Molecular manufacturing, a proposed application of advanced nanotechnology, means the near-future ability to construct shapes, devices and machines with molecular precision -- every atom in a desired place -- thereby creating radically new and better products from the bottom up.
Working with devices only a few nanometers wide, we soon should be able to build a self-contained general-purpose factory that sits on your kitchen counter. Enthusiasts imagine using the technology to build space elevators, mine the asteroids, clean up the environment, end hunger and poverty, and even go inside the human body to offer extreme health extension along with memory and intelligence augmentation. Others urge caution, saying we must consider the ramifications before we rush ahead.
So what should we do about molecular manufacturing? It's a question policy makers currently do not face, at least not directly. No one has proposed a bill in the U.S. Congress, offered a resolution in the European Parliament or raised the issue in the UN Security Council. But before the terms of some existing officeholders expire, they may be asked to consider the matter.
Regulatory watchdogs have begun paying attention to nanotechnology. It seems almost inevitable that within a decade, and quite probably sooner, the question of what to do about molecular manufacturing will come before our elected representatives. In facing such a question, future policy makers may have to choose between three basic responses, which we call nano-shutdown, nano-anarchy and nano-regulation.
It seems clear to us that the unrestricted availability of advanced nanotechnology poses grave risks, which may outweigh the benefits of clean, cheap, convenient, self-contained manufacturing. But calls for relinquishment of molecular manufacturing technology are no less danger provoking, and irresponsible, than the cry for entirely unfettered development. Fortunately, there is a middle ground between nano-shutdown and nano-anarchy, and that is nano-regulation.
An alliterative colleague of mine refers to this moderate position as "regulation, between relinquishment and resignation." In other words, we don't need to resign ourselves to accepting whatever the new technologies will bring, without taking steps to control the risks and avoid the dangers. Likewise, we are not compelled to relinquish further development (if that were even possible) and sacrifice the potential benefits in order to seek safety and security. We can instead make the sensible choice to regulate the technology, perhaps thereby delaying the most rapid innovations, but giving ourselves the best possible opportunity to prevent disaster and in the long run to realize the most benefit.
When the time comes for lawmakers to decide what to do about molecular manufacturing, what option will they choose? As citizens, as future users of the technology, and as potential victims of unwise policy, it is up to us to make our voices heard. We have too much to gain -- and too much to lose -- to remain silent.