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Nanotechnology Essay, Research Paper

Curtis Shephard

Nanotechnology: Immortality or total annihilation?

Technology has evolved from ideals once seen as unbelievable to common everyday instruments.

Computers that used to occupy an entire room are now the size of notebooks. The human race has always

pushed for technological advances working at the most efficient level, perhaps, the molecular level. The

developments and progress in artificial intelligence and molecular technology have spawned a new form

of technology; Nanotechnology. Nanotechnology could give the human race eternal life, or it could cause

total annihilation.

The idea of nanotech was conceived by a man named K. Eric Drexler (Stix 94), which he defines

as “Technology based on the manipulation of individual atoms and molecules to build structures to

complex atomic specifications (Drexler, “Engines” 288).” The technology which Drexler speaks of will be

undoubtedly small, in fact, nano- structures will only measure 100 nanometers, or a billionth of a meter

(Stix 94).

Being as small as they are, nanostructures require fine particles that can only be seen with the

STM, or Scanning Tunneling Microscope (Dowie 4). Moreover the STM allows the scientists to not only

see things at the molecular level, but it can pick up and move atoms as well (Port 128). Unfortunately the

one device that is giving nanoscientists something to work with is also one of the many obstacles

restricting the development of nanotech. The STM has been regarded as too big to ever produce nanotech

structures (Port 128). Other scientists have stated that the manipulation of atoms, which nanotech relies

on, ignores atomic reality. Atoms simply don’t fit together in ways which nanotech intends to use them

(Garfinkel 105). The problems plaguing the progress of nanotech has raised many questions among the

scientific community concerning it’s validity. The moving of atoms, the gathering of information, the

restrictions of the STM, all restrict nanotech progress. And until these questions are answered, nanotech

is regarded as silly (Stix 98).

But the nanotech optimists are still out there. They contend that the progress made by a team at

IBM who was able to write letters and draw pictures atom by atom actually began the birth of nanotech

(Darling 49). These same people answer the scientific questions by replying that a breakthrough is not

needed, rather the science gained must be applied (DuCharme 33). In fact, Drexler argues that the

machines exist, trends are simply working on building better ones (”Unbounding” 24). Drexler continues

by stating that the machines he spoke about in “Engines of Creation” published in 1986 should be

developed early in the 21st century (”Unbounding” 116).

However many scientists still argue that because nanotech has produced absolutely nothing

physical, it should be regarded as science fiction (Garfinkel 111). Secondly, nano-doubters rely on

scientific fact to condemn nanotech. For example it is argued that we are very far away from ever seeing

nanotech due to the fact that when atoms get warm they have a tendency to bounce around. As a result

the bouncing atoms collide with other materials and mess up the entire structure (Davidson A1). Taken in

hand with the movement of electron charges, many regard nanotech as impossible (Garfinkel 106). But

this is not the entirety of the obstacles confining nanotech development. One major set-back is the fact

that the nanostructures are too small to reflect light in a visible way, making them practically invisible

(Garfinkel 104).

Nevertheless, Nanotech engineers remain hopeful and argue that; “With adequate funding,

researchers will soon be able to custom build simple molecules that can store and process information and

manipulate or fabricate other molecules, including more of themselves. This may occur before the turn of

the century.”(Roland 30) There are other developments also, that are pushing nanotech in the right

direction for as Lipkin pointed out recent developments have lead to possibilities of computers thinking in

3-D (5). Which is a big step towards the processing of information that nanotech requires. Although

there are still unanswered questions from some of the scientific community, researchers believe that they

are moving forward and will one day be able to produce nanomachines.

One such machine is regarded as a replicator. A replicator, as it’s name implies, will replicate;

much like the way in which genes are able to replicate themselves (Drexler, “Engines” 23). It is also

believed that once a replicator has made a copy of itself, it will also be able to arrange atoms to build

entirely new materials and structures (Dowie 5).

Another perceived nanomachine is the assembler. The assembler is a small machine that will

take in raw materials, follow a set of specific instructions, re-arrange the atoms, and result in an

altogether new product (Darling 53). Hence, one could make diamonds simply by giving some assemblers

a lump of coal. Drexler states that the assemblers will be the most beneficial nanites for they will build

structures atom by atom (”Engines” 12). Along with the assemblers comes its opposite, the disassembler.

The disassembler is very similar to the assemblers, except it works backwards. It is believed that these

nanites will allow scientists to analyze materials by breaking them down, atom by atom (Drexler,

“Engines” 19). As a result of the enhanced production effects of assemblers Drexler believes that they will

be able to shrink computers and improve their operation, giving us nanocomputers. These machines will

be able to do all things that current computers can do, but at a much more efficient level.

Once these nanomachines are complete they will be able to grasp molecules, bond them together,

and eventually result in a larger, new structure (Drexler, “Engines” 13). Through this and similar

processes the possibilities of nanotech are endless. It is believed that nanites could build robots, shrunken

versions of mills, rocket ships, microscopic submarines that patrol the bloodstream, and more of

themselves (Stix 94). Hence, their is no limit to what nanotech can do, it could arrange circuits and build

super-computers, or give eternal life (Stix 97). Overall Drexler contends; “Advances in the technologies

of medicine, space, computation, and production-and warfare all depend on our ability to arrange atoms.

With assemblers, we will be able to remake our world, or destroy it” (”Engines” 14).

In a more specific spectrum, are the impacts nanotechnology could have on the area of

production. Nanotechnology could greatly increase our means of production. Nanites have the ability to

convert bulks of raw materials into manufactured goods by arranging atoms (DuCharme 58). As a result

of this increased efficiency, DuCharme believes that this will become the norm in producing goods, that

this whole filed will now be done at the molecular level (34). Thus, nanotech could eliminate the need for

production conditions that are harmful or difficult to maintain (Roland 31). Moreover, the impact that

nanotech will have on production could lead to a never before seen abundance of goods. Costs and labor

will all be significantly cheaper. Everyone would be able to use nanotech as a tool for increased efficiency

in the area of production (DuCharme 60). The overall effects of nanotech on producing materials were

best summed up by Dowie, “This new revolution won’t require crushing, boiling, melting, etc. Goods

would now be built from the atom up by nanomachines” (4).

Nanotech will also be able to benefit us in other ways. One great advantage to nanotech will be

the improvements it will lend in the areas of medicine. With the production of microscopic submarines,

this branch of nanotech could be the most appealing. These nanites would be able to patrol the

bloodstream sensing friendly chemicals and converting bad ones into harmless waste (Darling 7). But

nanites will be able to do more than this, this brand of nanites could also repair damaged DNA and hunt

cancer (Port 128). Thus, nanites would be able to cure many illnesses and repair DNA. Moreover,

nanites could remove the need to keep animals for human use, they could simply produce the food inside

your body (Darling 59). As a result of nanites floating through your body and attacking harmful

substances such as cholesterol, people could live indefinitely ? perhaps a millennia (Davidson A1).

This idea opens up another door in the field of nanotech research, dealing with the potential for

immortality. But aside from providing eternal life through fixing DNA and curing illnesses, nanotech

could be used with cryogenics in providing never-ending life. The current problem with cryogenics is

after a person is frozen the cells in their body expand and burst. Nanotech could solve for this problem for

they could find and replace the broken cells (DuCharme 152). Also, however, nanites wouldn’t even

require the entire frozen body. They could simply replicate the DNA in a frozen head and then produce a

whole new person (DuCharme 155).

However, this poses a potential problem, that being overpopulation, and the environment.

DuCharme contends that this should not be a concern for a high standard of living will keep the

population from growing (61). However, if the population were to increase nanotech will have produced

the energy to allow us to live in currently uninhabitable areas of the earth (DuCharme 63). Nanites will

allow people to not only live on earth, but on the sea, under the sea, underground, and in space due to

increased flight capabilities (DuCharme 64). Hence, the human race will have a near infinite space for

living. Also, nanites would reduce the toxins manufactured from cars by producing cheap electric cars,

but also use disassemblers to clean up waste dumps (DuCharme 68). The benefits of nanotech are

countless, it could be used to do anything from spying to mowing the lawn (Davidson A1). However, with

the good comes the bad. Nanotech could also bring some distinct disadvantages.

One scenario which illustrates the danger of nanotech is referred to as the gray goo problem.

Gray Goo is referred to as when billions of nanites band together and eat everything they come into

contact with (Davidson A1). However, Davidson only gets the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the

deadliness of gray goo. Roland better illustrates this hazards threat; “Nanotechnology could spawn a new

form of life that would overwhelm all other life on earth, replacing it with a swarm of nanomachines.

This is sometimes called the ‘gray goo’ scenario. It could take the form of a new disease organism, which

might wipe out whole species, including Homo Sapiens”(32). Simply put the nanites would replicate to

quickly and destroy everything including the human race (Stix 95). Moreover, the rapid replication rate

that nanotech is capable of could allow it to out-produce real organisms and turn the biosphere to dust

(Drexler, “Engines” 172). However, death is only one of the dangers of gray goo. If controlled by the

wrong people, nanites could be used to alter or destroy those persons enemies (Roland 32). But gray goo

is only of one of the many potential harms of nanotech.

If so desired, nanotech could be used as a deadly weapon. Although microscopic robots don’t

sound like a very effective weapon, Drexler states that they are more potent than Nuclear weapons, and

much easier to obtain (”Engines” 174). But aside from being used as a weapon, nanites would be able to

produce weapons at a quick and inexpensive rate. In fact, with the ability to separate isotopes and atoms

one would be able to extract fissionable Uranium 235 or Plutonium 239. With these elements, a person

has the key ingredients for a nuclear bomb (Roland 34). As a result of the lethality of nano-weapons the

first to develop nanotech could use it to destroy his rivals. New methods for domination will exist that is

greater than Nukes and more dangerous (Roland 33). This along with simple errors, such as receiving the

wrong instructions points toward nanotech doing more harm than good (Darling 56).

Moreover, the threats from nanotech could be a potential cause of extinction (Drexler, “Engines”

174). Drexler continues by saying that unless precautions are taken nano could lead to complete

annihilation (”Engines” 23).

However, if nanotech does not lead to extinction, it could be used to increase the power of states

and individuals. Bacon believes that only the very most elite individuals will receive benefits from

nanotech. Beyond that however, it is perceived that advanced tech extends the possibilities of torture used

by a state (Drexler, “Engines” 176). However, states will become more powerful in other ways. With the

increase means of production, nanotech could remove the need for any if not all people (Drexler,

“Engines” 176). This opens new doors for totalitarian states. They would no longer require keeping

anyone alive, individuals would not be enslaved, rather they would be killed (Drexler, “Engines” 176). It

is perceived that all the benefits would remove all interdependence, and destroy the quality of life itself

(Roland 34).

In the end, nanotech could give a lifestyle never before imagined. On the other hand, it could

destroy entire species. The effects and potentials of nanotech are best summed up by it’s inventor,

Drexler, “Nanotechnology and artificial intelligence could bring the ultimate tools of destruction, but they

are not inherently destructive. With care, we can use them to build the ultimate tools of peace” (”Engines”

190). The question of how beneficial nanotech will prove to be, can only be answered by time. Time will

tell whether developments and progress in artificial intelligence and molecular technology will eventually

produce true nanotechnology. And, if produced, whether this branch of science will give us immortality

or total annihilation.

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