Science in Society Archive

The Brave New World Quartet

A quartet of corporate technologies is poised to take over the world. Dr. Mae-Wan Ho takes a peek at what's in store.

Someone said I should read this report, which turns out to be 450 pages long, lavishly produced, in heavily heroic prose and complete with technicolor futuristic diagrams. It is the outcome of a US National Science Foundation (NSF) workshop held last December, entitled, Converging Technologies for Improving Human Performance (June 2002, National Science Foundation, Department of Commerce, United States of America).

One doesn't have to wade too far beyond the executive summary for the message to hit home. It is about the combined role of nanotechnology, biotechnology, information technology and brain science in "accelerating advancement of mental physical and overall human performance".

Nanotechnology will play the key role in the "integration and synergy" of the four technologies (nano-bio-info-cogno), NIBC for short, because everything, all of life, originate from the nanoscale, the scale of molecules. It is the ultimate in reductionist, bottom-up approach to life, the universe and everything, starting from atoms and molecules.

It says that as we now understand how atoms combine to form molecules, which in turn aggregate to form structures, and technology can harness natural processes to engineer new material, biological products and machines from the nanoscale up to the scale of meters, so "[t]he same principles will allow us to understand and when desirable to control the behavior both of complex microsystems such as neurons and computer components and macrosystems such as human metabolism and transportation vehicles".

In other words, the four corporate technologies are going to team up, to dominate and intervene in every aspect of our daily life, from the workings of our brain and body, our genetic makeup to social organisation and national security. Nothing, but nothing is left out. Beginning with the ability "to control the genetics of humans, animals, and agricultural plants", the list is endless, ranging from external devices and systems of food production, robots, tools, mobile and wearable artefacts, to ingestible medicines and food, implantables nanodevices, organs, sensors, new genes new cells.

"Examples of payoffs will include improving work efficiency and learning, enhancing individual sensory and cognitive capabilities, revolutionary changes in healthcare, improving both individual and group creativity, highly effective communication techniques including brain to brain interaction, perfecting human-machine interfaces including neuromorphic engineering, enhancing human capabilities for defense purposes, reaching sustainable development using NBIC tools, and ameliorating the physical and cognitive decline that is common to the aging mind."

One speaker sums it up,

"If the Cognitive Scientists can think it
the Nano people can build it
the Bio people can implement it, and
the IT people can monitor and control it."

The report calls for "new curricula, new concepts to provide intellectual coherence, and new forms of education institutions. It recommends transformation of science, engineering and technology at their very roots.

In short, it is promising to take me boldly almost everywhere I never wanted to go in the first place. This report is thinly disguised pr for the nanotechnology industry.

Clinton announced the National Nanotechnology Initiative in 2000, a multiagency program to provide a big funding boost for nanotechnology. It received $442 million in the fiscal year that ended last September, a 56% jump from the year before. In 2002, another 23% increase was granted even while the Bush administration proposed cuts to funding for research and development programmes of most federal agencies. In other countries including Japan and South Korea, total funding for nanotechnology jumped from $316 million in 1997 to about $845million in 2001.

Shortly after the NSF report was released, US government, industry and academic researchers came together to form a public-private consortium, the New Jersey Nanotechnology Laboratory, a facility based in Lucent Technologies' Bell Labs. "Nanotechnology backers see trillion-dollar industry", according to New Jersey News (8/1/02).

Of the quartet, the IT boom has come and gone, brain research has contributed little during "the decade of the brain" (1980s) or subsequently, apart from endless debate on the nature of 'consciousness', and biotechnology is fast collapsing from technical and financial failures and worldwide rejection of its products; investments have dried up and there's nothing new or useful in the pipelines. Can nanotechnology really reverse the fortunes of the other three technologies or take off on its own?

The most promising developments are probably in microelectronics that could make computers run even faster than they do now (see box).

Molecular electronics?

Miniaturisation has been a major trend in electronics since computers were invented, which means that approximately every two years, the number of components on a single chip doubles, and computers can run twice as fast. This is referred to as Moore's law.

Microelectronics has now shrunk to: "the threshold of the molecular scale", which is the limit, and defines the scale of nanotechnology. "Atom by atom" construction is now realisable with the inventions in the 1980s of the scanning tunnelling microscope and the atomic force microscope capable of creating images of individual atoms and moving them from place to place.

The IBM Zurich Research Laboratory has mounted the sharp, nanometer tips used in the atomic force microscopes onto more than 1 000 microscopic cantilevers on a microchip to make a 'millipede' device. The tips of this device can write digital bits onto a polymer sheet. This technique could lead to a data storage device that is 20 time or more the density of today's best disc drives.

Two main approaches are used to make nanostructures. The top down approach chisel out or add bulk material to a surface. Microchips with circuit lines of little more than 100 nanometers are now available. The bottom-up approach depends on self-assembly of atoms and molecules, like liquid crystals, that make ordered arrangements spontaneously, given the right conditions.

Nanotubes - carbon cylinders with unusual electrical properties - are being developed as nanowires. Nanotubes are related to the carbon sphere called buckminster fullerene - because they resemble the geodesic dome invented by the architect polymath Buckminister Fuller - discovered by Robert Curl, Jr., Harry Kroto and Richard Smalley, all of whom received a Nobel prize. Many structures based on nanotubes are being envisioned, including minute gears. But most are theoretical paper models only.

Sources: Scientific American Special Issue Nanotech, September 2001, www.SCIAM.COM; Nanotechnology

There will be arguments as to whether advances in quantum optics and quantum entanglement belong in nanotechnology, but they are making quantum cryptography, if not quantum computing nearly practicable. How useful that is for ordinary people is debatable.

The problem with the NSF report and other similar documents is that it doesn't distinguish between science and science fiction, between hype and reality, let alone the desirable and undesirable in terms of ethics, choice and safety.

See other reports in this series: "Nanotechnology, a hard pill to swallow", for the biomedical applications, and "Can computer become super-intelligent?" for a critique of molecular machines and self-replicating nano-robots.

Article first published 23/08/02

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