Nanotechnology, not just for sci fi writers anymore

Iran's doing it, China's doing it; everyone's jumping into the nanotech pool.

Published August 1, 2006 7:04PM (EDT)

"E-skin" is the conceit that animates the characters in Mark Budz's brand-new science fiction novel, "Idolon." It's a nanotech application that allows people to don the likenesses of their favorite star -- film actors of past and present, pop musicians, etc. This is a future in which you don't just download a new ring tone on a whim, but an entire prefab persona. Superimposed on a noir plot structure, the e-skin hook sets the stage for a lot of postmodern fun with identity issues, in a culture of celebrity worship that's pretty darn familiar. I started the novel on my subway ride home last night, and was utterly engrossed by the time my stop arrived.

So nanotechnology was on my mind when I learned from SciDev.Net this morning that just a few days after the publication of "Idolon," UNESCO released a report on "The Ethics and Politics of Nanotechnology." We may be a long way from submerging ourselves in vats of nanotech gel and then walking out of the clinic looking like Robert Mitchum in "Out of the Past," but there's little doubt that we're already up to our necks in atomic-level meddling. So we better figure out what we're doing, if we want to have any hope of avoiding the confusion and worldwide controversy that, for example, have plagued the emergence of genetically modified organisms.

The UNESCO report is a concise introduction to the state of nanotechnology today, deftly sifting out the "distractions" (such as the apocalyptic prospect of self-replicating nanotech machines transforming the world into "gray goo") from currently relevant nuts-and-bolts issues. From a global perspective, one observation stood out:

The conventional divide between the developed and developing world with respect to who dominates new technology may no longer hold true, suggests lead author John Daly. In addition to the usual suspects, Japan, the U.S. and the E.U., countries such as China, India, Brazil and Iran are all pouring research dollars into nanotech. Science is globalizing. "Researchers are much more likely to have ready access to publications via the Internet, and with the changing economic fortunes of China, Brazil and India, researchers in the U.S. and the E.U. are far more likely to travel to, interact with and form collaborations with scientists in these nations. As a result, nanotechnology stands to be a much more international scientific project than, for instance, research into biotechnology was in the 1980s and 1990s."

More international, and yet at the same time, more corporate. We may think we see tension between public health concerns and the pharmaceutical industry's desire for enhanced intellectual property rights. But that is likely to be just a taste of what is to come, as the possibilities inherent in nanotechnological science burgeon. Sorting out how to regulate the deployment of new products, how to apply the proper precautionary principles, and how to ensure that the benefits of new research are equitably distributed are daunting challenges.

The sober language of the UNESCO report takes pains to distinguish its analysis from the fevered tropes of science fiction, but it's still not hard to slip back and forth from imagined dystopias to present-day reality. All over the world, scientists are learning how to manipulate the basic building blocks of matter, whether to build smaller semiconductors, cure cancer or clean up the environment. And the more we know, the less anyone seems to be in control.

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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