Malaysia aspires to be in the top 10 of nanotechnology nations that will create new sources of economic growth for future generations. But there are dangers that could have serious repercussions in how we work and live.
ON SEPT 23, I was invited to attend a workshop on the National Nanotechnology Strategy in Kuala Lumpur. The title piqued my interest because it was relevant to my PhD research areas on the Development and Characterisation of Nanocomposites under Polymer Engineering as well as on Islamic World Views on Science and Technology under Islamic Philosophy.
I hope I would be able to contribute some ideas for the development of nanotechnology in Malaysia.
The paper “Nanotechnology Made In Malaysia: From One Small Part to One Big Success” entails the national strategic policy and support to be given to the various sectors as market players.
It also defines the implementation approach and policies that will support and nurture the vibrant development of nanotechnology.
It is also Malaysia’s aspiration to be a top ten nanotechnology nation that will transform the nation by creating new sources of economic growth for future generations.
In general, nanotechnology is the engineering of functional systems at a molecular scale. In its original sense, nanotechnology refers to the projected ability to construct items from the bottom up, using techniques and tools being developed today to make complete, high performance products.
Countries like the United States, Japan, Korea, Germany and Britain have invested heavily in nanotechnology.
In determining the strategic direction of science and technology, the efforts to combine this with religion are also important, especially in bringing together the role of science and Islam.
At the workshop, we were told that in a market driven approach, few sectors will be given priority to jumpstart Malaysia’s entry into the nanotechnology business. These areas are oil and gas, palm oil, electronics, ICT and agricultural food.
Despite the many advantages of nanotechnology, the disadvantages should also be taken into consideration.
First is the strong possibility of the disruption of the basis of economy. The purchaser of a manufactured product today is paying for its design, raw materials, labour, capital for manufacturing, transportation, storage and sales.
Additional money, usually a fairly low percentage, goes to the owners of these businesses.
If personal nanofactories can produce a wide variety of products when and where they are wanted, most of the other services will become unnecessary. This raises several questions about the nature of a post-nanotech economy.
Will products be cheaper? Will capitalism disappear? Will most people retire or be unemployed?
Second, nano-built products may be vastly overpriced relative to cost, perpetuating unnecessary poverty.
By today’s commercial standards, products built by nanofactories would be immensely valuable.
A monopoly would allow the owners of the technology to charge high rates for all products.
Thirdly, society could be disrupted by the availability of new ‘immoral’ products, which may cause significant social disruption.
For example, medical devices could be built into needles narrower than a bacterium, perhaps allowing easy brain modification or stimulation, with effects similar to any of a variety of psychoactives.
Fourthly, nanotech weapons would be extremely powerful and can lead to a dangerously unstable arms race.
Molecular manufacturing raises the possibility of effective yet horrific weapons. As an example, the smallest insect is about 200 microns; this creates a plausible size estimate for a nanotech-built anti-personnel weapon capable of seeking and injecting toxins into unprotected humans.
The human lethal dose of botulism toxin is about 100 nanograms, or about 1/100 the volume of the weapon. Theoretically, as many as 50 billion toxins carrying devices may be enough to kill every human on Earth.
Fifth, collective environmental damage is a natural consequence of cheap manufacturing, as are health risks.
How many of these products will we want? What environmental damage will they do?
The range of possible damage is vast, from personal low-flying supersonic aircraft injuring large numbers of animals to a collection of solar energy on a sufficiently large scale to modify the planet’s albedo and directly affect the environment.
The report highlighted several “potential military uses of nanotechnology that occurred between 2005–2010” with “potential for causing health hazards or environmental pollution” including:
> Nanomaterials (e.g. nanotubes) in uniforms and equipment that could break off and enter the body and environment;
> Nanoparticles as surface coatings that may erode and be inhaled by military staff and the general population;
> Artificial blood cells injected to enhance human athletic performance could cause overheating of the body, bio-breakdowns and their excretion could add to the environmental load; and
> Large quantities of smart weapons with intelligent, target-seeking ammunition could lead to unexpected injury to combatants and civilians, destruction to infrastructure and environmental pollution.
This year, the nanotechnology market could hit the US$1 trillion (RM3.1 trillion) mark and so the possible negative effects of nanotechnology, such as those mentioned, could easily be overlooked.
The problems of health versus wealth were summed up in a March 2004 paper prepared for the Health and Safety Commission (HSC) in Britain.
The Health and Safety Executive’s chief scientist, Paul Davies, wrote: “In the absence of complete and robust evidence of the risks HSC/E must work with stakeholders to promote and assure risk management of this technology without unnecessarily stifling innovation and wealth creation.”
What is the Science Technology and Innovation Ministry’s (Mosti) approach towards addressing these issues?
What is the Islamic approach on nanotechnology and will – or can – nanotechnology change the Islamic syariah law?