Future Tense

A Cheat-Sheet Guide to Nanotechnology

Who are the lead researchers? What are the big debates? And what’s “gray goo” got to do with it?

Craig Barritt/Getty Images, Sergei Ilnitsky/AFP/Getty Images, Jenny Hunter, Brendon Thorne/Getty Images, Paul J. Richards/AFP/Getty Images, whitehouse.gov

Key Players:

Angela Belcher: A Massachusetts Institute of Technology–based engineering professor, Belcher works at the intersection of biomaterials and nanotech.

K. Eric Drexler: Drexler’s work on nanotechnology in the 1980s helped bring the idea into the cultural mainstream.

Don Eigler: Eigler, a physicist, famously wrote the initials of IBM with individual xenon atoms in 1989 and has continued to work on the nanoscale since.

Michelle Y. Simmons: Simmons is a professor of quantum physics who works on nanotechnological approaches to computing, building transistors one atom at a time.


Richard Smalley: A Nobel Prize–winning scientist, Smalley has challenged what he sees as the unscientific dreams of some nanotech advocates.

Lloyd Whitman: Whitman serves as assistant director for nanotechnology and advanced materials for the White House’s Office of Science and Technology Policy.

Gray goo.

The Day the Earth Stood Still



Carbon nanotubes: These extremely strong structures made from sheets of rolled graphene have been used in everything from bicycle components to industrial epoxies.

Gray goo: A hypothetical apocalyptic scenario, gray goo would be the product of nanobots reassembling everything in their own image.

Molecular assemblers: As imagined by K. Eric Drexler, molecular assemblers would be tiny machines capable of manipulating atomic material to build up other objects and devices.

Nanoscale: The nanoscale refers to phenomena that unfold at a size of roughly one-billionth of a meter.

Quantum dots: A quantum dot is a tiny, human-made particle exhibiting properties that may help push ahead computing, medicine, and other fields.


Scanning tunneling microscope: Scanning tunneling microscopes are powerful devices capable of creating images of and sometimes manipulating individual atoms.



Technology run amok: Some worry that nanotechnology will become self-replicating and eradicate all other life on Earth in the process, as exemplified by the gray goo scenario. Will we be overwhelmed by our own innovations?

Health and environmental safety: Some nanomaterials, such as carbon nanotubes, may pose as-yet-unknown risks to our well-being. Are we adequately investigating the potential effects of these products?

Nanofatigue: While research on the nanoscale continues apace, some find the very concept of nanotechnology increasingly exhausting. If we turn away from discussions of nanotech as such, will developments grind to a halt? Or will it just become more difficult to consider the risks of the developments that really are in process?

Utopian expectations: While some nanoadvocates have claimed that we’ll soon be able to create machines that can manipulate atomic matter, others say these proposals don’t correspond with known science. Does nanotech really have the potential to change the way we live?


Regulatory uncertainty: Because nanotechnology is often a literal subdomain of other areas of inquiry and forms of production, it’s not always clear how we should evaluate its effects and products. Do we have the right systems in place to ensure that developments remain responsible?


Read Up:

A Federal Vision for Future Computing: A Nanotechnology-Inspired Grand Challenge”: This 2016 white paper from the National Nanotechnology Initiative lays out priorities for pushing computer innovations that would draw on the insights and advances enabled by decades of nanotech research.

Engines of Creation by K. Eric Drexler: This 1986 tome helped direct popular attention to nanotechnology.

There’s Plenty of Room at the Bottom” by Richard Feynman: In this seminal 1959 lecture, Feynman laid out a series of ideas and thought experiments encouraging his audience to think about the vast scope of the nanoscale.


Nanotechnology Timeline”: This timeline from the National Nanotechnology Institute traces some recent developments in the field, while also showing that humans have been working with nanomaterials for millennia.

Nanotechnology-Based Consumer Products Inventory: This enormous database assembled by the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholar’s Project on Emerging Technologies catalogs hundreds of products that include nanomaterials.

The relentless T-1000.

Terminator 2: Judgment Day


Popular Culture:

The Diamond Age by Neal Stephenson: This 1995 novel imagines a world revolutionized by nanotechnological innovations.

Prey by Michael Crichton: In this technothriller, swarms of nanobots escape from a laboratory and wreak havoc.

“S.R. 819,” The X-Files: In this sixth-season episode of the seminal science-fiction show, mysterious figures infect FBI assistant director Walter Skinner with potentially fatal blood-borne nanobots.

System Shock 2: In this classic first-person shooter, tokens called nanites power the game world’s nanotechnological replicator systems, thereby functioning as a de facto currency.

Terminator 2: Judgment Day directed by James Cameron: The relentless T-1000’s shape-changing abilities are sometimes explained as products of nanomachines.

This article is part of the nanotechnology installment of Futurography, a series in which Future Tense introduces readers to the technologies that will define tomorrow. Each month, we’ll choose a new technology and break it down. Future Tense is a collaboration among Arizona State University, New America, and Slate.