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Home > Nanotechnology Columns > Center for Responsible Nanotechnology > Nanotech in the Big Picture

Mike Treder
Center for Responsible Nanotechnology

Abstract:
When CRN was founded five years ago, our intent was to assist in establishing the technical feasibility of molecular manufacturing, to mount a convincing argument that it would be a disruptive, transformative technology, and to raise awareness of the potential imminence of its arrival. Now we need to step back and look at the bigger picture.

August 14th, 2008

Nanotech in the Big Picture

When Chris Phoenix and I founded the Center for Responsible Nanotechnology [1] in December 2002, our intent was: a) to assist in establishing the technical feasibility of exponential general-purpose molecular manufacturing; b) to mount a convincing argument that it would be a disruptive, transformative technology; and c) to raise awareness of the potential imminence of its arrival -- it could be soon, and it might appear rather suddenly.

In the "CRN at Five Years Old" status report [2] that we published in January, we related that it appears we have been mostly successful in achieving the first two points above: a) feasibility and b) disruption. We're proud of what we have accomplished there.

But where we've been less successful is in garnering agreement about the imminence of the technology's likely arrival, and the consequent urgency for preparation. We think, however, that this may not be so much a failure on our part as a recognition that technical work toward achieving molecular manufacturing is not progressing as fast as we were originally concerned that it might. And since the purpose of CRN [3] is not prediction, but preparation, we're quite happy to say that the initial part of our work is done, and the time for hitting hard on the imminence/urgency message is not yet here. This doesn't mean that we won't continue writing and talking about the technology and its implications, because we will.

However, as we sit back and look at this big picture, we can also see how vital it is to understand that technological change does not occur in a vacuum [4], nor is it immune to the social, political, and economic conditions within which it develops. That's why we think it's so important to project the impacts of evolving changes in societies, cultures, other emerging technologies, and major environmental trends.

If, for example, global warming continues at its present alarming rate and causes greater and greater ecological catastrophes, eventually throwing the world economy totally out of whack -- well, that's something that could affect how soon and how safely molecular manufacturing is developed and deployed. Or, if China's unprecedented growth rate shifts the balance of power either economically or militarily too quickly and makes the geopolitical situation dangerously unstable, that's something that could have a big impact on where, when, and how nanofactory technology comes into being. This, by the way, is a good explanation for why we went to such trouble to prepare eight future scenarios [5] about the potential development of advanced nanotechnology.

So, we don't think that paying attention to these issues is beyond the scope of our mission. In fact, we believe that if we ignored such preeminent factors, we'd not be doing justice to the purposes for which we were founded.

[1] http://crnano.org/about_us.htm
[2] http://crnano.org/archive08.htm#61Essay
[3] http://crnano.org/essays07.htm#12
[4] http://tinyurl.com/5jps8h
[5] http://www.crnano.org/CTF-Scenarios.htm

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