body replicating in normal ways. Thus, no more aging! Disease will no longer concern the social actor as the nanorobot can travel to the site of tissue damage or disease, and eradicate problems while regenerating cellular growth to build new healthy tissue or body parts.
Nano-manufacturing will be available from common elements already in your own backyard, at little or no cost. Nano-assemblers will move atoms and nanorobots at the atomic level and allow for the creation of any commodity you can possibly dream about. We will be able to manufacture “steak” just like cattle, utilizing the atomic components of oxygen, carbon, and grass, having the nanorobots couple the atoms together in the exact same order as cattle do the natural way to make steak via nanotechnology.5 Food could be replicated. Starvation and hunger could be eliminated from the globe. Homelessness can disappear: program the nano-assemblers and watch them construct a mansion before your very eyes, using atoms like those found in wood linking them in the correct atomic sequences. Manufacturing comprised from simple soil in one’s own backyard, would yield almost any commodity. This means raw material extraction, currently necessary and contracted globally, would not be required. Most needed atoms and raw material can be extracted with a wheel barrow and a shovel at home in your backyard. This could potentially change the shape of all global manufacturing and trade.
Nanotechnology could also clean up the environment by eliminating polluting atoms or molecules that are given off in chemical reactions. Nanorobots will be able to “clean-up” any toxic site or oil spill. Wejnert argues that global destruction (due to unsustainable practices) is just moments away, and uses the metaphor of Hamlet with only 30 min to live before he dies or acts. Without a third revolution, Wejnert suggest, the planet Earth will die from pollution! Nanotechnology offers the badly needed solutions that Wejnert demands as it could guarantee sustainability and put an end to food shortages and pollution simply by letting the nanorobots do their work. 3
Computers, medicine, machinery, economics, the environment, and many facets of society will feel the shock waves of this technological nanorevolution. A number of interesting questions arise. How will economics, as we know it, be transformed? How will the consumer society fundamentally change when influenced by nanotechnology as a catalyst? Could one imagine a future society, with the potential to construct and manufacture anything one wishes? Inequality, poverty, and social class might be re-defined if a shift in jobs and commodification evolves! If social change occurs due to nanotechnology, how will that alter the way society is constructed today? What new theory from a sociological perspective will be needed? How would older accepted social theory be reworked? For instance, if nanotechnology was to eliminate poverty, Marxist Social Conflict Theory would not explain society very accurately, so what new theory might emerge that better explains shifts in social structure? In analyzing Social Conflict Theory if the concept of social class is identified not as an inequality based on economic determinism, but as equal access to social reward due to nanotechnology, the classless society may suddenly evolve past the vision of Marxism requiring revision.
Structural Functionalism Theory and Symbolic Interaction Theory are theoretical sets of explanations of society and relationships that would also require reconfiguration. The work of Talcott Parsons or George H. Mead could be revisited due to their potential lack of clarity when explaining a new social order. Old theory will fall by the wayside and new theorists are certain to emerge. Social actors will have new roles. How will their roles be reconstructed? Will family patterns change if work and education changes? How will religion evolve to meet the moral crisis that might emerge? What jobs become important, and which fields will take on added importance, which ones will be promoted, and which ones will receive the ever scarce funding resources.
These future nanotechnology changes will establish new social roles according to new social structures of society. Changes in employment patterns, for example, will lead to role changes: credentialism would change if nanotechnology changes the workplace. Demand for study in particular fields would shift from one discipline to another due to job growth in different work sectors, due to nanotechnology. This holds the potential to reshape intellectual life, since college enrollments will change due to new type of jobs.
We may seek answers of a spiritual nature as well as a social and scientific nature. Future “Creation of Humans” from nanotechnology might one day be possible leading society to question concepts of God and morality. Will these so-called perfect beings created by nanorobots have “souls” or not? Cloning has recently brought this moral question to the fore; yet with nanotechnology cloning will become an outdated technology that takes too much time to produce body parts or a person when nanorobots can do it significantly quicker. The cloning process shown in films like Gattica is already out of date. Nanotechnology will allow full scale cloning without the need of genetic engineering. The social and moral implications of this development are already being explored by science fiction writes such as James Blish, Theodore Sturgeon, Leo Stevenson and Greg Bear. 4
Nanotechnology has attracted much consideration to its scientific and business prospective, but far less debate on linked ethical, policy, authoritarian and legal aspects. From the international literature, nanotechnology emerges to be sufficiently different to past technologies such as biotechnology and pharmaceuticals to merit separate and early consideration of these scopes. So, is this nanoutopia merely a dream, or a new set of problematic concerns, or a viable possibility? Nanotechnology holds many wonders and dangerous potentials. If used wisely, it can indeed, solve many pressing social problems benefit all social actors. But it can also lead us to a future nightmare. We must be aware of its intrinsic dangers. It could, for example, lead to a new and more frightening wave of terrorism, enabling terrorists to make their own nuclear devices and other weapons. Control of this new, rapidly emerging technology has not only social but also global survival implications. If nanotechnology is going to be the next social revolution, are we ready for it?
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- National Nanotechnology Initiative, 2000. Web.
- Drexler, K.E. (2001) Machine-phase nanotechnology, Scientific American 285 (3), pp. 74–75.
- Wejnert, J. (2004) Regulatory mechanisms for molecular nanotechnology, Jurimetrics Journal 44, pp. 323–350.
- Kearnes, Matthew. (2006) Chaos and Control: Nanotechnology and the Politics of Emergence. Paragraph, Vol. 29 Issue 2, pp. 57-80.
- Tegart, G. (2006) Nanotechnology: the technology for the twenty-first century, Foresight 6 (6), pp. 364–370.