Leader: 'Grey-goo' scare stories don't merit new regime

May 2, 2003

Technology often has unintended consequences that turn out to be bigger than the intended ones. But this does not mean that Prince Charles is right to predict that nanotechnology, which replaces today's machines with molecule-sized ones operating atom by atom, is going to end with humanity reduced to a mess of "grey goo". The implication is that the prince has been paying more attention to Michael Crichton's nanotechnology novel Prey than to the scientific literature.

In fact, nanotechnology is already a $2 billion a year industry in the US, with life-enhancing products such as dirt-resistant "nanotrousers" already on the market. Nanotechnology may offer miracle cures for disease, but delegates at The THES 's nanotechnology conference in London a few weeks ago heard that humdrum items such as improved ski wax are likely to emerge first from the nanotechnology labs.

The issue is whether nanotechnology is so revolutionary that it requires a special regulatory regime with powers beyond those necessary for more traditional science. The answer is probably not. There are already rules controlling, for example, the use of animals in scientific experiments, and, of course, new medical procedures used on humans. Like another of the prince's favourite issues, genetic engineering, the best approach to nanotechnology is not to retreat in horror but to ensure that machinery is in place to guarantee that research is safe and ethical. In both cases, the profits at stake are so large that some players will wish to bend the rules. The best defence is to ensure that the public is informed about the issues and involved in the big decisions.

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