Separating science fiction from fact in nanotechnology’s future

José López

“Looking at science fiction helps us understand how we talk about nanotechnology. Science fiction usually relies on revolutionary technology or a major event to define how society works. Nanotechnology gets talked about like that — some argue that it will change everything.”

– José López

Sociology professor José López uses science-fiction metaphors to deliver a reality check in the emerging world of nanotechnology.

Nanotechnology has led to exciting advances in everything from medicine to engineering to telecommunications. And its potential is even more exciting, as people develop ways to build things the way nature does—atom by atom, and molecule by molecule. But nanotechnology’s vast promise means the hype and hyperbole surrounding it can get in the way of a rational scientific discussion of its true potential, and implications for society.

José López, an associate professor in the University of Ottawa’s Department of Sociology and Anthropology, is influencing the way we look at nanotechnology. His research papers are challenging the often uncritical way we accept the boldest claims made by nanotech­nology enthusiasts—who have proposed building carbon-nanotube space elevators, and tiny robots that could be used to deliver medicine internally. There are even predictions that nanotechnology advances might allow humans to evolve into beings with such greatly expanded capabilities that we would call them “post-human.”

Reputable science organizations generally describe nanotechnology in glowing terms. In Canada, the National Research Council describes nanotechnology as “opening up vast new horizons in virtually all sectors of the economy, from materials sciences, to biomedicine, to communications and information technology.” The United States federal government’s nanotech program, the National Nanotechnology Initiative, uses the tagline: “Leading to a revolution in technology and industry that benefits society.”

“Vast new horizons” and “revolution” are words that carry a lot of weight. If we are to avoid getting caught up in the hype, we need a way to understand how we perceive nanotechnology and why we choose certain words to describe it.

“Looking at science fiction helps us understand how we talk about nanotechnology. Science fiction usually relies on revolutionary technology or a major event to define how society works. Nanotechnology gets talked about like that—some argue that it will change everything,” López says.

This world-changing technology or event is called a novum—time travel and parallel universes are classic examples. Science fiction then typically includes a master builder who interacts with the novum and drives the story line. “With this mindset, we perceive nanotechnology—and the scientists driving it, the master builders— as a way to reconstruct a new world,” López says. “We’re speaking the language of hubris to think we can control the future in this way. We have to remember that nanotechnology is still in its infancy.”

López recognizes the enormous potential of the field, and acknowledges that it would be unreasonable to deny that it will “probably lead to some rather amazing and beneficial applications.” He intends no discredit, but he does want people to recognize the inherent danger of not perceiving the “ultimate conceit” in claims that nanotechnology will rebuild the world. He is not alone. The U.S. National Nanotechnology Initiative is working closely with public health organizations like the Food and Drug Administration on safety concerns.

López is also concerned that by investing nanotechnology with the ability to resolve all manner of social, cultural and political problems, potential non-technological solutions might not be pursued. “All our problems can’t be solved by science,” he says. “We still need to think of some challenges as political and social problems.”

He feels that science-fiction thinking about nanotechnology ignores critical thinking, and glosses over the gap between what is possible today, and what might be possible in the future. This ability to bridge gaps extends beyond technical questions. “By generating a fictional future world that contains beneficent social implications with only minor ethical complications, we are ignoring, or bridging, social and ethical gaps as well,” López says.

In fact, if nanotechnology follows the path of most ground-breaking technologies, there will likely be an ethical lag between the arrival of the technology and our understanding of its social implications. Consider the privacy concerns that dominate today’s discussions of the role of the Internet, or the worries over discrimination that arise from genetic testing.

“We need to make policies and decisions that will be able to deal with social issues. We can’t wait for nanotechnology to develop, and then react,” López says. “The technology of hubris, typified by science fiction, must be replaced by the technology of humility grounded in science’s true spirit that acknowledges just how much we don’t know.” 

 

Nanotechnology: small but mighty

Nanotechnology works with matter measuring between one nanometre (a billionth of a metre) and a few hundred nanometres. A human hair is 80,000 nanometres thick. A single nanometre is just eight to 10 atoms long. Nanotechnology provides a key to unlocking how atoms are arranged. This gives us the key to building new materials with a vast range of uses.

 

by Matthew Bonsall

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