We Know: All About Nanotechnology

What is Nanotechnology?

Nanotechnology refers to engineering operations and materials' creation and manipulation that take place at the nanometer level, which is one-billionth of a meter, or 1/80,000th the width of a human hair.

OK. So what's that got to do with me?

Well, plenty, and for a couple of reasons.

One, more and more consumer products are being made using nanotechnology. Some examples: moisture resistant clothing, windshields that control the light coming in, medical products, paints, sunscreen. These are just a few.

Two, many say that nanotechnology is the next technological revolution with the potential to drastically alter our society and culture. Previous such revolutions, depending on who you talk to, have been agricultural, industrial, and information (computers), or industrial, chemical, and information (computers). And now there is the nanotechnology revolution.

What are some specifics as to how nanotechnology could affect my life?

Extremely negative: A chain reaction of self-replicating nanoparticles will get out of control and cover the earth with a gray goo in a matter of days.

Somewhat less negative: Because nanotechnology allows engineers and scientists to work with and manipulate matter at its very core level, it will allow products of all kinds to be made using few external resources and with little human input, thus, eliminating work for the vast majority of people on the planet. It will also create products that could harm the human body in ways never before imagined.

Cautiously optimistic: It will actually create new jobs and cut way down on the use of precious planetary resources, thus helping preserve the environment and alleviate the exploitation of people in developing countries. Because materials can be manipulated so precisely, new products of all kinds can be custom created to maximize benefits to people instead of harming them.

Very optimistic: Nanotechnology will usher in a utopia of advances in medicine, alternative energy, information processing, and space travel, creating new business opportunities, jobs, better health and well being for people, and a more healthy environment.

So, what's the real truth?

It's somewhere in between the gray goo hypothesis and the hyperventilating optimistic outlook. First of all, nanotechnology is a reality. It's happening and is here to stay and it certainly has the potential to create new products that could aid in bettering people's lives. There are dirt- and moisture-resistant textiles, bandages that help wounds heal faster, disinfectants that disinfect better, new types of dental adhesives, better absorbing skin products, new types of paints, and many new types of composite materials that are going into cars and aircraft.

These new products and materials also certainly provide opportunities for new businesses and money-making if one is savvy with investing and understands the technology.

But there are downsides. Separating reality from the marketing hype you will also find concerns. For example about the nanoparticles in skin care products easily getting into the bloodstream. What kind of harm can they cause? The body has no immune system defense against them. Can these particles cross the blood brain barrier that prevents contaminants from getting into brain and cause brain damage? It's possible. There are concerns about respiratory problems developing by inhaling nanoparticles, not unlike what happened with asbestos. It's probably the unknowns, which come with any technological development of this type, that concern many people. And what will nanotechnological developments do to the nature of work as we know it?

What should one do then?

A biggie here is that this may be the first time in history that citizens can become involved in decision-making regarding a pivotal technological revolution. This is because people are so wired into the information age via the internet, making it possible for them to be exposed to a wide source of information about this development as never before.

It would seem to behoove those who wish to be part of the development, rather than passive victims of it, to learn more about it and to make their concerns known to public officials, officers of involved companies, and the technological and scientific community in general.

And, as always, become educated consumers and learn more about how existing nanotechnologically-based products and materials can affect you on an everyday basis.

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