Food for Thought: Are We Really the Prey? Nanotechnology as Science and Science Fiction

In his 2002 novel Prey, Michael Crichton develops a scary scenario about the impact of “molecular manufacturing”, i.e. the convergence of nanotechnology, biotechnology, and information & communication technologies. The concept focuses on the risks of self-replicating, so-called  “nanoscale assemblers” and was originally published by scientists K. Eric Drexler (former co-founder of the Foresight Institute) and Richard Feynman. Criticized and challenged by fellow scientists such as Nobel Prize winner Richard Smalley, the concept of molecular manufacturing nevertheless reflects society´s fear of novel, unknown technologies – specifically, the fear of losing control over some seemingly overwhelming artificial power.

In their paper “Are We Really the Prey? Nanotechnology as Science and Science Fiction“, Australian scientists Diana M. Bowman, Graeme A. Hodge, and Peter Binks have analyzed the impact, chances and risks of the molecular manufacturing concept. Calling not only for improving the regulatory framework on novel technologies such as nanotechnology, their key conclusion is that “unwillingness to engage in public dialogue is a consumer and citizen backlash waiting to happen, as was experienced with biotechnology. Current real developments in nanotechnology offer exciting opportunities to advance the human condition; however, implausible ideas framed by some scientists only serve to influence the creative talents of science fiction writers, like Crichton, who then prey on the public’s lack of knowledge of the current boundaries of nanotechnology for entertainment’s sake.”

Consequently, the advancement of innovative products does not only call for more adequate regulatory conditions, but also – and most importantly – for the willingness and proactivity of both the scientific community and innovation-driven companies to increasingly address and interact with the general public. As it has turned out, the acceptance of innovative technologies by the public may be the crucial key to success or failure.

Source:  “Are We Really the Prey? Nanotechnology as Science and Science Fiction”, by Diana M. Bowman, Graeme A. Hodge and Peter Binks, Bulletin of Science Technology Society 2007; 27; 435. An online version of the paper is available here