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Thoughts on the Opportunities That Nanotechnology Presents

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I recently attended the very inspiring Tällberg Forum 2012, in which "the future beyond our imagination" was discussed. At this forum we talked about the opportunities of nanotechnology, among other things. To share my thoughts with you on this subject, I'm going to say a few words about top-down and bottom-up processes, but I'll start with Jurassic Park.

Many of you will have seen the first Jurassic Park movie, in which Jeff Goldblum's character says, "Life finds a way." He is arguing against the park operators' assertion that they can prevent their dinosaur population from increasing by ensuring that all the dinosaurs are female. In this bit of fiction, life indeed finds a way: Integrated frog genes inadvertently allow some dinosaur embryos to switch sex before hatching.

Since its release this film has sparked some discussion on how we should be approaching research. But back at the beginning of the technology age, in the Industrial Revolution, there was little consideration or understanding of the long-term consequences of each new invention.

The introduction of machine-based manufacturing in the 19th century marked the beginning of a series of advances in science and technology that led to massive wealth creation and changed the lives of humans forever. Living standards improved for ordinary people for the first time. Steam power and then electric power were soon followed by computers and the exploding world of information technology.

But sadly, at the same time, we were using procedures that required enormous amounts of natural resources and destroyed part of our environment. Previously abundant materials such as minerals, rare earth metals, oil, gas, and even clean water are now scarce.

This has led to the now-urgent obligation to begin a global conversation about our technological responsibilities. This conversation needs to address two interesting questions: What can be done on the environmental front? And where do we stand on the ethics of technology?

Firstly, it should be stressed that technology itself obviously is not the problem. It cannot be ignored that technology has improved our lives to such an extent that we have all but forgotten the short, filthy, disease-ridden lives we would be living without it. It's the applications and repercussions of technology that need to be discussed.

So if we focus firstly on our scorched environment, what would the world look like if we took an alternative development path?

In my view the current situation, where we may soon lack the resources to keep the improvements we've achieved to date, has evolved from our use of so-called top-down processes. In a top-down process engineers use their imaginations to create the materials and design the procedures to achieve the desired outcome. This approach has traditionally required huge energy resources, access to large amounts of pure materials, and expensive equipment.

The future, if we continue down this road, looks bleak. But I am actually not at all pessimistic about the future.

This is why: Over the last decade or so, scientists from several disciplines, including nanotechnology, have developed procedures that mimic the powerful life force described in that Jurassic Park movie. Life has managed to find a way since the first living cells started to appear on Earth nearly 4 billion years ago. And we have now finally managed to tap into this alternative bottom-up or self-assembly approach.

We are no longer limited by the constraints of the human imagination.

Let me provide some examples of how natural, bottom-up processes are now being mimicked to provide technological breakthroughs:

  • We are now developing drugs that can find their own way to the actual cells that require attention in the body. The methods used to create these drugs don't need high energy input, and the resultant drugs will allow us to avoid invasive administration techniques and unwanted side effects.
  • We now know how to use the simple, natural rotations of nanoparticles to detect the genetic molecules that can predict future health or diagnose current diseases. These methods will open up totally new possibilities for us to control our personal health situation without using extensive resources
  • We have started to understand how to use organic molecules to build batteries for future sustainable energy storage. And simple bottom-up processes are being developed to design super-efficient structures for harvesting solar energy, using only a fraction of the materials currently required for solar cells.
  • Lastly, we now know how to heal injured nerves. Paralysis need not be permanent. It's even theoretically possible that the body could be helped to replace damaged or missing tissues, or even to replace entire organs.

The future is tremendously exciting. There are many opportunities to improve the quality of life of coming generations. But my second question on our ethical stance also needs to be addressed with care in all scientific fields. For example, it is essential that we evaluate and eliminate any potential risks associated with the production and use of nanomaterials before they are used.

In my view, these potential problems can be avoided through international collaboration among researchers. Legislators and consumers must be educated, and the use of nanomaterials and procedures must be regulated without delay.

It is urgent to develop the toolbox necessary for creating such regulations based on sound scientific grounds.