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Home > Introduction > Articles > Nanoveau > The Sound of Inevitability


the nanotechnology column


Nanoveau is a new column by Nano author John Robert Marlow. This column will cover the science, the speculation, and (occasionally) the politics of nanotechnology and related topics. If you want to know what nanotech is about, and how and why it will change everything we know—Nanoveau is for you. The name Nanoveau is a combination of nanotechnology and nouveau, the French word meaning new. This column is presented in cooperation with Nanotechnology Now. Visit the Nanoveau homepage.

John Robert Marlow
John Robert Marlow

NANOVEAU #001:  The Sound of Inevitability—Why Nanotech Will Happen
by John Robert Marlow

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"Do you hear that, Mr. Anderson? That is the sound of inevitability."
—Agent Smith in The Matrix



Nanotechnology offers Mankind almost unbelievable benefits—and all but unimaginable horrors. Too often, one or the other extreme is depicted with little explanation of the underlying realities. Because of this, those newly exposed to the concepts involved sometimes dismiss nanotech as an unworkable fantasy—or as something too far in the future to be concerned about now. The first column (Digital Matter—Understanding Nanotechnology) explained how nanotechnology will work, and listed some of the benefits and hazards involved. This column explains why nanotech's development is inevitable—and why the technology itself warrants immediate attention.


A recent National Science Foundation paper authored by M.C. Roco, NSF's Senior Advisor for Nanotechnology, estimates that by 2015, nanotech will be a $1 trillion industry employing two million workers. The reason for this is simple: in addition to making it possible to manufacture present-day products faster and cheaper than they can be made today, nanotechnology will enable those who use it to create entirely new products which cannot be manufactured (or equaled) in any other way. Consequently, companies which take advantage of nanotech's unique capabilities stand to reap enormous profits—while those which fail to adapt are likely to be destroyed by more savvy competitors offering far better and often incomparable products at much lower prices. The message to industry is clear: adapt or die.

Lured by projections such as Roco's, and by the promise of near-term benefits in specialized areas, a virtual Who's Who of multibillion-dollar corporations have chosen to adapt by investing in nanoresearch. These include such household names as Alcoa, Bayer, Boeing, Cargill, DaimlerChrysler, Dow Chemical, Dupont, Eli Lilly, General Motors, Hewlett-Packard, Hitachi, IBM, Intel, Lockheed Martin, Lucent Technologies (Bell Labs), Merck, MITRE Corporation, Monsanto, Motorola, Raytheon, Samsung, Texas Instruments, Toyota, United Technologies, and Xerox PARC. The sheer variety of companies involved indicates the unprecedented and extremely broad range of fields impacted by nanotechnology.

A quick survey of major U.S. government entities with nanoresearch programs covers a similarly broad spectrum: the Air Force Office of Scientific Research; Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA); Department of Commerce; Department of Energy (DOE); NASA; National Institutes of Health (NIH); National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST); Naval Research Laboratory; National Science Foundation (NSF); Office of Naval Research, and; U.S. Army Research Laboratory.

A number of less-familiar companies devoted entirely to nanodevelopment have also appeared—among them Molecular Manufacturing Enterprises, Nanologic, Oxford Nanotechnology, ZettaCore (whose board of directors includes Intel co-founder Les Vadasz), and Zyvex (corporate slogan: "assembling tomorrow...").


For those concerned with issues of national security, the rationale driving nanodevelopment is both grim and inescapable. Though quoted in the first Nanoveau column, the words of Admiral David E. Jeremiah—Vice-Chairman (ret.) of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the second highest-ranking military officer in the United States—bear repeating here: "military applications of molecular manufacturing [another term for nanotechnology] have even greater potential than nuclear weapons to radically change the balance of power." Those familiar with the technology realize this is an understatement. (A detailed exploration of nanosecurity issues may be found in the author's article Nanosecurity and the Future (if Any)).

Thus it came as no surpise when Clifford Lau, senior science adviser in the Pentagon's office of basic research and president of the IEEE's Nanotechnology Council, recently confirmed that "nanotechnology is one of the highest priority science and technology programs in the Defense Department." The Pentagon, he went on to say, expects nanotech to affect every major weapons system, is coordinating research across all military branches to transition nanotech from basic research to deployment—and is exceeding its allotted budget in this area to do so.

In addition to the defense-related agencies and labs mentioned above, nanoresearch is now being conducted at the following U.S. National Laboratories: Ames Laboratory Condensed Matter Physics Group (Department of Energy); Argonne National Laboratory; Brookhaven National Laboratory; Center for Advanced Research in Biotechnology (CARB); Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory; Idaho National Engineering & Environmental Laboratory (INEEL); Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL); Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL); NanoStructures Laboratory (MIT); Nadrian C. Seeman's Laboratory (NYU); Nanostructure Laboratory (Princeton University); Sandia National Laboratories; Thermal Spray Lab (TSL). Many of these labs are noted for weapons research; some of them conducted the research leading to the atomic and hydrogen bombs.

From a military standpoint, the situation is analogous to that which existed at the dawn of the Atomic Age, when major nations first realized that an atom bomb was possible, and set out to develop it. Whether the motivation for that development was a desire for greater power over other nations, a fear of other nations wielding that same power, or some combination of the two—the end result was the same: the creation of the atom bomb became inevitable. Likewise, even without the promise of staggering commercial benefits, nanotechnology is inevitable for military reasons alone.

A unique and disturbing feature of nanotechnology is that there is no fundamental theoretical difference between civilian and military nanotech; absent some built-in safeguards, the same device used to build playpens could be used to create horrific weapons. Obviously there will be safeguards, but this situation, in a sense, places the military in competition with industry when it comes to developing certain aspects of the technology (such as assemblers/disassemblers)—and will tend to accelerate efforts in both arenas as nanodevelopment advances toward maturity.


James Cameron, the world's leading cinematic high-tech visionary, sums it up nicely. "Nanotechnology is unbelievably exciting and incredibly dangerous," said Cameron in a recent interview with Nanoveau author John Robert Marlow. Though quick to point out that he doesn't consider himself an expert in the field, Cameron likens nanotech's potential for good and evil to that inherent in all major advances. "From the harnessing of fire," he explains, "every time we've come up with a new technology, we've figured out a way to use that technology to make life better, and to make it worse. And the net charge always seems to be about zero; it seems to make life better for a while, then worse for a while."

Unlike previous advances, however, nanotech has the capability to swiftly—and irrevocably—tip the scales one way or the other. "Nanotechnology could be our salvation or our destruction," Cameron confirms, and goes on to make what is perhaps the best argument of all for nanodevelopment: "But it's absolutely necessary as our salvation. We've put ourselves in a role of stewardship of a biosphere which is already compromised by our technology—and the only solution to that will be a technology solution because of the burden of six billion, probably going on ten billion people by the end of this decade. So the only real salvation for the biosphere, to that kind of burden and to the things we've done to it already, will be a technological solution. We're already committed; we have to play the hand technologically. There's no going back to the Garden."

Indeed, though it has not yet been released, it is already too late to put the nanogenie back in the bottle.


The benefits for those able to develop and use nanotechnology are almost unlimited; the potential downside for those who fail to do so, nearly unimaginable. Worldwide, according to the National Science Foundation, government spending on nanotech is up over 700% since 1997. The United States alone recently committed over $5 billion to nanotech research (this figure does not include the black nanobudget, if any). Private industry is spending billions more. New facilities are being constructed. Nobel prizes have been awarded for work in the field.

Nobel laureate physicist and Manhattan Project veteran Richard Feynman called nanotechnology unstoppable; Nobel laureate chemist Richard Smalley says its impact will be more important than many of the 20th century's major advances combined. The military considers it more crucial than nuclear weapons; major corporations, an essential step ensuring future profits. The technical roadmap has already been drawn (by Eric Drexler in Nanosystems), and is now being traveled. Given all of this—can nanotechnology not happen?


Don't miss Nanoveau #003: coming in July.


Thanks to Chris Phoenix of the Center for Responsible Nanotechnology for vetting this column.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR:  John Robert Marlow is a freelance journalist, screenwriter, and author of the novel Nano. All columns, fully-sourced, can be found on the Nanoveau homepage - along with a nanofaq, nanolinks, and more. The content of this column is copyright © by John Robert Marlow, all rights reserved. The first column (Digital Matter—Understanding Nanotechnology) may be freely copied subject to the conditions stated on the Nanoveau rights page, which also contains syndication information.

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"Mark Twain once advised his readers: 'Be careful about reading health books. You may die of a misprint.' Something similar might be said of nanotechnology - though in this case, the world could die of a misprint, or a misunderstanding. Unfortunately, the people charged with making policy in this area often lack a complete understanding of the most fundamental concepts of nanotechnology."

Marlow's work has often specialized in two areas: explaining complex scientific and medical topics in understandable terms for a general audience, and weapons & tactics for law enforcement and counterterrorist publications.

"Simply put, with billions of dollars in government nanofunding about to materialize, and private investors eager to capitalize (and capitalize on) research results, everyone and his brother suddenly claimed (often with little or no justification) to be working in the hot field of "nanotechnology"-something akin to the recent dot-com boom. The unfortunate effect has been to confuse the public as to just what nanotech really is (for a particularly absurd example, see Little Robots In Your Pants, a transcript of a recorded conversation with clothier Dockers' customer service department).

This is of course good for those not really working on nanotech (but receiving funds from those who think they are), and bad for both those actually engaged in the field-who are bound to be damaged in the public's perception when the fake nanocompanies are exposed and/or fail-and those who simply want to see the field advance as swiftly as possible."

Excerpt from the April NanoNews Now Monthly Report on Nanotechnology & Security by John Robert Marlow ... read the entire article and much more.

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