Nanotechnology – Force of the Future


Imagine a super computer not bigger than a human cell. Imagine a four person, surface – to – spacecraft no larger or more expensive than the family car. These are just a few of the products expected from nanotechnology.

The word ‘Nano’ is a derivative of Greek word ‘Nanos’ which means dwarf. Nanotechnology is a study of the structure and behaviour of materials at atomic and molecular level. It refers to understanding and mastering the properties of matter at the nanoscale: one nanometer (one billion of a meter) is the length of small molecule. Nanoparticle usage is producing revenue in industries associated with the chemical – mechanical polishing, magnetic recording tapes, sunscreens, automatic catalyst supports etc. Nanotechnology is also used by the IT industry to improve PCs and other electronic devices. Nanotechnology has an impact in the field of diagnostics and is used in tests for tuberculosis and colon cancer. The anticipated payoff for mastering this technology is beyond any human accomplishment thus far.

It definitely does not promise us of utopia but most definitely an existence that we, until now, have come across only in our imagination. Nanotechnology has an impeccable long standing scientific pedigree. It was way back in 1959 that Richard Feynman remarked that it would one day be possible to build machines so tiny that they would consist only of a few thousand atoms. But what would such a machine be good for- possibly everything that we can and cannot think of. The technology could well be in use for nanomotors and nanogears or even functioning a submicroscopic guitar whose strings are a mere 50 nanometers across.

The question that now needs attention is – when exactly will nanotechnology arrive?

Some nanotech enthusiasts fancy the idea of easy nanotechnology as if a mad scientist would dump the contents of two test-tubes together to create the first nano – manipulator and thus would begin the era of nanotech. In real, though, i.e. ‘the few short years’ will mercifully take a little longer. This may be a blessing in disguise, as it would allow at least a moderate amount of time for society to adjust to some really radical new parameters. For all practical purposes, however, by 2030 nanotechnology will have arrived in undeniable force.

Humanity will be faced with a powerful, accelerated social revolution as a result of nanotechnology. In the near future and 5 billion million nanobots later, virtually all present individual processes will be obsolete as well as our contemporary concept of labor would find itself in the dust heaps of history. Consumer goods will become plentiful, inexpensive, smart and durable. Medicine will take a quantum leap forward. Space travel and colonization will become safe and affordable. And for all health conscious people, there’s good news- these nanobots will actually remove all the cholesterol deposits from the human arteries. But the other side of the picture is dismal. Because of their tiny sizes, we would require millions of these nanobots even for these simple tasks.

The solution to this could be if these nanobots start replicating themselves. But as a child who has seen Mickey Mouse wrestle with those multiplying broomsticks in the sorcerer’s apprentices can tell you, there’s a dystopian shadow that looms large over this rosy picture- what if they forget to stop replicating? An out-of-control paper recycling nanobots could convert the world’s libraries to corrugated cardboard; rogue food-fabricating nanobot could turn the planet’s entire biosphere into well and huge slab of Gorgonzola cheese? Nonetheless, that doesn’t deter enthusiasts from aiming high. It could be used to restore the environment, spread wealth and to cure more illnesses. But will it? We still cannot build an antigravity machine a faster-than-light spacecraft. Accept it; there are limits, limits even to nanotechnology.

Can we help but wonder if the nanobots may eventually not replace us? Whether artificial intelligence of our own creation is not fated to be our replacement as dominant entities on the planet? We might even feel triumphant about it. What achievement could be grander than creation of an object that surpasses the creator? But, our rational terms, will they ever actually replace us? Probably and hopefully not and be just our allies in the march towards a glorious future i.e. If we do not destroy ourselves before the march can begin.

Lee Wie Mien Jackson

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