Reassessing Risk Assessment: The Question of Whether to Pursue the Development of Nanomaterials Isn't Just about Weighing the Pros (Wondrous New Technologies) and the Cons (Environmental Catastrophe). the Entire Concept of Environmental Risk Assessment Needs to Be Reexamined as Technology Increasingly Merges with Nature

Article excerpt

Some environmentalists perceive the risk of nano-materials as too great for us to pursue developing them until we study them further. Many scientists disagree and say that the potential benefits outweigh the potential risks. But both sides are missing the point.

Environmental risk assessment is the foundation of our capacity to evaluate ecological impacts. Yet, a wave of scientific discovery is transforming the way that we perceive the ecology. This will force basic changes to how we evaluate risk.

Until we make such changes, it will not be possible for detractors or supporters of nanotechnologies to accurately evaluate risks and benefits.

As part of my environmental management work, I examined emerging theories and technologies that may transform risk assessment. The main developments are that (1) our technologies are beginning to merge with the natural environment, (2) technology convergence is changing the way that human intelligence evolves, and (3) the concept of "punctuated equilibrium" may have to become a vital new part of risk assessment to cope with recently discovered hazards.

Technologies That Merge With the Natural Environment

Ray Kurzweil, who pioneered technologies such as optical character recognition and print-to-speech reading machines, argues that technology is a continuation of evolution by other means. This implies that our technologies are becoming an integral part of the ecology.

One physical manifestation of this is Smart Dust, a project of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. Smart Dust comprises a massive array of micromachines made of nanoscale components that ride on air or water currents, undetectable to the human eye. Each expendable machine can have a camera, communications device, and varying sensors for chemicals, temperature, and sound. It has its own rechargeable energy source. It can serve as the eyes, ears, nose, and guidance mechanism for everyone from soldiers to hurricane watchers. It costs a fraction of a penny to manufacture, and its prototype exists today. It forms part of a massive array that delivers information to one or hundreds of computers in one or many locations. It will soon be in our environment in the trillions, delivering information about everything from troop to sewage movements.

This nanoscale level of incursion into the ecology suggests emergence of an intelligent environment. Just as nature has its own "intelligence" that responds to environmental changes--for example, by transmitting genetic information that lets species adapt--so we are creating an intelligent, human-built environment not just alongside that, but as part of it. Such an intelligent environment is able to sense virtually every part of the ecology, from the epicenter of earthquakes to the heartbeat of every species, and then interpret what this means.

Intelligent particles are also gaining the capacity to self-assemble. For example, several universities have pioneered self-assembling photovoltaic materials that generate and conduct an electric current. These materials can be painted onto surfaces, thus eliminating the need for solar panels.

When we combine self-assembly with intelligent sensing at the nanometer scale, then multiply it a trillionfold, we see that our technology is becoming an integral part of the ecology, instead of merely impacting it, and that human technologies may soon be indistinguishable from nature.

Enhanced Intelligence Is Changing the Ground Rules

Hans Moravec, head researcher at Carnegie Mellon University's Robotics Institute, has shown convincingly--as have others--that the rate of acceleration in information processing is logarithmic. Not only is the capacity to process ones and zeros increasing, but the rate at which it multiplies is also accelerating.

For millennia, this exponential growth rate was barely perceptible, because it took thousands, then hundreds, then tens of years for such capacity to multiply, from the abacus to the microprocessor and now to the nanoprocessor. …