Foresight Update 5

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A publication of the Foresight Institute

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Government Policy Affects Nanotechnology, Hypertext

by Chris Peterson

Government decisions being made now and over the next few years will influence these critical points:

A recent report addresses these questions without ever using the terms "nanotechnology" and "hypertext publishing." Surprisingly, the report is published not by a private high-tech think tank, but by the US Congress's Office of Technology Assessment. FI participants who care about these issues will want to order this remarkable work. It's the best short introduction we've seen to the new challenges to freedom of speech and the press, and to how these challenges affect developing technologies. Well-written, the report alternately horrifies and encourages the reader with its review of past and possible future government actions likely to affect nanotechnology and hypertext publishing.

Did you know, for instance, that the US government can classify technical work done by independent, private researchers who take no public money? Or that it can block a patent or any disclosure by an inventor, even if the government has no right to the invention in question? Although these powers might not withstand a Supreme Court challenge, they appear to be current government policy.

While the report does not take an advocacy role per se, it does clearly present arguments against such restrictive policies, some of which date back to the 1940s. Readers who pursue this topic further will find that FI Advisor Arthur Kantrowitz is a major proponent of a policy of openness. (Surprisingly to some, Edward Teller--often termed "the father of the H-bomb" by the media--also advocates openness.) The basic argument is that an open society--in addition to being more free--will progress faster technically, and be better able to defend itself, than one which binds its minds with over-classification. According to this theory, only critical short-term military information, such as codes and troop movements during a war, should be classifiable.

Although nanotechnology is still far too theoretical for classification to be likely now, the issue will eventually arise. We need to understand current policies and, if necessary, make improvements before problems become acute.

The OTA report's section on electronic publishing gives a remarkably clear view of such systems, which are described as the future's "crucible of cultural change." While it misses the basic concept of linked hypertext, other key features of hypertext publishing are described: the system is seen as decentralized, more as a "clearinghouse for exchange of news and information than as a gatherer" itself, in which the users themselves can be reporters and publishers. Information is preprocessed or screened to each individual's taste, either by a host computer sending the data or by the user's personal computer, perhaps by an "artificially intelligent front-end."

The report tackles the critical issue of how such a system will be regulated. Legally, publishers are responsible for their output and can be sued for libel or for publishing false, damaging information. However, in an open hypertext publishing system individuals will be free to publish their own material; it will not be prescreened by the system's owner. But if regulators or the courts regard the system's owner as the "publisher," then the owner would be forced to verify and police all information on the system--a crippling, impossible task.

In contrast, under today's law "common carriers" such as the phone system can't be held liable for what goes over their lines, since they obviously have no control over it. Newspapers also are exempt from liability for material they are legally required to publish. Obviously hypertext publishing systems, lacking control over what is published, should likewise be exempt from liability. The report goes so far as to say that holding electronic publishers liable may conflict with First Amendment rights. As the report makes clear, whether a new system is treated as a common carrier in this way is a political decision rather than a technical one.

The report makes the obvious suggestion that in such a system the actual publisher of each piece of information should be held liable. It gets confused on this point, however, by implying that for some information it may be impossible to identify a responsible party. We would disagree: a system can be set up such that every item it contains is linked to a responsible party, typically whoever paid for its publication on the system. Authorship could be kept anonymous in some cases, yet made available by a court order when necessary.

It has been suggested that security concerns would require database
subscriber lists to be turned over to the government

Again the national security issue is raised: it has been suggested that security concerns would force the screening of database entries for militarily-valuable information, or require database subscriber lists to be turned over to the government. The former would render the system uneconomic; the latter violates the right to privacy. Those wishing to pursue the issues raised by electronic publishing will want to see Ithiel de Sola Pool's excellent book, Technologies of Freedom, which is quoted in the report.

But for those desiring a compact introduction to these critical issues, we suggest ordering a copy of the report: "Science, Technology, and the First Amendment," GPO stock number 052-003-01090-9. It can be obtained by mail from the Superintendent of Documents, Government Printing Office, Washington, DC 20402-9325, or by calling 202-783-3238. Checks in US currency, Visa, Mastercard, and Choice cards are accepted. The cost is $3.50 within the US, $4.40 outside.

Webmaster's Note: The document "Science, Technology, and the First Amendment" is also available for downloading as a PDF file at:

Foresight Update 5 - Table of Contents


Will the BioArchive Work?

by David Brin

David Brin and Eric Drexler discuss here the challenge of using nanotechnology to restore species from preserved tissue samples, for species where habitat protection and captive breeding have failed. Dr. Brin holds a doctorate in astrophysics, works as a consultant to NASA and the California Space Institute, and teaches graduate-level physics and writing. He also writes award-winning science fiction.

Dr. Brin leads off:

I have one minor cavil with the notion of gene banks being sufficient to preserve the information inherent in the gene pools of species. Certainly I use this concept extensively in my own latest novel (titled Earth, it includes brief mentions of nanotech). But we should not be so blithe in assuming the Gene Library contains all. There is also Process Implementation: getting the initial genetic mix to initiate and maintain the processes leading to a complete organism.

Take the mitochondria and other purported "guest" genomes within eukaryotic cells. These symbionts are different in each species. They must be included. Then take the nurturing environment of the womb/egg. These are programmed in, all right--but at the other end of the library, where the shelves read "this is how the be a mother," not "this is how to be an embryo." This becomes incredibly complicated in placental mammals, in which certain genes are apparently turned on or off depending on whether they were delivered by the sperm or by the egg.

Webmaster's Note:
For information on cell biology and the mitochondrion, see:

The fact that certain genes are turned on or off depending upon which parent provided that gene copy is called "genetic imprinting." For more information, see:

So the concept of recreating lost species from their recorded information, while worthy and desirable, is not going to be any trivial undertaking. Even when the day comes that we can "read" an entire genome of, say, a blue whale, that'll be a far cry from making one--even with nanomachines.

The last fly in the ointment is the apparent language of development, in which one gene doesn't express directly into one macroscopic trait. Rather, it's the pull and tug of a thousand enzyme secretion sites, all playing against each other, that results in a cell here deciding to become a neuron and another over there deciding to become a bit of alveoli. Each enzyme site may take part in hundreds of cuing operations simultaneously.

Indeed, it may turn out simpler just to disassemble a blue whale, cell type by cell type, and store that information, using nanomachines to build an adult from scratch!

Eric Drexler responds:

Some thoughts on restoring species, given frozen tissue samples and advanced nanotechnology: It is indeed important to save more than just nuclear genes, especially in the minimal sequence-of-bases sense. There are also mitochondrial genes, patterns of DNA methylation, obscurely-encoded states of genetic activation, and who knows what. Freezing entire tissue samples (and, for insects, entire organisms) answers several of these concerns, because it saves numerous cell types with essentially full information. For plants, which can typically regenerate from any meristematic cell, samples will clearly be adequate.

Restoring animal species will be more challenging. Setting aside several separate problems (such as genetic diversity, habitat restoration, and lost "cultural" information), it would be adequate to reconstruct fertilized eggs, and to raise the organisms to adulthood. Starting with only somatic cells and a thorough knowledge of a hypothetical martian biology, this might be impossible. But we will enjoy the advantage (one hopes!) of having closely related species available. To restore a beetle species, for example, one would incorporate genetic (and other) information gathered from frozen cells into an egg having a general structure derived from one or more related species of beetle. This would be done after studying the relationship between somatic cell information and egg structure for a number of existing, normally-reproducing species; note that early embryology is terribly conservative, in an evolutionary sense. The resulting first generation might nonetheless have a somewhat atypical phenotype, but one would expect the offspring of that generation to be typical members of the original species. Mammals require more than just fertilized eggs, but embryos from endangered species have already been brought to term by host mothers of related species, even where the relationship between the species is not terribly close.

By the way, I agree with your evaluation of the relative difficulty of (1) projecting an adult organism from its genes (etc.) and (2) constructing tissues or organisms from scratch after a molecule-by-molecule study of the original. The first involves a recipe, the second a blueprint; only blueprints describe products and leave a choice of implementation strategies.

Foresight Update 5 - Table of Contents


Meet the Advisors: Stewart Brand

by James C. Bennett

Looking over Stewart Brand's bio, the verb that jumps out at one is "founded": he founded the Whole Earth Catalog, Point Foundation, Coevolution Quarterly (now the Whole Earth Review), the WELL (a regional computer teleconferencing system), and co-founded the Global Business Network. He also has taught at U. Cal. Berkeley and the Western Behavioral Sciences Institute, serves on the Board of Trustees of the Santa Fe Institute, been a Visiting Scientist at MIT's Media Lab, and written books including The Media Lab: Inventing the Future at MIT. The following is a discussion between Stewart and Jim Bennett, cofounder and Vice President of the American Rocket Company. Jim serves on FI's Board of Directors and will be profiled in a later issue.--Editor

FI: Foresight's ambition is to begin the debate about nanotechnology on a more reasonable, less polarized basis than previous debates about technology, such as that about nuclear power. How reasonable do you think this ambition is?

SB: I don't know; it will be interesting experiment. The only previous attempt at anything like this that I can think of is the Asilomar conference on genetic engineering, where they got a lot of professionals together and tried to predict what the negative consequences of recombinant DNA experiments might be, and what measures would be reasonable to take to prevent such consequences. It's not clear how beneficial that conference was. A lot of opponents of genetic engineering took the statements made there, and, in effect, said "See, even the scientists had some doubts about this, so we should really be worried."

FI: There you had a situation where a number of people were already polarized, so they essentially took advantage of the situation?

SB: Yes, but now that I think of it, that was a first attempt. The second attempt at anything is usually quite different from the first time around.

FI: If you were going give us "Stewart Brand's Rules for Productive Debate," what would they be?

SB: Don't know yet. What's important is to get very smart people, who have ears as well as mouths. Some very smart people can't listen.

FI: So one thing to do would be to be selective as to who to invite?

SB: Word gets around as to who's good at conferences. Most people who are high up in science and technology spend a lot of time in conferences, and it's fairly easy to tell who are listeners as well as talkers. You can also tell a lot by how people talk on the telephone: some people just preach at you.

FI: To what extent is it useful to get people who don't have scientific and technical backgrounds involved in the debate, and at what point is it useful to do that?

SB: I think it's worth having people who are politically active involved at all stages of the process. You want to have both people who are astute technically and who are sophisticated politically. Some who are competent in science also have a practical knowledge of politics. Especially in fields like conservation biology, you need to have a comprehensive view of things so that the Costa Rican farmer doesn't get left out of the campaign, for example. You need to get people who know what it takes to negotiate agreement. And to negotiate disagreement, by the way.

FI: I can see a lot of cases where you're not going to get to quick agreement among people. You are at least going to have the disagreements be productive rather than destructive.

SB: You need to have people come in and say, "Yeah, we agree on 80% of this stuff" and then identify the items they disagree on, so that as further evidence or information becomes available those items can be resolved.

FI: I think that the open-minded people you're describing here are the sort of people who would be interested in seeing the new information come in to resolve such points, rather than fearing being proven wrong by it...

SB: Yes. Edward O. Wilson, the sociobiologist, is an example. When he first came out with his theories on sociobiology, based on his work on insect behavior, a lot of the liberals attacked him, because he contradicted their current beliefs. And he was willing to change and modify his views on the basis of argument and new information. A Noam Chomsky, on the other hand, tends to be more overbearing and hurt his field of linguistics with heavy-handedness. In the sociobiology instance, by the way, the liberals were probably as much wrong as right, not that they're likely to admit it.

FI: Speaking of trying to bring in new information, to what extent do you think that new information technology such as hypertext, or other things such as you describe in The Media Lab, can improve the quality of debate?

SB: It would be interesting to do an article on what is sometimes called "grey literature"--papers informally passed among scientists--discussing how that's progressed over the years. First it was just the exchange of letters among scientists, eventually formalized by the Royal Society, then it took a jump in the level of traffic with the arrival of the typewriter and carbon paper. The arrival of Xerox copying caused another major jump in traffic. Computer networks, starting with the ARPANET, caused another major jump. Maybe we're at a virtual hypertext level now.

FI: I think the difference between what we have now and what hypermedia is intended to be is the ability to screen the material. With the mass of material we are now beginning to have, there has to be some way of indicating which material is worthwhile.

SB: A lot of that'll be automatable, and I also expect that there will be a lot more humans editing material. A library is far more useful with a good librarian.

FI: There has been some material on nanotechnology printed in Whole Earth Review. What kind of interest have you noticed from the WER readers?

SB: The two populations which have shown interest are computer enthusiasts and the major corporations. I have spent some time in the past few years among major corporations, and they have a lot of interest in what the future has in store for them. Computer enthusiasts have a strong interest in it as wish fulfillment, while the corporate person is asking "what will this mean to my company?"
FI: What about the people primarily interested in environmental issues?

SB: They've been blind, deaf and dumb on the issue, as far as I can see.

FI: When you look at the degree to which an anti-technological viewpoint is entrenched in some people, I don't see this as going away quickly.

SB: I'm not sure you want it to go away quickly. Nanotechnology is the sort of thing which could take off exponentially, and could result in a lot of change happening very rapidly, things changing more rapidly than people can adapt. The no-sayers can help flatten that curve, make it arithmetical rather than exponential; of course, they want to see it stopped altogether. No-sayers have their place. I wouldn't want to see them go away.

The Alaska pipeline is an example--the first proposal was strongly criticized by environmentalists; they said that it would wipe out the caribou, and so on. They were right in that it was a lousy pipeline design. But it was a bad pipeline design that was improved by delay, and by the pressure to go back and re-think the proposal. It's useful to have no-sayers, to slow up the process. But at the end you did have a pipeline, and it didn't do the terrible things they thought it would. So no-sayers have a role, even if they aren't always reasonable. Sometimes it's useful to have unreasonable people.

Also remember that a good many environmentalists are highly reasonable, and can be extremely astute on technical issues. Beware of characterizing comments; they invite reply in kind, such as that all nanotechnologists are unreasonable Mensoid nerds. Anyway, both reason and unreason have value in the big picture.

FI. Doesn't that depend on whether you have a political and social system that can take people who are hard-over nos and have the result be a compromise, rather than giving them a veto over things?

SB: There's a danger of change increasing exponentially. I don't think it's a matter of vetoes; I think that they end up just acting as a kind of brake.

As far as how the U.S. political system works, I think it's worth reading Jerome Weisner's article in the January Scientific American. Look at what's happened with the Science Advisory Council, which was set up by Eisenhower as a response to Sputnik, and gave good advice to him and to Kennedy, but was reduced to ineffectiveness under Nixon and since then. The Challenger accident showed that correct technical information was not filtering up through the Cabinet agencies to the President. Perhaps if the Science Adviser's office been functioning properly, that information might have gotten through.

FI: In fact there NASA has been waging a very strong and usually successful war against any other independent source of thinking on space in the Executive Branch. That's what's happened to the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, for example.

SB: Yes, but they couldn't control what was being said or done in the Soviet Union, or Europe, or elsewhere.

FI: Or even in the American private sector.

SB: Or even there.

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From Foresight Update 5, originally published 1 March 1989.

Foresight thanks Dave Kilbridge for converting Update 5 to html for this web page.