“Energy is the single most important problem facing humanity today. We must find an alternative to oil.” –Nobel Laureate Dr. Richard Smalley testimony to congress – pdf download. And what might that solution look like? According to Dr. Smalley, it is solar radiation collected, distributed, and stored by devices that are yet to be discovered. The path is advancements in technology, particularly nanotechnology. The Foresight institute has compiled a list of nanotechnology challenges: 1. Meeting global energy needs with clean solutions. 2. Providing Abundant Clean Water Globally. 3. Increasing Health and Longevity of Human Life. 4. Maximizing Productivity of Agriculture. 5. Making Powerful Information Technology Available Everywhere. 6. Enabling the Development of Space.
These are mega issues, on global scales; so what’s nano got to do with it? Today any research and development related to 1-1000 nanometer scales comes under the broad umbrella of nanotechnology. Nanotechnology will surely bring us new materials and mini-mechanisms that will be used in macroscopic devices. The hope is that some of these devices will solve the world’s major problems. Even though the nano realm is today’s frontier, it’s important to remember that chemists and materials scientists have been working toward smaller scales for at least half a century. The current hype has been bolstered by research on biological systems. The cell is the most complicated machine we have studied and it operates on the nano scale. Biological devices have millions of molecular machines performing balanced macroscopic functions in a fully integrated system. There are a number of programs supported through the Department of Defense to study biological systems so that we might reverse engineer smaller, better integrated, room-temperature technologies that animals already posses. At this point, the level of engineering required to duplicate biological systems is well beyond mankind. Imagine if your car could heal a minor oil leak instead of turning a light on the dashboard red. And let’s don’t forget the side effects. We may cause quite a bit of damage as we begin monkeying with biological-sized technology.
The point is that even though we are sure to see rapid development of new technologies on these tiny scales, the impact of these discoveries is unpredictable and the promises are, as yet, just hype. Since the industrial revolution began in the mid 1800s, people have predicted that more inventions will give us lives of leisure through new medical cures, sources of energy, and gadgets. Did chemotherapy, nuclear reactors, cellular phones, the internet, desktop computers, sticky notes, the automobile or the laundry promise perfect life on earth? The world is now full of delightful inventions and their side effects.
Dr. Smalley’s testimony speaks of more than science. As a respected leader in science we expect his intuition and logic to carry into politics as well.
“The cheaper, cleaner, and more universally available this new energy technology is, the better we will be able to avoid human suffering, and the major upheavals of war and terrorism.”
It is not technology that gives mankind freedom from evil, but mankind that puts technology to good use. The corollary is that mankind can also put technology to bad use. It is up to us to steel our wills and to be good stewards over the technology at our disposal. To be fair, Dr. Smalley has not made the claim of panacea. Restating the promise without the hype – technology can reduce part of our suffering and some of our wars and terrorism. In this form a congressman would have to consider spending tax dollars on homeland security as well as nanotech R&D.
“There will be a technical solution. . . The technology that will do what we need does not yet exist. It will come from discoveries in basic science, and particularly from nanotechnology. . . With your help we can make clean abundant low cost energy be this nation’s best gift to humankind.”
This is a statement of faith. I do not share the belief that the fundamental problem on earth is technical. I do share the hope, however, that technology will be used well by humankind to mitigate human suffering. Beyond the hype, there is beauty in this hope, and a reason for striving to develop good technologies used to good purpose
Jodi Lamoureux is fellow at the Center for Bioethics and Culture Network
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