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Foresight Update 50

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A publication of the Foresight Institute


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Inside Foresight: The Next Stage

by Eric Drexler

K. Eric Drexler
I've recently argued that it is time to declare victory in the war of ideas over the basic concepts of advanced nanotechnology. Why is this a good strategy? We should declare victory because we have, in fact, won the battles over the questions of substance; because a victorious stance will help us win the remaining battles over questions of perception; and because we must do so in order to move on.

For years we've argued the importance of something called "nanotechnology." Who can doubt that this argument has been won? Researchers in academic, industrial, and governmental labs have raced to relabel their work as nanotechnology, and many have chosen new directions inspired by nanotechnological goals. The exponential growth of web pages, the proliferation of technical and business conferences, the U.S. National Nanotechnology Initiative, the billions of dollars of funding, the media buzz, the growing hype — all testify that world society has embraced nanotechnology as central to our future.

For years we've argued that molecular manufacturing based on molecular machine systems will be central to advanced nanotechnologies, bringing a deep and broad revolution. Today, these arguments are widely accepted and no longer have any credible opponents. Here, however, perceptions lag reality, making a victorious stance all the more important. To understand why, it may help to consider the natural history of revolutionary ideas.

Consider a well-known quote by a successful nonviolent revolutionary, Gandhi: "First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win."

The concept of molecular assemblers was widely ignored or laughed at for years after its 1981 introduction, but steadily gained strength through technical analysis and criticism, through a slow, underground acceptance, and through sheer generational change. Recently, establishment forces have attempted to fight: in September 2001, Scientific American displayed on its cover: "Eric Drexler on Nanorobots and Richard Smalley on Why They Won't Work." Superficially, the contents of this issue suggest that the battle has begun in earnest. Properly understood, they show that the battle has already been won.

The reason is simple: our opponents have shown that they have nothing to say against our ideas, and they have done so in the classic manner, by attacking straw men of their own invention. When one critic ridicules using impossibly small "pincers or jaws" to "pick up atoms", he ridicules what was never suggested, misleading readers about the nature of the actual proposals. When another critic notes that multiple "fingers" cannot reach into an impossibly small volume to control the motion of every atom, he decisively refutes an idea of his own fabrication, and again misleads. The actual proposal — guiding molecular assembly by mechanically positioning reactive molecules, as described in the scientific literature twenty years earlier — is ignored. Why? Presumably because no one (even these very senior scientists with lifetimes of learning) can find anything to say against it.

Thus, the message of this apparent battle is simple: we have won by default. By stating this loudly and often, we can convert our victory in the war of scientific ideas into a victory in the war of perceptions. We should do so.


 
    "I believe we should turn increasing attention to exploring and articulating realistic, attractive scenarios for the future."    
    — K. Eric Drexler    
 

What of the remaining scoffers? They won't vanish until the technology exists and the debate no longer matters. If we take them seriously, we waste our efforts and mislead people about the actual state of knowledge. By declaring victory, in contrast, we marginalize them and free up resources for the tasks ahead. We have a lot to do — we face other battles of ideas, not yet fully defined, that will shape the understandings that will shape our future.

Looking ahead to the nanotechnology debate, I described a historical parallel in Engines of Creation, the debate over the feasibility of spaceflight: "...the pioneers of space technology...were forced to argue basic points again and again ("Yes, rockets will work in vacuum....Yes, they really will reach orbit...."). Busy defending the basics of spaceflight, they had little time to discuss its consequences. Thus, when Sputnik startled the world and embarrassed the United States, people were unprepared; there had been no widespread debate to shape a strategy for space." We must avoid this trap by taking the basics for granted and focusing on the consequences.

I believe we should turn increasing attention to exploring and articulating realistic, attractive scenarios for the future. To be realistic, they should assume that basic technological capabilities continue their exponential growth toward genuine physical limits. Thus, they should assume advanced molecular manufacturing, life extension, space expansion, machine intelligence, and more. To be attractive, they should show how catastrophes are avoided, how liberty is preserved, and how human diversity can flourish.

Human action is shaped and coordinated by expectations. Positive, workable visions will encourage actions that build toward a future worth having. This is why we must take our discussion of future technologies to the next stage.

Staff Changes

All of us at Foresight would like to thank Richard Terra for his years of work as editor both of Foresight Update and of Nanodot. We will miss his energy, skills, and dedication. He needs a break now for personal reasons, so Jim Lewis, our webmaster, is assuming these responsibilities.

We would also like to thank Tanya Jones, who held two titles at Foresight: Program Architect and Memetic Engineer. Best known for designing our more ambitious Gathering formats in recent years, she injected creativity throughout our organization. After five years she needs new challenges, but her resignation was accepted only on the condition that she continue as part of the Foresight community, so expect to see her at future events.

A recent addition is Judy Conner, marketing specialist. Judy is a generalist with a strong background in public relations, so we expect that our media interactions — vital for public education — will continue to improve under her guidance.

Eric Drexler is Foresight's Chairman. You can email him at foresight@foresight.org


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Foresight Update 50 - Table of Contents

 

Environmentalists Call for Moratorium on Commercial Nanomaterials

Concern about nanoparticle build up in environment

Much interest in commercializing early-sage nanotechnology has centered around fullerenes and carbon nanotubes, which have an impressive array of mechanical and electrical properties, quantum dots, nanowires, and other nanoparticles of diverse chemical composition. As production of such materials begins to move from laboratory towards commercial protoype quantities, some conscientious scientists have begun to research the consequences of putting such nanoparticles and other nanomaterials into the environment and into the body. One writer, Jessica Gorman of Science News, described the research goal of these scientists as "to launch preemptive strikes against any problems that might arise down the line."

Back in December of 2001, for example, a workshop on "Nanotechnology and Environment: An Examination of the Potential Benefits and Perils of an Emerging Technology" was held at Rice University, followed by meetings of scientists with EPA officials (see Update 48). Scientists were determined to avoid the problems encountered in the past with, for example, chlorofluorocarbons and DDT, which had been hailed as miracles when introduced, but much later became associated with serious problems.

Preliminary research results have been encouraging, with no indication of unusual risks associated with these novel materials. Ironically, the initiative of the scientists to deal with the problem proactively caused one environmentalist group to call for governments to "declare an immediate moratorium on commercial production of new nanomaterials and launch a transparent global process for evaluating the socio-economic, health and environmental implications of the technology." The call for an immediate moratorium was made by the ETC Group, which describes itself as "dedicated to the conservation and sustainable advancement of cultural and ecological diversity and human rights."

The opposition of the ETC Group to nanomaterials drew the attention of The New York Times a few weeks later. This otherwise balanced and informative coverage confuses the issue in one respect by beginning "The great Gray Goo debate is beginning to matter." "Gray Goo" refers to the specter of out of control self-replicating nanomachines consuming the biosphere (Engines of Creation, Chpt. 11), a consequence of a certain kind of accident with a product of molecular manufacturing, an advanced form of machine-phase nanotechnology. The issue here, on the other hand, is more or less standard chemical pollution arising from bulk production of novel nanostructured materials, a product of very early stage nanotechnology, not involving any artificial molecular machine systems. Although the writer of the Times article no doubt appreciated the distinction, it is important to distinguish the issues involved with this proposed moratorium from the issues involved with, for example, the alarm raised a few years ago by Bill Joy with respect to the dangers of advanced, self-replicating machines (see Update 41).

The above quibble notwithstanding, the Times article gives a good perspective on the ETC Group and the origin of their opposition in the "precautionary principle," which demands "proof beyond a reasonable doubt that potential risks have been examined, as well as evidence that less risky ways of reaching the same or similar goals have been weighed."

Stressing the common ground that exists between the opposing views in this issue, the article notes that nanotechnology critics and advocates alike "want a sharp increase in financing for research to determine the relevant questions and begin rigorous assessments of nanotechnology's risks." Likewise the critics recognize the potential value of nanotechnology, "We recognize that nanotechnology's potential for being useful is phenomenal," the executive director of ETC is quoted as saying. Further, not all environmentalists are calling for a moratorium. "Douglas Mulhall, author of the recently published Our Molecular Future (Prometheus Books) [said], 'A moratorium isn't going to happen, so it's the wrong thing for environmentalists to focus on.'"

As the ETC Group pursued their call for a moratorium to the World Summit on Sustainable Development in South Africa, the press continued to cover the issue, but also quoted the conviction of knowledgeable researchers that the risks were being exaggerated. Mihail Roco, the National Science Foundation's senior adviser on nanotechnology, was quoted as saying "It may have some unexpected consequences. Some could be toxic. But this happens with larger particles and in other industries. The risks are very small in comparison with the benefits." Kevin Ausman, executive director for Rice University's Center for Biological and Environmental Nanotechnology is quoted as saying "If you have a nanomaterial made of something that is toxic on the macro scale, the nano version will likely be toxic as well. Nanomaterials are a prime opportunity for (science) to take a proactive approach (to public concerns)." Ausman further emphasized the need for research to continue in order to answer the questions that have been raised about the environmental and health effects of nanomaterials.


 
    "Nanotechnology has a unique opportunity in the history of technology: this could be the first platform technology that introduces a culture of social sensitivity and environmental awareness early in the lifecycle of technology development."    
    — Vicki Colvin    
 

All of the above implies that nanomaterials should be treated as what they are: novel materials with exciting properties that need to be well-researched for their effects upon the environment and upon human health as industry ramps up to commercialize their promise. Foresight Chairman Eric Drexler comments:

"As the ETC Group suggests, if nanoparticles have remarkable new properties, then they should be treated as new materials from a regulatory perspective, rather than being treated as equivalent to larger particles of the same composition. New chemical compounds raise similar issues, but this similarity suggests that calling for a blanket moratorium on commercial production is inappropriate."

Foresight Director Glenn H. Reynolds has published an energetic defense of nanotechnology research against critics of several varieties, countering the claims of the ETC Group with the observation that environmental activist Terence McKenna once called nanotechnology "the most radical of the green visions."

On nanodot
This topic has generated spirited discussion at:
     

Perhaps the best way to wrap up this issue, at least for now, is to quote an essay written by Vicki Colvin, Director of the Center for Biological and Environmental Nanotechnology (CBEN), Rice University, and made available on the AAAS-sponsored EurekAlert Web site, which introduces the essay as explaining why a frank look at environmental impact and risk assessment will boost the odds of nanotechnology's long-term commercial success and public acceptance.

In the essay, Colvin warns "nanotechnology's legacy will be determined in the months ahead, when nanoscientists and the public confront the inevitable 'bad news' about nanotechnology." Colvin is determined to avoid the missteps taken by the genetically modified foods industry that harmed consumer acceptance and public trust. To avoid these pitfalls, Colvin concludes "Emerging technologies do pose risks that are ill-characterized, and the best thing nanoscientists can do — both for the discipline and society— is draw attention to possible risks and study them carefully."

Noting that the research that CBEN has begun to study the risks posed by nanomaterials in the body and in the environment is a small effort compared to the questions that remain to be answered, Colvin argues convincingly that greater investment in environmental and health impact studies would pay great dividends in assuring investors and building public confidence. "Nanotechnology has a unique opportunity in the history of technology: this could be the first platform technology that introduces a culture of social sensitivity and environmental awareness early in the lifecycle of technology development."

Sources:


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From Foresight Update 50, originally published 30 November 2002.



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