Airing the issue. Inhaled nanobots seek out an alien virus in this artist's conception.

Probing Nanotech's 'Dark Side'

David is a Deputy News Editor specializing in coverage of science policy, energy and the environment.

The U.S. Congress is on the verge of approving legislation that would require the government to examine the implications of nanotechnology as it pumps funds into the promising field. The U.K. government is also moving to probe nanotech's promise and peril.

Researchers have touted nanotechnology--an array of techniques that allow the manipulation of matter at the atomic scale--as the next big thing, producing everything from better materials to tiny robots. But some commentators warn of a darker side. Prominent computer scientist Bill Joy, for instance, worries about the creation of self-replicating "nanobots" that could run amok, coating Earth in a blanket of "gray goo." Such scenarios are unlikely, argue mainstream researchers. Still, many say that the growing field's potential impacts deserve a closer look.

The House and Senate have recently worked on bills (H.R. 766 and S. 189) that would require the government to fund studies on the social, economic, and environmental impacts of civilian nanotechnology. The House bill orders the government to report on "the development of safe nanotechnology," including a study of its use for self-reproducing machines, artificial intelligence, and "human brain extenders." A bill passed in June by the Senate Commerce Committee would authorize $5 million a year for a special American Nanotechnology Preparedness Center to examine ethical issues relating to nanotechnology. The full Senate is expected to approve the legislation later this summer, and the two bodies will then reconcile their differences.

In Britain, meanwhile, the government last month asked the Royal Society and the Royal Academy of Engineering to review nanotech's ethical and social implications. The joint panel, which is expected to hold its first meeting next month, aims to "determine where we are with this technology, what we want from it, and what safeguards [we] need," says chair Ann Dowling, a mechanical engineer at the University of Cambridge. A final report is due next spring.


With reporting by Daniel Bachtold in Cambridge, U.K.

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