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July|August 2003
To Kill an Avatar By Dan Hunter and F. Gregory Lastowka
May The Best Wookiee Win
The Copyright Cage By Jonathan Zittrain
Your Cellphone is a Homing Device By Brendan I. Koerner
Camera Shy By Patrick Keefe
Seeing it Both Ways By Orin S. Kerr
The Science of the Small By Glenn Harlan Reynolds

The Science of the Small

By Glenn Harlan Reynolds

THE DIGITAL REVOLUTION BROUGHT US A DEBATE over the difference between virtual reality and physical reality, a distinction the courts are still trying to figure out. But we are also at the dawn of a new technological revolution—the nanotech revolution—that may challenge our definition of what physical reality is. Superman could create diamonds by squeezing lumps of coal, using heat and pressure to rearrange the carbon atoms. Nanotechnology could achieve the same transformation, with considerably less fuss.

Nanotechnology derives its name from the nanometer, or a billionth of a meter, and refers to the manipulation of matter at the atomic and molecular level. The ideas behind it are simple ones: Every substance on earth is made up of molecules composed of one or more atoms (the smallest particles of elements); to describe the molecules that constitute a physical object and how they interrelate is to say nearly everything important about the object. It follows, then, that if you can manipulate individual atoms and molecules and put them together in certain configurations, you should be able to create just about anything you desire.

Nanotech researchers hope to use atom-by-atom construction techniques not just to produce substances but also to create tiny, bacterium-sized devices (known as nanobots) that could be programmed to repair clogged arteries, kill cancer cells, and even fix cellular damage caused by aging. Other researchers believe that nanotechnology will allow for a degree of miniaturization that might allow computers to become a million times more efficient than anything available now. This sounds like the stuff of science fiction, and it is: In Michael Crichton's latest thriller, Prey, nanotech plays the bad guy. But in real life, nanotech is already being used by everyone from Lee Jeans, which uses nanofibers to make stain-proof pants, to the U.S. military, which uses nanotechnology to make better catalysts for rockets and missiles.

The legal scholar Grant Gilmore wrote that the Industrial Revolution led to dramatic changes in English commercial law during the second half of the 18th century. The nanotechnology revolution, if successful, would be on the same scale—and have just as profound an impact on the law.

MANY SCIENTISTS WERE INITIALLY SKEPTICAL about nanotechnology, doubting that such precise positioning of molecules was possible, but that skepticism appears to have been misplaced; no surprise, really, since living organisms, including our own bodies, make things like bone and muscle by manipulating individual atoms and molecules. Yet as criticism has shifted from claims that nanotech won't work to fears that it might, there have been calls to stop progress in the field of nanotechnology before it has started. The ETC Group, an antitechnology organization operating out of Canada, has proposed a moratorium on nanotechnology research and on research into self-replicating machines. (At the moment, the latter is like calling for a moratorium on antigravity or faster-than-light travel—nobody's doing it anyway.)

What's attractive about devices that can be programmed to manipulate molecules is that they let you make virtually anything you want, and you can generally make it out of cheap and commonly available materials and energy—what nanotech enthusiasts call "sunlight and dirt." This is also what is unattractive. Devices that can manufacture virtually anything from sunlight and dirt might, as the result of a program error, manufacture endless copies of themselves, which would then go on to make still more copies, and so on. The fear that nanobots might turn the world into mush is known in the trade as the "gray goo problem," the apocalyptic scenario at the heart of Crichton's novel.

Nanotech's backers, however, believe the real problem won't be accident, but abuse. With mature nanotechnology, it might be possible to disassemble enemy weapons. (Imagine bacterium-sized devices that convert high explosives into inert substances, a technique that would neutralize even nuclear weapons.) On a more threatening note, sophisticated nano-devices could serve as artificial "disease" agents of great power and subtlety. Like nuclear weapons, these devices would be awesome in their power—and their misuse would be terrifying. Still, the race to harness this power is well underway: The Defense Department expects to spend some $243 million on nanotechnology this fiscal year, and the total federal budget for nanotechnology research and development is $774 million.

In a world in which the promise of nanotechnology were realized, practically anyone could live a life that would be extraordinary by today's standards, in terms of health (thanks to nano-medicine) and material possessions. Most physical goods could be manufactured in situ at low cost from cheap raw materials. Imagine owning an appliance the size of a refrigerator, full of nano-assemblers, that ran on sunlight and dirt and made pretty much everything you need, from clothing to food.

In such a world, personal property would become almost meaningless. Some actual physical items would retain sentimental value, but everything else could be produced as needed, then recycled as soon as the need passed. (As someone who writes on a laptop that was cutting edge last year and is now old news, with its value discounted accordingly, I sometimes think we're already there except for the recycling part. Don't even ask about my MP3 player.)

Real property would retain its value—as my grandfather used to say, "They're not making any more of it," especially oceanfront acreage—but what would "value" mean? Value usually describes an object's ability to be exchanged for another item. But with personal property creatable on demand from sunlight and dirt, it's not clear what the medium of exchange would be. Value comes from scarcity, and most goods wouldn't be scarce. Intellectual property—the software and designs used to program the nano-devices—would be valuable, though once computing power became immense and ubiquitous, developing such designs wouldn't be likely to pose much of a challenge.

One thing that would retain scarcity is time. Personal services—teaching, lawyering, prostitution—wouldn't be cheapened in the same fashion. We might wind up with an economy based on the exchange of personal services more than on the purchase of goods. In a way, that's where we're headed already. Even without nanotechnology, the prices of many goods are falling. Televisions, once expensive, are near-commodity goods, as are computers, stereos, and just about all other electronics. Nanotechnology would simply accelerate this trend and extend it to everything else. Ironically, it may be the combination of capitalism and technology that brings about a near-propertyless utopia of the sort that socialists (usually no fans of capitalism) and romantics (no fans of technology) have long dreamed of.

Glenn Harlan Reynolds, a professor of law at the University of Tennessee, has developed guidelines for the use of nanotechnology as a director of the Foresight Institute. His writing can be found at

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