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Safer Nanotechnology

nanobarbedwire.jpgOf all of the developments we talk about here, the one with the greatest potential for both beneficial transformation and disastrous risk is nanotechnology. Today, nanotechnology consists primarily of nanomaterials and nanoparticles, which have properties that have effects at the molecular scale. This is already of great value (witness advances in photovoltaics, batteries, and medicine), but many people have raised questions about their safety. The importance of nanomaterials, however, pales in comparison to the potential impact of molecular-scale manufacturing. The implications of molecular manufacturing just get bigger and bigger the more one thinks about it, because of the way functional nanofactories would upset long-standing models of economic (and social and political) interaction. It's heartening, therefore, to see the growth of resources supporting the safe, ethical and responsible development of nanotechnologies.

WorldChanging readers are familiar with allies the Center for Responsible Nanotechnology, run by Mike Treder and Chris Phoenix. CRN looks primarily at the implications of what they term "middle period" nanotech, such as nanofactories -- much more sophisticated than nanomaterials, but not the fantastic nanoassemblers of science fiction. I'm in the middle of an extended interview with Mike and Chris, but in the meantime, I strongly encourage readers to check out the recently-concluded "Inside CRN" series at the Center for Responsible Nanotechnology blog. The five posts cover CRN's mission and goals, and explains how their focus differs from other nanotech resources. It's a great introduction to an extremely valuable organization.

CRN's focus on "middle period" nanotech is nicely complemented by the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies, at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. A project of the Pew Charitable Trusts, PEN is an attempt to collect and analyze reports on the current and near-future status of molecular technologies. As they put it:

The Project will provide independent, objective knowledge and analysis that can inform critical decisions affecting the development and commercialization of nanotechnologies.
Our goal is to inform the debate and to create an active public and policy dialogue. It is not an advocate either for, or against, particular nanotechnologies. We seek to ensure that as these technologies are developed, potential human health and environmental risks are anticipated, properly understood, and effectively managed.

PEN is clearly focused on the impacts of nanoscale materials and particles, not scenarios of molecular manufacturing. This is good, and important. As we noted when discussing Rice University's Nano Risk and Benefit Database, our understanding of the health and environmental impact of nanotech is more limited than it should be for responsible decision-making. PEN is clearly well-connected, and its director, David Rejeski, testified recently in front of the US House of Representatives on what still needs to be learned about the environmental and safety (PDF) issues of nanoscale materials.

Although some proponents of molecular nanotechnologies encourage the fast development and deployment of innovations because of the potential benefits, it's these benefits that caution us to instead work in a deliberate, transparent and careful manner. As we've said many times before, science cannot be divorced from society; intemperate, secretive or mistaken-in-hindsight uses of new nanotechnologies run the risk of turning the public against nano. Agricultural biotechnologies provide a very useful example of what not to do. If we want to see the emergence and spread of nanotechnology's benefits, we must bring them about as carefully and as responsibly as possible.

Comments (13)

Hm. I can't say as I really care for PEN's logo graphic. Looks like some strange combination of schematics for magnetic plasma bottles and crystalography, neither of which has anything directly to do with nanotechnology.


All well & good, this careful approach: but will you have the time?
What if the only thing missing from developing molecular manufacturing is necessity, a sense of urgency? It doesn't take much to produce that: what if some unforeseen event / disaster shortcircuits the entire logic?
Clinical trials, where cancercells are blown up by gold particles, are to start in 2006 and supposed to arrive on the market in 08. What's next?
It's almost as if we need some event to put it on everyone's agenda. Pity there's no guarantee that we'll be able to hold a normal debate about it (just like gen. engineering and cloning).

What is nanotechnology? Just a few word for understanding

Pace Arko:

Commenting on Rik's comments, as someone who has been following developments in molecular manufacturing since reading about the idea in 1987, I don't think there is any need to rush it. It will get here soon enough. I've yet to see any strongly compelling reason to rush development.

Let's not forget times in recent memory we had a "sense of urgency:" the Manhatten Project, Sputnik, the Cold War, the WTC attacks. I'd rather avoid seeing MNT being developed under those circumstances.

Better to see development of this stuff done in a calm and rational atmosphere, openly shared and with thoughtful and visionary regulation.


What about Peak Oil and Outsourcing? Those are two good reasons why we should at least accelorate Molecular Manufacturing.

Pace Arko:

Hmmmmmm. I don't buy those either.

Fossil fuel exhaustion doesn't seem that compelling to me because there are already so many ways with conventional technology to deal with energy needs. Advanced nanotechnology seems like overkill for the problem.

The need to diminish the outsourcing of labor also isn't that compelling to me because fab labs and robots, again with conventional technology, may solve that problem (See the article here about MORPG farming in China). MNT seems like overkill.

Aging and disease? Again, many ways with conventional medical technology to deal with those too.

Look, if you're following the science news, it hardly seems like month goes by without some advance significant to molecular manufacturing being made. There's no need to rush it. It will get soon enough.

The reason I don't think we should rush it is because it is the acme of disruptive technologies. I'd rather if society be given as much time as possible to prepare for the arrival MNT.


Pace Arko: Conventional medicine dealing well with aging and disease? You must be joking. We don't have a cure for AIDS (as well as several other nasty viruses) and last I checked I'm still growing older (glad I have 2 cryonics contracts). There are afflictions for which mature nanomedicine will be pretty much the only cure - aging's at the top of the list there as it's a guaranteed killer. This afternoon wouldn't be soon enough for it to get here.


I think we seem to be missing one point, CRN's agenda (shared with others) is about preparing for NBIC with a core assumption it will arrive slowly enough for the wider population to undertake some rational discussion and be educated. This is not supported historically, (pick any major tech jump, looms, germ theory, evolution, railroads, the pram, contraception, universal suffrage, universal health care, computers etc) Some major advances continue to be not in place (ie USA has no health care for 43M people) or debated, misunderstood/misrepresented and resisted (theory of evolution, universal health care/education, etc) because, sad to say nowhere on the planet has the level of population wide education to enable reasonable debate (hell, 43% of the USA believes in creationism according to CNN [???Reliability factor])

For the few 10’s of thousands scattered across the planet who have been discussing, debating, learning and wondering it will still be a surprise when NBIC arrives and CRN and others to some degree pre-empting some of the thinking at a social/policy level is very valuable to them but ultimately will be lost in the uproar of those who fear change either for its own sake or for its undermining of their lives (belief systems, power, economics, whatever)

And in the end - how relevant is the debate if middle ground NBIC or full blown NBIC in fact arrives as a "singularity" which by its definition is so pervasive and disruptive to the current 17th centaury social order/ economic/political model all the debate becomes irrelevant (fun though).

For me personally as my wife has had cancer for 11 years so it cannot come soon enough.

Ps I like the logo, shades of biology (DNA), physics, and thought.

Pace Arko:

J and Nick,

Well, you may get your wish. From what I've heard, nearly every major government (India, US, EU, Russia, China, Japan, S. Korea, etc.) in the world is pouring billions into this research, directly or indirectly.

I just don't want this to turn into an arms race. Is my concern so unwarrented?


Pace: An arms race is unfortunately unavoidable, I'd say. Just the nature of things. As long as it's "business as usual" and not a shooting war, I won't worry too much (we more or less are always in an arms race in the modern world - have to stay up to date with your national arsenal as a matter of reasonable national security).


Sorry Pace, again if we reflect on history there has always been "arm races" most recently often fed by the industries that make money from such things (armaments manufacturers i.e. Krupp Works was renown for selling guns to both sides during the 19 Centaury). During the 20th and particularly post WW2 there was billions to be made if you could even allege your tool (explosive, guidance system, tracking system etc) could give you an edge. Major government just could not take the risk the “other side” might get it first. Some might say the Cold war was an economic/propaganda conflict punctuated by small proxy wars and covert “interventions” (i.e. the odd assassination and act of espionage) to prove you had a given capacity or deny it to your opponent.

The big difference we may be facing this time is the massive reduction in RESOURCES (raw materials, intellectual capital etc) to produce effective, difficult to track/stop weapons produced and upgraded in lage numbers capable of very precise targeting and defeating of existing and evolving countermeasures. Now THAT combined with the arrival of full blown NBIC/MNT which will also be effectively the end of the “age of scarcity” on which our current social order rests, i.e. if you don’t need anything from anyone you are in all ways independent rather than inter-dependent every action becomes a real choice even a “bad” and/or impulsive one. Even living space may be a relative non issue but it would seen to be the only “limit”

The potential INDIVIDUAL production capacity will be fundamentally unmeasurable and how do you manage the disgruntled as a society when every individual has unlimited and very short term (hours to days) manufacturing capacity.

For a while immediately pre-singularity (if that’s where we get to), it will be business as usual with existing Governments using political, media and economic tools and if you mix in the current increasing surveillance and social oppression (i.e. Patriot Act or is European/Australian/Chinese etc versions) for a brief time it will be all any paranoid could wish for. But it will not last.

Given only a few (relatively perhaps a million or so world wide) will actually grasp this and the remainder will mostly be happy to have whatever they want virtually at will I suggest a massive rise in the “lotus eater” syndrome paralleled by a fortress mentality and assuming some degree of space travel a “disporia” at least to the inner solar system.

But my some what long winded point is - the dominant theme will be rapid change and multiple options/solutions will emerge to address lots of different problems as different people based on their individual skills and perceptions allow, some people become insular, some will reform into different types of societies, some will hang on tooth and nail to what they know/are comfortable with, some will lash out at “difference”, some will do several different things. So an arms race is perhaps a relatively minor and short term concern, we are facing nothing less than the complete restructure of the way humanity interacts with itself and the world(s) about them and it will be fast, some of us of course won’t actually notice…..

Pace Arko:

J and Nick,

You'll have to forgive me if I don't share you're confidence in rushing this stuff any faster than it's already happening. The Cold War was a very scary thing with several very close calls. It may have only been dumb luck that we are here now having this conversation.

Please understand that I'm not dismissing the benefits of advanced nanotechnology. I look forward to seeing those benefits. In fact, given the rate things are already advancing, I'm pretty sure I will live to see the emergence of this stuff.

It's just all this talk of Nanhatten Projects and "senses of urgency" worries me. This stuff really should be developed, regulated and shared openly in an atmosphere of global calm. Thinking that arms races are unavoidable suggests a certain passivity to me. I'm not saying "stop it;" I'm saying "steer it."

Anyway, that's all I've got to say on the matter. We'll see how it actually goes soon enough.


Pace: If you got real-world (feasible and workable) suggestions for "steering" I'd love to hear them. We've been arguing on just that for quite some time now over at CRNano and still have nothing even approaching consensus on virtually any ideas at all.


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