There has been a lot of fear-mongering about nanotech. The idea is that little robots will eat people (or maybe eat things that we depend on such as essential food crops). It’s unfortunate that fear-mongering has replaced thought and there seems to have been little serious discussion about the issues.
If (as some people believe) nanotech has the potential to be more destructive than nuclear weapons then it’s an issue that needs to be discussed in debates before elections and government actions to alleviate the threat need to be reported on the news – as suggested in the Accelerating Future blog .
I predict that there will be three things which could be called nanotech in the future:
- Artifical life forms as described by Craig Venter in his talk for ted.com . I believe that these should be considered along with nanotech because the boundary between creatures and machines can get fuzzy when you talk about self-replicating things devised by humans which are based on biological processes.
I believe that artificial life forms and tweaked versions of current life forms have significant potential for harm. The BBC has an interesting article on health risks of GM food which suggests that such foods should be given the same level of testing as pharmaceuticals . But that’s only the tip of the iceberg, the potential use of Terminator Gene technology  in biological warfare seems obvious.
But generally this form of nanotech has the same potential as bio-warfare (which currently has significantly under-performed when compared to other WMDs) and needs to be handled in the same way.
- The more commonly discussed robotic nanotech, self-replicating and which can run around to do things (EG work inside a human body). I doubt that tiny robots can ever be as effective at adapting to their environment as animals, I also doubt that they can self-replicate in the wild. Currently we create CPU cores (the most intricate devices created by humans) from very pure materials in “clean rooms”. Making tiny machines in clean-rooms is not easy, making them in dirty environments is going to be almost impossible. Robots as we know them are based around environments that are artificially clean not natural environments. Robots that can self-replicate in a clean-room when provided with pure supplies of the necessary raw materials is a solvable problem. I predict that this will remain in science-fiction.
- Tiny robots manufactured in factories to work as parts of larger machines. This is something that we are getting to today. It’s not going to cause any harm as long as the nano-bots can’t be manufactured on their own and can’t survive in the wild.
In summary, I think that the main area that we should be concerned about in regard to nano-bot technology is as a new development on the biological warfare theme. This seems to be a serious threat which deserves the attention of major governments.