(Published August 15, 2003)
THE REVOLUTION, PT. 2
In this series we are describing an on-rushing revolution in
science and engineering, created by the convergence of four
technologies: biotechnology, information science, cognitive
science, and nanotechnology (nanotech). The National Science
Foundation (NSF) refers to all this as nano-bio-info-cogno
science, or NBIC for short.[1,2] See Rachel's #772.
Here we continue describing the newest of these four
technologies, nanotech, which is the science and engineering of
materials measuring less than 100 nanometers (100 billionths of
a meter) in size, far smaller than the eye can see.
The U.S. government created a National Nanotech Initiative just
3 years ago, which now funds nanotech research to the tune of
$700 million per year, about a third of that going to the
Pentagon. NSF predicts that nanotechnology will be a
trillion-dollar industry in the U.S. by 2015, just 12 years
from now. This revolution is upon us, though most of us
haven't a clue it is happening, or even what it is.
In newspapers, the "big debate" about nanotech revolves around
a theory known as "gray goo," proposed a few years ago by
nanotech enthusiast K. Eric Drexler. Drexler suggested that
the future of nanotech lies with nano-sized robots, which,
under software control, will manufacture useful things,
including copies of themselves. Drexler named these nanobots
"assemblers," and he suggested that vast armies of assemblers
under software control would provide the basis for a household
appliance that could manufacture anything it was instructed to
manufacture -- a Rolex watch or a filet mignon, essentially
fulfilling all of humanity's needs and wants, dirt cheap.
Drexler also calculated that, if one assembler took 1000
seconds to make a copy of itself, then self-replicating
assemblers, gone haywire, could cover planet earth with a gray
goo of assemblers within 72 hours, quickly ending life as we
know it. There is even a fancy scientific name for the gray goo
hypothesis, "global ecophagy." Ecophagy means "earth-eating."
Drexler's self-replicating assembler seems far-fetched at best.
Several Nobel prize winners have gone out of their way to
debunk Drexler's dream machine, saying it can't work because it
violates known laws of chemistry and physics. However, no
one claims that all the laws of physics or chemistry are fully
understood, so there's always wiggle room for speculation.
Despite critiques of the gray goo scenario from prestigious
quarters, the federally-funded nanotech research community has
been unable to dispel the specter of a world badly damaged, if
not destroyed, by nanotech. No one seems to doubt that nanotech
science and engineering hold great promise for churning the
economy through industrial innovation and -- not incidentally
-- for the accumulation of vast wealth by successful
entrepreneurs. But nagging doubts about the dark side persist,
partly fueled by the factual history of earlier
** Nuclear-powered electric plants were promised to produce
"electricity too cheap to meter," but in fact they produced
expensive electricity, the ever-present threat of catastrophic
accidents, continuous low-level exposure of workers and
neighbors to low levels of radioactivity at every point in the
nuclear fuel cycle, an extremely long-lived (and
so-far-unsolved) problem of radioactive wastes, and the most
intractable problem of all -- the threat of use of nuclear
bombs by terrorists, rogue states, or by any industrialized
state that finds itself facing too many enemies and with too
few soldiers to spare. No one has ever proposed a realistic
solution to the spread of nuclear weapons into the hands of
Iranians, Pakistanis, North Koreans, and who knows who else?
Behind all these potential bombs lies the technical training to
make nuclear power plants, training now available at most large
universities. If governments had refused to subsidize nuclear
power starting in 1950, our modern problems might seem far more
manageable than they do today.
** Petroleum, which gave us plastics, pesticides, and the
private automobile, is now warming the planet, producing costly
and destructive changes in Earth's climate including extreme
droughts, floods, tornadoes, monsoons, and hurricanes.
Climate change, in turn, is expanding the geographic range of
human diseases such as cholera, malaria, yellow fever and
dengue fever. [See Rachel's #466.] Leaded gasoline alone
created a phenomenally-large, intergenerational public health
problem, reducing the IQs of three generations of urban
dwellers, promoting attention deficits, school dropout, and
violent behavior, and increasing heart disease and cancer.
Furthermore, petroleum-based chemistry produced its own set of
nasty surprises, including large numbers of childhood cancers,
immune system disorders, central nervous system diseases,
attention deficits, birth defects, and injuries to the
reproductive systems of men, women, and children. Every
week new studies elucidate the enormous public-health costs of
petro-chemical technologies. In this instance, huge
government subsidies made possible the rapid introduction of
ill-considered innovations (such as many products of chlorine
chemistry), and shielded the corporate sector from
liability for reckless decisions.
** Agricultural antibiotics gave us plump chickens, fat cattle,
and oversized pigs, but they also helped create
antibiotic-resistant forms of typhoid fever, cholera,
meningitis, pneumonia, gonorrhea, syphilis, salmonella,
streptococcal infections ("strep throat," impetigo, scarlet
fever, and rheumatic fever), staphylococcus ("staph")
infections (serious blood infections common in hospitals);
shigella, dysentery, and even tuberculosis. In 1992,
antibiotic-resistant bacteria killed at least 13,300 people in
the U.S., according to the federal Centers for Disease Control,
and cost the economy an estimated $30 billion (not including
pain and suffering). Federal eagerness to subsidize the
corporate use of antibiotics on factory farms contributed
heedlessly and needlessly to these problems.
** Agricultural biotechnology was supposed to develop under
precise laboratory control, reduce the use of harmful
pesticides, and "feed the world." In reality, even though the
commercial use of biotech food is less than a decade old,
biotech crops have already increased, not decreased, the need
for dangerous pesticides.[Rachel's #686] Furthermore, novel
genes, held under the strictest possible governmental controls,
have on several occasions escaped into plants and foods where
the public had been told they would never be found. Modern
controls on biotechnology have proven to be a dramatic failure.
Meanwhile world hunger marches on (principally because of poor
distribution networks, and poverty which prevents people from
purchasing available food.)
For those who care to look, there seems to be a five-step
pattern in this recent history of government-subsidized
(1) It begins with a corporate decision to commandeer taxpayer
funds to support the development of a new technology, after
which government provides a long stream of subsidies, some in
plain sight and many others hidden.
(2) Next, we hear government (and corporate) hype about the
limitless possibilities for increasing productivity, vastly
improving the quality of life for everyone, ending poverty,
curing cancer and so on.
(3) Government then refuses to apply (or enforce) even the most
(4) Government (in concert with the corporate sector)
suppresses unwelcome information and ignores (or discredits)
dissenting voices warning of trouble ahead.
(5) Finally, government donates publicly-created knowledge and
investment to corporate elites who then make profits galore for
a decade or two until damage reports accumulate, the public
catches on, and controversy engulfs the technology. The role of
government throughout this phase is to act like a sponge and
absorb blows from an angry public, suppress unwelcome
information, discredit detractors, deflect demands for strict
regulation, continue to hype the technology, simultaneously
spending additional tens of billions of taxpayer dollars on
elaborate (and contradictory) programs of blame, denial,
cleanup, restitution, and defense against lawsuits.
Nanotech has already entered stages 1 through 4 and is rapidly
approaching stage 5.
As with powerful technologies before it, the dark side of
nanotech is hard to separate from its bright side. Even if
nanobot assemblers never materialize, self-assembly,
self-repair, and self-replication remain important goals of
Even NSF's Dr. Mihail ("Mike") Roco -- never one to dwell on
the dark side of nanotech or NBIC -- identifies the development
of "replication and eventually self-replication methods at
nanoscale" as one of the key challenges facing
nanotechnologists. Nanotech won't ever amount to much if it
doesn't achieve self-replication.
Ray Kurzweil, inventor of the first reading machine for the
blind, author of The Age of Spiritual Machines, and hardly an
anti-technology Luddite, points out that, "Without
self-replication, nanotechnology is neither practical nor
economically feasible. And therein lies the rub. What happens
if a little software problem (inadvertent or otherwise) fails
to halt the self-replication?... Nuclear weapons, for all their
destructive potential, are at least relatively local in their
effects. The self-replicating nature of nanotechnology makes it
a far greater danger."
In a now-famous essay in Wired magazine (April 2000), Bill Joy,
co-founder and Chief Scientist at Sun Microsystems, drew an
even darker picture of a future dominated by genetic
manipulation, nanotech, and robotics (GNR):
"The 21st-century technologies -- genetics, nanotechnology, and
robotics (GNR) -- are so powerful that they can spawn whole new
classes of accidents and abuses. Most dangerously, for the
first time, these accidents and abuses are widely within the
reach of individuals or small groups. They will not require
large facilities or rare raw materials. Knowledge alone will
enable the use of them."
"I think it is no exaggeration to say we are on the cusp of the
further perfection of extreme evil, an evil whose possibility
spreads well beyond that which weapons of mass destruction
bequeathed to the nation-states, on to a surprising and
terrible empowerment of extreme individuals."
"In truth, we have had in hand for years clear warnings of the
dangers inherent in widespread knowledge of GNR [genetics,
nanotech, and robotics] technologies - of the possibility of
knowledge alone enabling mass destruction. But these warnings
haven't been widely publicized; the public discussions have
been clearly inadequate. There is no profit in publicizing the
dangers," Joy wrote.
The directors of the National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI)
in Washington, say they want to explore the dark side of
nanotech, partly to avoid the troubles that presently engulf
the emerging field of genetically engineered (aka biotech)
food. Biotech -- the practice of stuffing genes from one
species into an unrelated species (for example, blasting the
genes from a trout into a tomato, to help the tomato survive
cold weather) -- was promoted by a handful of chemical
corporations aided by pliant federal regulators, some of whom
came to their federal jobs fresh from the executive suites of
the chemical corporations they were hired to regulate. [Rachel's
Between 1994 and 2001, genetically engineered products were
rapidly introduced first into the U.S. milk supply, then into
corn and soybeans with a noticeable absence of public debate
until after the fact. Indeed, the U.S. Food and Drug
Administration (FDA) declared it illegal for grocers or anyone
else to label a product "not genetically engineered," for the
purpose of preventing citizens from making informed choices at
the grocery check-out. Government's enthusiasm for biotech
food has been exceeded only by its desire to suppress public
debate about the technology.
It was a small group of independent researchers in western
Canada -- the Etc Group ( target="_blank">www.etcgroup.org) -- in cahoots with
other non-governmental organizations, who first revealed the
dark side of biotech. Once the facts began to be known, public
reaction was swift and strong. Many governments in Europe
banned the import of U.S. biotech foods. Scientists within the
U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) complained publicly
that their doubts about the safety of biotech foods had been
ignored and suppressed.[Rachel's #685] Canadian government
officials claimed they had been offered bribes by chemical
firms to approve biotech milk.[Rachel's #593, #621, #639]
The biotech story is by no means over. Eventually the
chemical-biotech corporations, with the U.S. government running
interference on their behalf, may overcome worldwide resistance
to "frankenfoods" as they are now popularly known.
Nevertheless, by almost any standard the introduction of
biotech has been a public relations debacle, a scientific
scandal, and a disaster for U.S. international relations.
Nanotech enthusiasts in Washington are eager to avoid a biotech
replay, to put it mildly.
To show its willingness to consider the dark side of nanotech,
the National Science Foundation (NSF) held a conference in
September 2000 on "Societal Implications of Nanoscience and
Nanotechnology." Subsequently, NSF published a 272-page report
of the meeting edited by Mihail Roco and an NSF colleague.
In its report, the NSF acknowledges the following sorts of
problems stemming from nanotech:
** nanotech may increase "the inequality of wealth," creating a
kind of "nano divide" because "those who participate in the
'nano revolution' stand to become very wealthy" while "those
who don't may find it increasingly difficult to afford the
technological wonders that it engenders."[20, pg. 11]
** nanotech-based medical treatments may "initially" be
expensive, "hence accessible only to the very rich." (18, pg.
The NSF proposes to solve these problems by hiring social
scientists, philosophers of ethics and other "professionally
trained representatives of the public interest" who are
"capable of functioning as communicators between
nanotechnologists and the public or government officials."[20,
pg. 12] In other words, opinion experts will be hired to tell
nano experts what the non-experts think about all this, to help
the nano experts make decisions about how to deploy this new
As envisioned by the NSF, the general public, whose society is
about to be "revolutionized" by nanotech in the next 10 to 20
years, will not have any significant say in the roll-out of
nanotech, except of course to pay for it.
Environmentalists argue that the commercialization of nanotech
offers an opportunity to try a more thoughtful approach to
industrial innovation, adopting the "better safe than sorry"
precautionary principle, instead of the more traditional "damn
the torpedoes, full speed ahead." No one disputes that the
old way created substantial benefits, but the costs to human
health and the environment have been enormous, and unpleasant
new surprises are being discovered weekly if not daily. Indeed,
it is no exaggeration to say that there is a consensus among
many biologists that the biosphere is being shredded by
previous technical innovations.[22, 23] Maybe this time around
we could have the benefits of the new technology but minimize
the unpleasant surprises.
The National Academy of Sciences, which manages the National
Nanotech Initiative, seems to agree that nanotech should be
studied, but wants it done as the technology is being
introduced, not before. The difference is crucial. History
reveals vividly that after a new technology has achieved
commercial success, it is nearly impossible to slow it down,
much less bring it to a halt. Even when major public health
problems become apparent, as with asbestos, leaded gasoline,
chlorofluorocarbons, and fossil fuels it can take 30 to 100
years to change course and introduce saner alternatives. The
only practical time to apply restraint to nanotech would be
The mechanism for applying restraint would be the democratic
involvement of a broad spectrum of the general public,
genuinely seeking their guidance, not merely trying to
manipulate them like so many robots. Numerous advanced
techniques are available now for engaging the public in
informed debate, but the National Science Foundation has,
so far, shown no inclination to give any of them a try.
[To be continued]
 Mihail C. Roco and William Sims Bainbridge, editors,
Converging Technologies for Improving Human Performance
(Washington, D.C.: National Science Foundation, June, 2002.
 Barnaby J. Feder, "Oppositiopn to Nanotechnology," New York
Times August 19, 2002, pg. C5.
 Richard E. Smalley, "Of Chemistry, Love and Nanobots,"
Scientific American Vol. 285, No. 3 (September 2001), pgs.
76-77. And: George M. Whitesides, "The Once and Future
Nanomachine," Scientific American Vol. 285, No. 3 (September
2001), pgs. 78-83.
 Arjun Makhijani and Scott Saleska, The Nuclear Power
Deception; U.S. Nuclear Mythology from Electricity "Too Cheap
to Meter" to "Inherently Safe" Reactors (New York: The Apex
Press, 1999). ISBN 0-945257-75-9.
 William J. Broad, "Chain reaction; Facing a Second Nuclear
Age," New York Times Week in Review August 3, 2003, pg. 1. And
see J. R. Pegg, "Bush Administration Keen on New Nuclear
Weapons," Environment News Service, May 7, 2003, available at
 William Cosgrove, "Number of Killer Storms and Droughts
Increasing Worldwide," World Water Council (Marseille, France)
Feb. 27, 2003. Available at
 See, for example, Rachel's #529, #689. On lead and cancer
and heart disease, see M. Lustberg and E. Silbergeld, "Blood
lead levels and mortality," Archives of Internal Medicine Vol.
162 (2002), pgs. 2443-2449.
 Up-to-date reports about the latest studies can be found
on the web sites described in Rachel's #769.
 Joe Thornton, Pandora's Poison; Chlorine, Health, and a
New Environmental Strategy (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2000).
 Ricki Lewis, "The Rise of Antibiotic-Resistant
Infections," FDA [U.S. Food and Drug Administration] Consumer
Magazine (Sept. 1995). Available at
 See Rachel's #760 and the materials cited there. In
addition to the scandals described in Rachel's #760, illegal
biotech Starlink corn in hundreds of consumer products; illegal
biotech canola in Canadian canola fields; illegal biotech
cotton in India; and perhaps illegal biotech corn in the
heartland of Mexico have all been reported within the past two
years; see Justin Gillis, "Little Oversight of Altered Crops,"
Washington Post April 25, 2003, pg. E4. And see Marc Kaufman,
"The Biotech Corn Debate Grows Hot in Mexico," Washington Post
March 25, 2002, pg. A9.
 Some hidden subsidies have been described in Shannon
Collier and others, Green Scissors (Washington, D.C.: Friends
of the Earth and others, May 8, 2003). Available at
 M.C. Roco, "From Vision to the Implementation of the U.S.
National Nanotechnology Initiative," Journal of Nanoparticle
Research, Vol. 3, No. 1 (2001), pgs. 5-11.
 Kurzweil quoted in Sean Howard, "Nanotechnology and Mass
Destruction: The Need for an Inner Space Treaty," Disarmament
Diplomacy No. 65 (July-August, 2002), pgs. unknown. Available
at target="_blank">http://www.rachel.org/library/getfile.cfm?ID=233 .
 See Rachel's #382. Monsanto, the chemical giant that holds
the patent rights for rBGH, a synthetic hormone that causes
cows to increase their milk output, in July, 2003, sued dairy
farmers in Maine to stop them from labeling their milk free of
rBGH. See David Barboza, "Monsanto Sues Dairy in Maine Over
Label's Remarks on Hormones," New York Times July 12, 2003, pg.
 Mihail C. Roco and William Sims Bainbridge, Societal
Implications of Nanoscience and Nanotechnology (Washington,
D.C.: National Science Foundation, March 2001). Available at
 On the precautionary principle, see, for example,
 See, for example, Peter M. Vitousek and others, "Human
Domination of Earth's Ecosystems," Science Vol. 277 (July 25,
1997), pgs. 494-499. Available at
And: Jane Lubchenco, "Entering the Century of the Environment:
A New Social Contract for Science," Science Vol. 279 (Jan. 23,
1998), pgs. 491-497. Available at:
 William K. Stevens, "Lost Rivets and Threads, and
Ecosystems Pulled Apart," New York Times July 4, 2000, pg. F4.
Available at: http://www.rachel.org/library/getfile.cfm?
 Maria B. Pellerano and Peter Montague, "Democracy and the
Precautionary Principle: An Introduction," unpublished paper
(in press) July, 2002. Available at