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Nanotechnology, No Small Matter

Many scientists and futurists say we are on the verge of a technological and medical revolution that will turn science fiction into reality.

Nanotechnology has long left the laboratory and its discoveries and products are all around us -- from longer lasting tennis balls, waterproof pants and drug delivery patches to quicker and more powerful computers, and faster burning rocket fuels. Last year alone, nano-business garnered $32 billion in sales of household products in the U.S.

Using nanotechnology, scientists have found ways to manufacture molecules - - some of the smallest building blocks of nature -- and put them together a few at a time. According to many experts, nanotechnology is triggering a revolution in building materials that is radically changing science and technology.

Paul Saffo teaches at Stanford University in California and has more than two decades of experience exploring long-term technological change and its impact on business and society.

“In the 1950s and 1960s, the physicist made the bomb. They took us to the Moon. They invented the microprocessor and the transistor and gave us the information revolution. Now we are crossing over into biology and the future belongs to the biologists and people who are either building living systems or studying living systems and are trying to create it with other technology like nanotechnology. That, of course, is going to allow us to do astounding things,” says Saffo.

Reading Brainwaves and Robots With Skin

Some of the most important achievements in nanoscience have been in the field of medicine. Recently, at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, a research team led by neuroscientist John Donoghue built a device that helps paralyzed people manipulate objects, using their brains. The tiny implant was tried on a patient who was able to open email, control his television set and room lights, simply by thinking about it.

The device, says Professor Donoghue, is a combination of different technologies. “It required the development of engineering advances to make this tiny baby aspirin-sized electrode that has 100 hair-thin electrodes that pick up brain signals. It also depended on our understanding of the brain: where can you even go to pick up signals about your thoughts to move? And it also depended on advances in computer science so we can have small fast computers that could actually interpret brain signals in a way that was quick enough to go from inside your brain to controlling a computer which requires a lot of computational power,” says Professor Donoghue.

Scientists at the University of Nebraska recently announced that they have developed electronic skin for robots that is twice as sensitive as a human fingertip. Researcher Ravi Saraf says the artificial skin could help robots manipulate objects, from household items to rocks on Mars.

“The idea is this that up until now, the robot basically works with the sense of hearing and vision. But the robot does not have one sensation at all and that is the sensation of touch. Today’s robot can’t even give you a glass of water. If it presses more the glass will break. If it presses less, it will fall out of the robot’s hand,” explains Professor Saraf.

He says electronic skin could be used in medicine to detect cancerous tissue. To test the skin’s medical application, says Saraf, his team “just went to the butcher shop and started buying livers and muscles.” If it works, breast cancer, for example, could be diagnosed by merely touching the skin.

Invisible Electronics and Super Soldiers

Increasingly, nanotechnology researchers are manufacturing products that combine organic and non-organic matter. Last year, a Northwestern University team reported that they produced transparent transistors for displaying information that can float in air. To create their thin-film device, researchers combined non-organic and organic molecules that provide near perfect insulation.

Chief researcher Tobin Marks says the innovation has a broad range of uses, “I could put that instrumentation on the windshield of my car. Without even changing the direction I am looking, I can see the speed or what other information I want. I could imagine something for a soldier on the visor. You can imagine it for factory workers on assembly lines. And you can also imagine a surgeon wearing some sort of a visor that he could see through while doing an operation, but would still project important information in real time.”

Marks says like most nano-based products, the transparent transistor could be manufactured at low cost. His aim is to create electronics that can be printed with a common computer printer.

A major investor in nanotechnology is the U.S. military. Defense planners say robot soldiers may one day think, see and react like humans. In the beginning, they may be remote controlled. But some analysts predict that robots will be a major fighting force in the American military, perhaps, in less than a decade.

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology is working with Defense Department scientists on developing 21st century battle suits that can augment a soldier’s strength, communicate automatically with other troops, detect explosives and nerve gas, and treat injuries.

But many experts caution that the more powerful technologies become, the more they can affect society, the economy, politics and even human identity. Stanford University’s Paul Saffo says that’s all the more reason to develop policies for the use of nanotechnology.

“The lessons from the atomic bomb and nuclear technology in the last fifty years are instructive. We first invented the bomb and then we had to invent a regime to try and keep people from shooting off the bomb. And we still don’t know how that story is going to end. And we are going to do that same thing with these new technologies. As a friend of mine likes to say, “Technology is making us like gods.” Well, if we have become like gods, then we better learn to be good at it,” cautions Professor Saffo.

Still, Saffo agrees with many experts who say that nanotechnology ultimately stands to produce much more benefit than harm for society.

This story was first broadcast on the English news program,VOA News Now. For other Focus reports click here.