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					     Science fiction
     or the wave
     of the future?
     Nanotechnology is seen by some as a                                contexts that determine our identities,
                                                                        such as the work place and the family,
     dehumanising threat and by others as                               may have to be redefined and the
                                                                        nature of work itself would be
     promising almost limitless benefits.                               transformed. The most radical change
                                                                        to society, however, could be our
     Stephen Wood, Richard Jones and Alison                             increasing longevity.
                                                                        Nanotechnology’s supporters
     Geldart argue that we need urgently to get                         envisage the end to disease and
                                                                        suffering.
     to grips with its real implications.
                                                                        These utopian scenarios are mirrored
                                                                        by equally strong predictions. Those
                                                                        opposed to nanotechnology fear a
                                                                        dystopian future, in which it not only
                                                                        fails to bring about a perfect world,
                                            anotechnology is            but positively hastens humanity’s



                               N            provoking extreme visions
                                            of the future of
                                            humankind. As one
                                            commentator
                               (Dinkelacker) has put it, it offers
                               the“possibilities of either wondrous
                               prosperity and freedom or a
                                                                        demise. The “grey goo” scenario
                                                                        envisages nanosized, self-replicating
                                                                        robots getting out of control and
                                                                        reproducing themselves with such
                                                                        speed and in such quantities that they
                                                                        obliterate the biosphere.

                               wretched, hard-scrabble existence        This may all be an interesting and
                               under cruel oppression”.                 fertile debate for social science, but
                                                                        there are more imminent and
                               For the optimists, new forms of          important issues surrounding
                               manufacturing could bring about          nanotechnology that are currently in
                               material abundance the world over,       danger of being ignored.
                               undermining power based on the
                               control of scarce resources.             First, it is necessary to define what
                               Institutions would need to restructure   nanotechnology is. It is a generic
                               to accommodate these changes. The        term to describe a range of emerging



30   CentrePiece Winter 2003
                                                                         by Stephen Wood, Richard Jones and Alison Geldart




technologies. Its domain is defined in
terms of a length scale – from about
                                            There is the risk of over-hype             used commonly in treatment.
                                                                                       Nanotechnology could contribute to
1 to 100 nanometers. Its importance                                                    this field through advances in
derives from the appearance of                                                         scaffolds that encourage cells to
different physical properties at these                                                 grow in a pre-designed shape.
length-scales.                                                                         Biocompatible coatings are also in
                                                                                       development, which will make artificial
The underlying science – nanoscience        difference: sustainable energy,            implants, such as bone replacements,
– is a convergence of physics,              medicine and information.                  less likely to be rejected by the host’s
chemistry, materials science and                                                       immune system.
biology, which investigates and             Environmentalists are often
controls matter at the molecular level.     suspicious of new technology and its       Nanotechnology is also likely to
Nanoscience is here and flourishing,        potential impact on the world; yet,        contribute to vast increases in the
with the capacity to observe and            developed responsibly,                     availability of computing power and
manipulate matter at the nano level         nanotechnology could signal the end        information. The development of ever
well developed.                             of our reliance on fossil fuels. It        faster, better, smaller and cheaper
                                            promises advances in several               computers will allow them to be
In contrast, nanotechnology is an           alternative sources of power, such as      incorporated into even the cheapest
emerging engineering discipline, which      solar and hydrogen fuel cells.             and smallest artefacts. Electronic tags
applies methods from nanoscience to         Research being undertaken into new         for product packaging are very close
create usable, marketable and               materials for photovoltaics, such as       to being marketed and will improve
economically viable products. It is still   carbon nanotubes and                       supply chain management. Similarly,
very much in its infancy. In fact, the      semiconducting polymers, could soon        surveillance will become cheaper and
most developed domain of                    lead to cheaper and more efficient         easier and, therefore, more prevalent.
nanotechnology is the making of the         solar cells. If significant improvements
tools that enable the science. The          can be made in this area,                  These advances raise important social
basic tool of nanoscience is the            nanotechnology could potentially           and economic issues, which have little
scanning probe microscope that              lower the cost of energy generated         to do with either the utopian or the
allows individual atoms to be observed      by solar cells towards that from non-      dystopian scenarios for the future of
and manipulated. Its development has        renewable energy sources, such as          nanotechnology. The ease and
been, perhaps, the single most              gas and oil.                               cheapness of storing information will
important step in the crystallisation of                                               cause a growing lack of privacy. Fast
nano-scale science and technology as        In medicine, nanotechnology could          and cheap DNA sequencing could
a discipline.                               transform drug delivery, diagnostics       lead to requirements for screening by
                                            and monitoring systems, and artificial     insurance companies and affect how
Advances in the broad field that is         implants. Drug particles would be          life insurance policies are calculated.
labelled nanotechnology are                 encased in nanoparticles, either to        More efficient surveillance may lead to
incremental and the development of          protect the active element from the        less crime, but will also inhibit the
new techniques has been a                   body’s defences until it reached its       privacy of individuals.
progression from such disciplines as        desired target, or to protect the
materials and colloid science. The          body from their unwanted side              Medical uses of nanotechnology will
research here is not a radical or           effects. In diagnostics, “laboratory-on-   further increase the intimate
conceptual break from investigations        a-chip” technology could eliminate         association between the human body
over the last 20 years. Even those          the need to take large fluid samples       and artificial implants. Other uses,
products that are heavily publicised as     and could even respond to                  such as the development of display
relying on nanotechnology, such as          biochemical changes within the body.       screens that are projected directly
stronger materials and sunscreens,          Diabetics, for instance, could benefit     onto the retina, promise to further
are the results of an evolutionary          from the development of a chip that        reduce the differences between
progress. In the short term, the            monitors insulin levels and secretes       humans and machines. We have been
majority of nanotechnology products         the required hormone into the              taking structures from living things to
will be fairly prosaic.                     bloodstream as needed.                     use in artificial contexts throughout
                                            Artificial implants continue to be         history, but further developments in
Nanotechnology’s diversity – and its        developed and artificial skin is now       bionanotechnology could see the
core theme of molecular manipulation                                                   radical modification of bacteria to
– makes it applicable in many areas.                                                   make new functional devices. This
Its promoters predict that it will have                                                raises questions of whether such a
an impact on the vast majority of                                                      radical remodelling of a living
industries, from cosmetics and food,                                                   organism is ethically acceptable.
to new materials, electronics and
defence. However, there are three
major areas where nanotechnology is
                                            Its basic tool is the scanning             Economic issues also need to be
                                                                                       considered. As investors latch onto
expected to make the greatest               probe microscope                           nanotechnology as a buzzword and



                                                                                                   CentrePiece Winter 2003 31
     Surveillance will become
     cheaper and more prevalent



     national governments race to become       Involving social science in the debates       Stephen Wood is research chair and
                                                                                             deputy director, Institute of Work
     the world leaders in research and         about technological development will          Psychology, University of Sheffield and co-
     development, there is the risk of over-   help to guide it in a more socially           director of the ESRC Centre for
     hype, leading to a stock market           useful way. Nanotechnology is a               Organisastion and Innovation. He is also
     bubble and the collapse of the            unique opportunity for scientists and         Chief Editor of the British Journal of
     emergent industry. Technological          social scientists to work together.           Industrial Relations and a member of the
     development is driven by market           There are currently three generic             CEP.
                                                                                             Richard Jones is a professor in the
     opportunities, generating questions       questions fertile for research:               Department of Physics and Astronomy,
     about inequity and economic divides.      s how technological change is                 University of Sheffield, and co-ordinator of
     Will nanotechnology lead to the           governed, including an understanding          inter-disciplinary research in
     eradication of poverty through material   of the drivers and decision processes         Nanotechnology at Sheffield and co-
     abundance and beneficial                  at the various key points of choice;          director of the Sheffield-Leeds MSc in
     applications, as the utopians predict;    s how social learning occurs,                 Nanoscale Science.
                                                                                             Alison Geldart is a research assistant in
     or will most products be those that       including how conflicts of interest can       the ESRC Centre for Organisation and
     are highly profitable and aimed at a      be identified and clarified in a way that     Innovation, University of Sheffield.
     richer market, such as cosmetics and      fosters informed debate; and
     life extension?                           s how evaluation of risk and                  Stephen Wood, Richard Jones and Alison
                                               opportunities under uncertainty is            Geldart are authors of The Social and
     These are some of the real issues         accomplished, particularly looking at         Economic Challenges of Nanotechnology,
                                                                                             published by the ESRC and available by
     which social science needs to             how scientists, technologists and             request to Rachel.Blackford@esrc.ac.uk.
     investigate as nanotechnology             firms can best be regulated and at the
     develops. The danger is that they will    limits of the nation state’s ability to act   Reference
     be lost in either futuristic enthusiasm   as a regulator in an increasingly             Dinkelacker, J. (2002). Transition to
     or indiscriminate pessimism. The          international world.                          Tomorrow: Social Institutions at
     opportunity is here now to prepare                                                      the Threshold of NanotechnologyÕs
                                                                                             Molecular Epoch
     society for the technological changes
     that are coming.                                                                        http://www.hpl.hp.com/personal/Jamie_Din
                                                                                             kelacker




     The majority of its products
     will be fairly prosaic




32   CentrePiece Winter 2003

				
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