jueves, octubre 02, 2008

Molecular manufacturing



Gregor Wolbring

The term ‘nanotechnology’ was used first to describe a way to manufacture something from atomic molecules (such as the food replicator in many science fiction films where, when one says “coffee,” the machine synthesizes the coffee molecule by molecule) (1; 2). In 2000, nanotechnology became linked to nanobots and nanoreplicators (3). Many use the term in the very narrow meaning of nano material sciences. It is also used to mean ‘nanoscale technology’ and nanoscale sciences covering ‘nanotechnology’ R&D products, ideas and processes with controlled size below 300nm (some say 100nm) (4; 5).

The original meaning of the term has been altered, and now ‘nanotechnology’ is generally known as molecular manufacturing or molecular nanotechnology (4). The International Organization for Standardization Technical committee 229 on Nanotechnology (ISO/TC229) that produces standards for classification, terminology and nomenclature, basic metrology, calibration and certification, and environmental issues related to nanotechnology uses the following definition:

  1. Understanding and control of matter and processes at the nanoscale, typically, but not exclusively, below 100 nanometres in one or more dimensions where the onset of size-dependent phenomena usually enables novel applications, where one nanometre is one thousand millionth of a metre,
  2. Utilizing the properties of nanoscale materials that differ from the properties of individual atoms, molecules, and bulk matter, to create improved materials, devices, and systems that exploit these new properties (6)

The ISO/TC229 business plan states:

“Nanotechnology is expected to evolve through four overlapping stages of industrial prototyping and commercialization. The first stage, already begun, involves the development of passive nanostructures: materials with fixed structures and functions often used as parts of a product. Products containing nanomaterials already in the marketplace mainly involve manufactured nanoparticles (metal oxides, quantum dots, carbon nanotubes, etc.) serving as raw materials, ingredients or additives in existing products. The second stage, also already begun, focuses on active nanostructures that change their size, shape, conductivity or other properties during use. For example, drug-delivery particles that release therapeutic molecules in the body when they reach their targeted diseased tissues. The third stage (projected to begin around 2010) will see the further development of expertise with systems of nanostructures and the directing of large numbers of intricate components to specified ends (for example, the guided self-assembly of nanoelectronic components into three-dimensional circuits and whole devices). In the fourth stage (projected to begin around 2015-2020), nanotechnology will expand to include molecular nanosystems --heterogeneous networks in which molecules and supramolecular structures serve as distinct devices. Computers and robots could be reduced to extraordinarily small sizes.” (6)

The ISO/TC229 uses a definition first promoted by the International Risk Governance Council 2006 nano white paper (7). This definition covers all the different nanotechnology definitions used so far, including the original one now called ‘molecular manufacturing.’


The jury is still out on whether the Star Trek food replicator will appear. If the move toward atomic commodities (molecular manufacturing) takes place, it is logical to expect a change in the nature of the commodity market and, in the end, in local, regional and global trade.We could also expect a change in labour force requirements and labour relations, and many other areas that are linked today to trade.

We often disregard research that does not offer concrete near-term results as “science fiction,” and question its feasibility. However, using a science fiction or “it-won’t-be-possible” argument with respect to molecular manufacturing or any other research with long term timelines is short-sighted and problematic. It leaves us unprepared in the event of a scientific breakthrough. It prevents us from taking a hard look at what the consequences of success would be, what societal changes it would precipitate or require, and what safeguards it would necessitate.

The neglect of taking a foresight look at possible developments is often justified by stating that there is enough time to deal with the product when it becomes feasible. That sentiment depends on a long lag phase between the scientific breakthrough and deployment of the market-ready product, so we can prepare ourselves for the consequences. This reality seems to be less and less true.

I call this it-will-not-happen dynamic the ‘Berlin Wall Syndrome’ (11). Prior to 1989, the fall of the Berlin Wall was seen as impossible by most, and the discourse around German reunification reflected that belief. West Germany (in particular) and the rest of the Western World (more generally) were totally unprepared for the dismantling of the Wall.

Molecular nanotechnology or molecular manufacturing is treated as such a wall. Hardly anyone develops plans for the eventuality that this wall will fall, which leaves us unprepared for the disruptions which will inevitably appear in trade and other areas if and when it falls. The Centre for Responsible Nanotechnology (12) and the Foresight Institute for Nanotechnology(13) are the main promoters of molecular manufacturing. And while they do consider its social impact, the consideration is limited, and the people involved in the governance of molecular manufacturing are a narrow group of potential stakeholders -- making it a problematic discourse.

The choice is yours to get involved in the governance of molecular manufacturing, so plans are in place to deal with it, in case the vision becomes a reality.

Gregor Wolbring is an ability governance, science and technology governance, disability studies and health policy scholar. He is an Assistant Professor at the University of Calgary, Faculty of Medicine, Department of Community Health Sciences, Program in Disability Studies and Community Rehabilitation. He is a member of the Center for Nanotechnology and Society at Arizona State University; Part Time Professor at Faculty of Law, University of Ottawa, Canada; Adjunct Faculty, Critical Disability Studies, York University, Toronto, Canada; Member CAC/ISO - Canadian Advisory Committees for the International Organization for Standardization section TC229 Nanotechnologies; Member of the Review Board for the journal Review in Disability Studies; Member of the International Editorial Advisory Board for the journal Studies in Ethics, Law and Technology; Chair of the Bioethics Taskforce of Disabled People's International; and former Member of the Executive of the Canadian Commission for UNESCO (2003-2007 maximum terms served). He publishes the Bioethics, Culture and Disability website, authors a weblog on NBICS and its social implications and is a regular contributor to the What Sorts of People blog.

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