In a famous paper published shortly after World War II, physicist Richard Feynman predicted that the far future of technology would be all about manipulating machines at the very smallest scales – the so-called “nanoscale,” populated by events that occur at between one and 100 nanometers in size, nearly as small as a strand of human DNA.
Over the last few decades, Feynman’s vision has come to pass. “Nanotech” is now big business. Revenue from this nascent industry is expected to exceed $500 billion in 2017 alone, according to government estimates.
When engineers work with materials of extremely small size, very counterintuitive things happen. Certain properties, like a material’s melting point, ability to conduct electricity, and chemical reactivity, can radically change. In some cases, quantum mechanical effects, such as electron tunneling, make certain types of construction impossible… and simultaneously open the door to other engineering feats that would seem like science fiction were they to be done at the larger scales familiar to us.
Nanotech advocates are quick to point out all the good things in store for society as engineers make progress in this bizarre realm: super-targeted medicines, fabrics and plastics with nearly-magical properties, quantum computers that make today’s most advanced chips seem like one of those clunky vacuum tube computers from the 1970s by comparison.
These promises are amazing. But the risks are also tremendous – and often overlooked by techno-evangelists. What nanotech accidents await patients (because some will be inevitable)? What happens when a nanomachine or nanofiber fails catastrophically? What if this tech gets hacked… or gets in the hands of someone who uses it to harm people, interfere with business or government, or steal?
The “worst case” scenarios – for instance, a scientist accidentally creating an unstoppably replicating nanomachine that consumes all life on the planet, reducing Earth’s surface to a kind of “grey goo”— are highly unlikely. But the less apocalyptic but still bad scenarios sketched out above are quite realistic.
Will the U.S. witness big tort claims against nanotech companies, as some of these nightmares start to come true?
Nanotech began a steep upward trend in 2009. Since around that time, legal critics have predicted that will only be a matter of time before the first major nanotech tort lawsuit. Nanotech companies have so far (in general) worked hard to comply with federal regulations; they have averted big risks and gotten creative to make their products safe.
But how long with this peaceful interlude last? Currently, nanoparticles appear in products ranging from carbon-fiber vests to medical devices, sunscreen, and even food packaging. It’s tough to foresee where, exactly, problems might arise – and what injuries might result if they do.
Predicting oncoming harm is even tougher when the injuries from a product don’t appear for months or even years. And unless there’s a provable cause-and-effect relationship between nanoparticle exposure and a particular harm, even those who do suffer injuries will be missing a key part of the argument they’ll need to win a lawsuit against a nanotech manufacturer.