A few days ago, the Woodrow Wilson Center's Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies released a study of U.S. public perceptions on nanotechnology. Their definition of nanotech is the broad small-interesting-stuff definition, not molecular manufacturing. But since both types of nanotech have the same label, public perception will surely be shared to some extent.
People look forward to medical advances and improved products. But even so, they want to see more careful testing of products before they are released. Only 11% think that voluntary industry standards will be sufficient. That's a pretty low level of confidence!
Dr. Jane Macoubrie, the study's author, was quoted: "Thorough pre-market product safety testing was a key way people wanted government and industry to act to improve trust. Numerous named examples ranging from Vioxx to dioxin have created a widespread perception that industry pushes new products to market without adequate safety testing, and people feel industry too often has put its own interests ahead of consumer safety." People don't want a ban, but they do want governmental oversight.
People were also concerned about lack of consumer awareness of nanotechnology, and possible unintended uses.
When molecular manufacturing is developed, these issues will be even more urgent. Programmable nanofactories will pose little or no direct threat to consumers. But their products will be as varied as software, and some may be as under-tested and buggy as software. There will be a strong financial incentive to rush new products and technologies to market. And in the case of health care, there will be a strong humanitarian pressure for some new lifesaving treatments--as there is today.
Perhaps the biggest problem with molecular manufacturing will be "unintended uses." This could include a wide range of problems--from arms races that get out of hand, to products that are desirable to individuals but destructive to society.
If this study has an effect, it should encourage nano-related businesses to go out of their way to educate the public about their technologies. CRN and Foresight will have a lot of work to do, educating people about the differences between nanoscale technologies and molecular manufacturing, and the diverse reasons why both are important.