Nanotechnology Poses U.S. Policy Challenge

SAN FRANCISCO (04/24/2000) - The U.S. federal government is struggling with ways to accommodate revolutionary advances brought about by the convergence of science and technology, a NASA expert told a U.S. congressional subcommittee here today.

The new and interrelated nanotechnology and biotechnology are being combined with information technology to offer new frontiers that have the power to transform society, Samuel L. Venneri, associate administrator for Aero-Space Technology, for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), said here today.

"We are at the embryonic stages for development (of the technologies)," Venneri said.

U.S. Representative Stephen Horn (Republican, California) said he was worried about the evolution of these technologies and how they would be perceived by the public.

Venneri agreed and said that NASA has already set up a subcommittee to examine the implications of the development of nanotechnology and biotechnology.

However, he also said that the correct way of handling the technologies is a political decision that should be examined by the federal government.

Steven Popper, associate director of the Science and Technology Policy Institute, a part of nonprofit think tank RAND (a contraction of the term 'research and development'), suggested that federal-level policy development committees could examine ethical and policy issues relating to the new technologies.

Nanotechnology, which can manipulate atoms to create structural materials, electronics and sensors, is under development and is being considered along with biotechnology for technological applications, NASA's Venneri said. The minute scale of nanotechnology will result in much smaller components than had ever anticipated, he added.

"For the first time, we are looking at the building up (of structures) from the atomic level and not scaling down," Venneri said.

In addition, biotechnology is examining molecular structures for possible use in material structures, he added.

"The critical distinction between biological systems and current computers is that they (computers) may seem to come to life when we use them, but they can only adapt, evolve and think to the extent we anticipate the environment and operating conditions they will encounter and build in appropriate response mechanisms," Venneri told the committee. "As we develop the technologies of the future, we will extend this paradigm to all our space and aeronautic systems."

The rapid pace of technological change is also forcing the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) to adjust. In February 1999, the CIA formed IN-Q-Tel Inc., a nonprofit corporation set up to invest in technology companies.

The CIA believes it is not currently able to keep up with developments in information technology infrastructures and is being challenged in its mission of presenting top-flight information to the federal government, Gilman Louie, president of IN-Q-Tel, said.

The CIA is hoping to find companies as they develop cutting-edge technologies relating to Internet security and other areas of interest.

"If you want to solve a problem, you want to be a first mover in the market," Louie said.

Louie also advocated public education as an element in promoting support for nanotechnology.

"The genie is already out of the bottle." he said.

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