Editor’s note: Today’s Guest Opinion is by Hanah Metchis, a research associate for the Project on technology and Innovation at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, which produces C:\Spin commentaries.

WASHINGTON,Something very small is rapidly becoming a very big thing.

Nanotechnology, the precise manipulation of atoms and molecules, sounds like the stuff of science fiction. Yet it is already a reality in several consumer products, including sunscreens and underwater cleaning products. Researchers have also used nanoparticles to preserve antique books and documents.

Nanotechnology is the science of particles so small they are measured in nanometers — billionths of a meter. A thousand times smaller than the width of a hair, a hundred times smaller than a red blood cell, atoms operate in an environment of quantum forces and molecular bonding. By constructing molecules at will, we have the potential to create practically anything we can imagine.

Many possibilities

Within the next few years, nanotechnology could improve everything from drug delivery systems to computer chips to fuel cells. However, the real promise of nanotechnology lies in the long term. When scientists learn to manipulate atoms precisely, the entire process of manufacturing could change. Instead of creating objects by molding materials into shape, microscopic machinery could build things from the ground up, atom by atom. Imagine watching a car, or a bookshelf, or a hamburger appear out of thin air as the molecules are arranged by nano-scale robots.

With these incredible new possibilities could come new dangers. Self-replicating nano-machines could run out of control or disrupt natural systems. There will be new potentials for fraud, privacy violation, and physical harm. If these theoretical dangers become actual dangers, new laws and regulations might be necessary to keep them contained. But at present, nanoparticles are just chemical compounds — they are not machines and not capable of reproducing themselves.

Nonetheless, environmental and anti-technology groups are already advocating strict regulations or even complete bans on nanotechnology research. ETC Group, an organization that helped create the scare over genetically modified foods, recently released a paper calling for an immediate moratorium on commercial production of new nanomaterials and the creation of an international regulatory body. Invoking the precautionary principle, they say that no technology should be introduced until it has been proven to be completely safe. The absence of any evidence of harm is not enough — for them, nanotechnology is guilty until proven innocent.

Defense use a driver

Nanotechnology research will not be preemptively stopped, if only because it has so many useful military applications. If the U.S. military renounced nanotechnology, it would be at serious risk of falling behind nations that are willing to use nanotechnology weapons and defense systems. Only commercial, civilian research could feasibly be stopped or severely restricted. But military uses of nanotechnology are likely to be far more dangerous than civilian applications. Furthermore, a ban on commercial nanotechnology would make us much less safe by withholding the improvement that comes from competition, removing liability to consumers, and impeding the sharing of knowledge among many scientists and researchers.

Nanotechnology research should continue in a safe manner, but that does not mean government regulations are necessary. The Foresight Institute has created a set of guidelines for safe nanotechnology research. Those guidelines are revised as new research shows how nanotechnology does and doesn’t work, what needs to be addressed, and what is impossible anyway. This allows scientists to make the greatest possible research gains without endangering anyone’s safety.

The world is changing, as it always is. Nanotechnology offers the possibility of more drastic change than most new discoveries, and we can only guess what a world with mature nanotechnology would look like. Science-fiction writers have offered us a variety of possibilities, from Michael Crichton’s Prey to Neal Stephenson’s The Diamond Age. The government shouldn’t close the book on nanotechnology after the first chapter. If we allow open research of nanotechnology and address dangers as they become apparent, this science-fiction story should have a happy ending.

CEI: www.cei.org

Foresight: www.foresight.org