Sunday, November 16, 2003

Parallel Nanoverse

The word "nanotechnology" appears to straddle a fissure in the multiverse. When theorists, chemists, physicists, ethicists and journalists talk with one another about nanotechnology, their conversations appear to exist on oddly divergent levels of understanding. They utter the same word at one another, yet premises, images, definitions are scrambled as the word slips between realities.

Great Britain's Guardian newspaper recently asked the nanotech question of the millennium: Should we be scared?

After reading the article, my conclusion is, "yes," we should be scared. We should be very scared. Not scared of nanotechnology in itself, but of this line of understanding that is so thin (thinner than a human hair?), we do not even realize that are failing to communicate. We are tricked into believing that we all have the same elementary understanding of what the argument is about.

This Guardian story fascinated me because it was a very informative report on nanotechnology as it exists in the lab today. Yet, a "voice" from the writer's keyboard, which may as well have come from the other side of a black hole, chimes in at random, making me wonder whether the narrator has read his own report.

    "And the term has been stretched by scientists keen to be involved in the nanotech revolution. For them, anything remotely small becomes nanotechnology."
Which scientists are guilty of this crime? He doesn't say. This "voice" then fades away again, and we're back to reading a fairly accurate description of nano as it exists today.

Then, the "voice" comes echoing again from somewhere in the space-time continuum.

    "Even if scientists knew how to build things from individual atoms and molecules, though, it's questionable whether they would know quite what to build."

Really? Well, in the universe I live in, the scientists who are working on bottom-up assembly are doing so because they know exactly what they want to build - from better computers to better clothing, and all levels of importance and frivolity in between.

It's clear that there are two concepts, two universes, of nanotechnology dancing a bolero – at times standing head to head, other times abruptly stamping and turning.

For now, the chemicals and materials industry have taken the name and the mantle of nanotech "reality." Yet it is molecular nanotechnology, as yet in the realm of the theoretical, that commands the real passion. This thing, this creature or creator, from a parallel universe, continues to weave its way into our debates over policy, ethics and possible futures.

Last month, Eric Drexler floated a new word past me - Zettatech - asked for my reaction, and then swore me to secrecy. The word is out now, and I'll have more to say on it later.


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