What are the Risks of Nanoscience?

J. S. Petersen
J. S. Petersen

Nearly all scientific research comes with risks, and nanoscience is certainly no different in that regard. The risks of this field can sound more frightening than other scientific research, though, because they often sound more like science fiction than fact. The risks most often associated with this field include uncontrolled nanomachines, nanoweaponry, and worst, unforeseen risks. Whether any of these risks are very serious remains to be seen.

Scientist with beakers
Scientist with beakers

Nanoscience is the study of microscopic machines, each with the ability to perform functions on the cellular level, the molecular level, or even the atomic level. Nanoscience creates these tiny machines with the goal of performing functions that would seem almost miraculous with standard procedures. Nanomachines have the potential to perform delicate surgery, cure previously unstoppable diseases, convert toxic waste into harmless and useful materials, and build nearly anything imaginable from basic materials. If it reaches its full potential, nanoscience may change the world in fantastic and wonderful ways.

Of course, with so much potential to do great good, nanoscience has equal potential to do great harm. The most discussed potential risk is often referred to simply as Gray Goo. A primary goal of this field is the creation of microscopic nanomachines, which can change things at the molecular or atomic level. Cancerous tissue in a person's body could be changed into healthy tissue, or a rusty tool could be made into sound steel again.

The fear is that uncontrolled nanomachines could run rampant, making unwanted changes. Instead of curing cancer, they might turn healthy cells into cancer. Instead of repairing broken machinery, they might change everything into featureless, gray goo.

Another risk of nanoscience is that people may try to turn nanomachines into weapons. These tiny machines could be made to destroy buildings and machines, turn food into poison, irradiate water supplies, cut power lines, or simply kill people. No standard defense against these nanoweapons would be effective, so nano-countermeasures would need to be developed. Nanoscience is too dangerous to be turned to destructive purposes.

Perhaps the most dangerous risk of nanoscience is one that is not yet fully understood. Because it is such a new field, there may be unforeseen risks that have not yet been fully explored. It is essential that the world treats this field with the utmost respect and care.

J. S. Petersen
J. S. Petersen

Jeff is a freelance writer, short story author, and novelist who earned his B.A. in English/Creative Writing from Creighton University. Based in Berkeley, California, Jeff loves putting his esoteric knowledge to good use as a wiseGEEK contributor.

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Discussion Comments


It certainly would be dangerous to weaponize, which short-sighted government often leans toward. Though I doubt scientists in development would allow for nanomachinery to be out of their control. It would be just as stupid to let the nanomachines make their own decisions as it would be to weaponize. The laws of robotics would have to exist in such a situation.

Even so, the most likely scenario would be the containment of nano colonies into specific areas of operation, e.g., surgical nanomachinery or industrial nanobots, both of which would be specialized and limited to these functions and largely out of the public's hands.

And personal nanomachinery I expect would be divided into biological and domestic colonies. With the former existing within the body and limited to specific functions like improved blood and cleansing, such as hygiene and waste removal, and domestic nanomachines specifically controlled by the house for localized duties.

It is very unlikely that nanobots would be a uniform mass of machines controlled by a single artificial intelligence.

I don't think anybody has anything to worry about there.

@KoiwiGal - I don't think it's going to happen, because there has been just too much science fiction about it over the years. Everyone knows the potential dangers of nanoscience, at least the ones that authors can dream up.

Nanoscience and nanotechnology isn't going anywhere and I really don't think the average person needs to worry all that much about the risks.

@Iluviaporos - I don't agree. Scientists are generally cautious people, that's true, but businessmen and even governments aren't and they are the ones who are commissioning the majority of scientific research.

And we are already working on trying to get computer intelligence to evolve by itself. All it would take was for one person to think, maybe I'll give those nanobots the ability to evolve their reasoning so that they can hunt down cancer cells better, or so that they can remove harmful mosquitoes better, and eventually the nanobots will reason their way into finding something else to munch on so that they can continue to self replicate when the mosquitoes are all gone.

Even if that doesn't happen, just putting them into any environment could upset it. They are essentially an organism, and any entirely new organism will have consequences on an ecosystem.

I think what they call the "grey goo" scenario in science fiction (it's not always grey goo, but the general idea is that eventually self replicating nano machines would take over the planet and devour all life)has been greatly overblown. No self respecting scientist could ever fail to realize what an exponential outcome would happen with self replicating nano machines that could gather materials from the planet.

They would never be foolish enough to make something like that with nanotechnology. Nanoscience seems scary because it's unseen with human eyes, but it's going to be a force for good in the world eventually.

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