While preparing our web page on the serious problems with U.S. nanotechnology policy, we read once again a strongly worded and reasoned editorial from The New Atlantis, a quarterly "Journal of Technology and Society" published in Washington D.C.
In their Winter 2004 issue (six months ago), they wrote about "The Nanotech Schism"...
The field of nanotechnology is divided between those who think it will simply improve our lives and those who think it will completely transform them. The former group thinks of nanotechnology as essentially a new branch of materials science. The latter group, inspired by nanotechnologist Eric Drexler, hews to a more ambitious vision in which molecular manufacturing, nanomedicine, and even nanoweapons will radically reshape the world. Many people in the former category think that Drexler’s version of nanotechnology is bunk.
In recent months, the divide between the two groups has become more pronounced and bitter—and it couldn't have come at a worse time, as environmentalists, reporters, novelists, moviemakers, legislators, and regulators are beginning to pay attention to the potential risks of nanotechnology.
The first sign of the new trouble came late last year with the passage and signing into law of the Nanotechnology Research and Development Act, which boosts federal nanotech spending over the next few years. Assuming the schedule isn't altered, federal spending on nanotechnology is going to increase each year until it crosses the $1 billion yearly mark for the first time in fiscal year 2008.
They comment that although nanotechnology has not yet produced anything to warrant such a large investment of taxpayer dollars, there is an explanation for why the budget is so high...
The real reason the government is willing to shell out for nanotech is because our leaders in Washington believe in the more revolutionary version of nanotech espoused by Drexler, with all its great promise and grave perils. "The possibilities are limitless" as we move "from an age of miniaturization to an age of self-replication," says Rep. Michael Burgess, Republican of Texas. Developing nanotechnology to maturity will require "long-term, sometimes high-risk" research, says Rep. Mike Honda, Democrat of California. The White House website describes the possibility of "nano-manufacturing of parts and materials 'from the bottom up'—by assembling them on an atom-by-atom basis."
One crucial provision of the nanotechnology bill might have gone far to determine whether Drexler’s vision of nanotechnology is truly worth pursuing. This provision called for a study to evaluate the technical merits of “molecular manufacturing” and, if possible, prepare a timeline and a research agenda. Such a study could settle whether Drexler’s ideas should be taken for real or ignored. But the final version of the bill only called for a study of the feasibility of “molecular self-assembly.” This change in wording, made at a very late stage in the legislative process, may seem insignificant—but its actual effect was to gut the intended feasibility study of all usefulness: molecular self-assembly is not merely feasible, it has actually already been achieved.
And they conclude with a statement that squares perfectly with CRN's positions...
The government's feasibility study of molecular manufacturing should be reinstated, and the matter should be put to rest once and for all. If Drexler's ideas can be proven definitively wrong, then we can relax in our comfortable nano-pants. But if Drexler is correct, there is much work to be done. If the stakes are as high as Drexler and his allies suggest, the world needs to get this right the first time, for there is very little room for mistakes.
There may still be time to get it right, but we can't wait much longer to get started.