Foresight Update 41
A publication of the Foresight Institute
by Richard P. Terra
In the wake of President Clinton's inclusion of the National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI) in his proposed budget for FY2001 (see Update 40 for details), there has been considerable media attention focused on the program, and nanotechnology in general:
An article in the Chronicle of Higher Education ("Nanotechnology . . . Becomes a Big Priority in the Budget" by R. Southwick, 31 March 2000) provides an interesting update on the political responses to the NNI. The article reports a high level of support among Federal agencies and academic institutions that would benefit from the suggested $495 million of funding. But there is also considerable skepticism in some quarters, notably the U.S. House Budget Committee. Representatives have raised concerns that the program may lead to a duplication of efforts and would not be well-coordinated because funding is spread among many different agencies. The article also makes the interesting claim that Hewlett-Packard Company "spends half of its long-term research budget on nanotechnology," but offers no substantial details. The article notes that such a high level of funding for nanotech-related R&D is still very rare in the private sector.
An editorial in Science ("Funding the Nanotech Frontier" by P.H. Abelson, 14 April 2000) in favor of NNI expresses some skepticism the program will be fully funded, and notes that both Japan and Western Europe have funded similar research at levels equal to or higher than the U.S. in recent years. The editorial concludes: "In light of the opportunities offered by nanoscience and engineering and the realities of global competition, the proposed appropriation of $500 million for fiscal 2001 should be accorded a high national priority."
Similar concerns were expressed in the 19 April 2000 edition of FDC Reports, including comments by a panel of experts before the bipartisan Senate Science & Technology Caucus by Richard Smalley of Rice, James Merz of Notre Dame, and Alton Romig of Sandia National Labs in support of the NNI. The panelists emphasized the U.S. risks falling behind other nations if federal research funding is not provided, because it is likely to be many years before substantial private sector investment in nanotechnology R&D develops.
More extensive coverage of the Science & Technology Caucus roundtable appeared in excellent overview of the NNI budget proposal that ran in Chemical & Engineering News ("Nanotechnology: The Next Big Thing" by W. Schulz, 1 May 2000). After giving a concise background summary of the development of the NNI program, the article presents the views of a number of federal agency and academic researchers who emphasize both the importance and the interdisciplinary nature of nanoscale science and technology. It also points out that one immediate challenge for the program "is dealing with Congress", and securing the support of many different appropriations committees, "each with a different set of priorities." A quote from Richard Smalley sums up the view expressed by many of the NNI supporters: "Without the NNI, by 2010 it may be too late to ensure that the U.S. is in the lead, and vast nanotech-dominated markets in virtually every sector of the economy may be lost to foreign competition."
A reasonably well-balanced, if superficial, overview of nanotechnology appeared in the Christian Science Monitor ("Nanotechnology's descent into matter's minuteness," by L. Belsie, 13 April 2000). The piece mentions the NNI, some current research, raises the concerns expressed by Bill Joy in Wired (see article in this issue), and quotes a number of researchers (Rod Ruoff of Washington University and Rice's James Tour, for example), who offer more optimistic opinions.
Other media items of interest:
A lengthy but somewhat muddled article on current work in molecular nanotechnology appeared in EE Times ("Frontiers of nanotechnology, MEMS converge" by R.C. Johnson and C. Brown, 24 April 2000). The article devotes considerable space to quotes and descriptions of ongoing work from Jim Von Ehr at Zyvex and Eric Drexler at IMM. True to the tradition that any article mentioning Zyvex will contain a substantial error, this one makes the incredible claim that "Zyvex has built a molecular assembler, which employs a limited number of molecular building blocks to assemble larger more complex molecules" (!). The authors apparently conflated Von Ehr's comments about research goals with results achieved. (At least, I think Jim would have told us, if only to collect the Feynman Prize . . .)
The May/June 2000 issue of MIT's Technology Review is a special issue titled "Beyond Silicon: The Future of Computing." About half the special content is relevant to nanotechnology. The feature articles (available online) cover the history of Moore's Law, molecular electronics, quantum computing, computing with biological cells, and DNA computing.
More on molecular electronics appeared in U.S. News & World Report ("The chemistry of computing" by T. Appenzeller, 1 May 2000). While not much in the report is new, covering widely-known research by James Tour and Mark Reed, and at Hewlett-Packard, it is noteworthy that this area of nanotechnology is receiving more and more attention from business-oriented general-interest media such as U.S. News.
On a lighter note, the text of Robert A. Freitas Jr.'s acceptance speech on 6 November 2050, for the 31st Annual Drexler Prize in Nanomedicine, appeared in a special "Future" issue of Graft, a journal of cell and organ transplant medicine, that was distributed at the joint annual meeting of the American Society of Transplantation and the American Society of Transplant Surgeons, held on 13 May. The "speech" describes the development of the respirocyte, or artificial red blood cell, with stunning images created by Forrest Bishop. A very limited number of copies are available by request (one copy only per request, please) from the Foresight office.
Two nonfiction articles related to nanotechnology appeared this spring in Analog Science Fiction/Fact Magazine. "Proteins and Protein Engineering" by M. Todd Washington, ran in the March 2000 issue. While offering a brief overview of recent work in the modification of protein molecules, it doesn't provide much in the way of the application protein science to molecular nanotechnology. In the April issue, H.G. Stratmann casts a cold eye on the prospect of cryonic preservation ("Suspended Animation: The Cold Facts"). After presenting a concise survey of states of torpor, true hibernation and even freezing experienced by animals in nature, Stratmann takes a look at current cyropreservation research before concluding: "The odds of any individual preserved by current [emphasis added] or past methods ever regaining functional existence with a reasonable approximation of his former personality and memories seem slim. . . . Even if anatomic health and physiological function can be restored in the brain via a future repair nanotechnology, there's no guarantee the information needed to reconstruct his mind and mental individuality is still there. . . . Even the best nanotechnology can't restore what no longer exists." Despite his skepticism, Stratmann does add, "While the odds seem poor, it can't even be ruled out that a future nanotechnology might indeed be able to revive the minds of those optimistic individuals already 'sleeping' in cyrostats."
An excellent article by David S. Goodsell ("Biomolecules and Nanotechnology") appeared in the May/June 2000 issue of American Scientist. The well-illustrated article explores how evolution has solved the problem of creating molecular machinery, and how these solutions might guide the construction of artificial nano-machines. The article parallels Dr. Goodsell's presentation at the Tutorial: Foundations of Nanotechnology at the Seventh Foresight Conference in 1999. Those with an interest in biological nano-machines are encouraged to visit Dr. Goodsell's Web site.
Finally, an interesting and provocative piece by technology columnist Dan Gillmor appeared in the San Jose Mercury News ("Technology creates threat to economy," 11 June 2000). Looking at the mismatch between current intellectual property law, and the advent of the Internet and "information redistribution systems" such as Napster, Gillmor speculates the advent of nanotechnology may bring about entirely new ways of viewing such issues. He quotes Eric Drexler and Glenn Reynolds, and suggests the open source movement offers a viable model for the future.
Oh, Joy! A Media Watch Special Report
by Richard Terra
When he first began exploring the consequences of his ideas about molecular nanotechnology in the late 1970s and early 80s, Eric Drexler realized nanotechnology held vast potential for both great good and enormous harm. At the very least, the development of full-blown nanotechnology would bring dramatic social and economic change.
As time went on, however, Drexler and others concerned about the potential impact of nanotechnology came to feel that while accidents could be dealt with employing safeguards similar to those enforced in the biotechnology industry, real dangers lay in the potential for intentional abuse. Since the development of nanotechnology seemed inevitable, they concluded it was paramount that these concepts be made more broadly known, to foster public understanding and to anticipate potential problems before they actually arose. This was one of the main imperatives behind the founding of the Foresight Institute.
Many of these concerns were discussed in Engines of Creation (1986), particularly in Chapter 11, "Engines of Destruction" and Chapter 12, "Strategies and Survival", and also in the short piece "A Dialog on Dangers," published in 1988 as part of Foresight Background #3.
Because the concept of molecular nanotechnology initially was not widely known, and often met with strong skepticism or outright dismissal, only a small number of people, many of them connected to Foresight and the Institute for Molecular Manufacturing, gave serious attention to these concerns (see "References & Resources", below).
Now, with the development of molecular nanotechnology a tangible reality, the circle of people becoming concerned about the potential impacts of nanotechnology for both good and ill is expanding very, very rapidly. This spring, we saw one widely-publicized example of this expansion.
Writing in Wired magazine ("Why the future doesn't need us" April 2000), computer pioneer Bill Joy expressed concern that uncontrolled self-replication arising from advances in robotics (including AI), genetic engineering and nanotechnology might push humanity to extinction, by placing the potential to destroy the world in the hands of small groups or even of individuals. Joy also worried that improving computers to exceed human intelligence will lead to replacing the human species with robots. Joy concludes the only way to avoid the possibility of extinction is to "relinquish" the development of certain technologies.
Joy also presented his views at a Stanford Symposium organized by Douglas Hofstadter ("Will spiritual robots replace humanity by 2100?") held on 1 April 2000. Another panelist, Zyvex Research Scientist Ralph Merkle, has placed his prepared comments on the Web.
Coverage of Joy's concerns and the responses was extensive. It's not possible to list and comment on all of the reports. A few major items are noted here:
- New York Times ("Technologists Get a Warning and a Plea From One of Their Own" by John Markoff), 13 March 2000. Markoff followed up with a lengthy commentary ("Small Wonders: Dr. Frankenstein, Please Call Your Office"), 19 March 2000. Another commentary ("Even Techies Are Getting Nervous About Technology" by Edward Rothstein) appeared on 18 March 2000.
- Washington Post ("From Internet Scientist, a Preview of Extinction" by Joel Garreau), 12 March 2000.
- A lengthy interview ran on National Public Radio's All Things Considered on 14 March 2000 (audio files available online).
- For NPR's Talk of the Nation: Science Friday, 17 March 2000, Joy participated in a panel with Ray Kurzweil and Sherry Turkle of MIT.
- Government Computer News ("Sun's Bill Joy doubts good things will come in small packages" by William Jackson), 8 May 2000. Joy is quoted: "I won't work on nanotechnology."
Joy's stance has also generated much controversy and commentary in response. Again, a few highlights include:
- Internet Week ("Can the Dalai Lama Save Us From Frankenstein?" by Bill Frezza), 27 March 2000.
- U.S. News & World Report ("Silicon Valley Killjoy" by Randall E. Stross) 3 April 2000.
- Salon Technology ("Killjoy: Technology is changing our world and we should be afraid!") 10 April 2000.
- Los Angeles Times ("Tech Patriarch Sees Need to Keep Robotic, Genetic Genies in Bottle" by Charles Piller), 10 April 2000.
- Boston Globe ("I, robot" by Sam Allis), 16 April 2000.
- Washington Post ("Are Humans Doomed?" by Michael Powell), 16 April 2000.
- Many responses were posted on the Extropy Institute web site (www.extropy.org):
- "Embrace, Don't Relinquish, the Future" by Max More challenges Joy's relinquishment policy on the grounds that "First, it's unworkable. Second, it's ethically appalling."
- "Promise and Peril: Deeply Intertwined Poles of Twenty First Century Technology" by Ray Kurzweil points out the importance of "fine grained" relinquishment rather than broad relinquishment.
- Reason Magazine ("Joy, to the World: A techno-celebrity's childish manifesto" by Virginia Postrel), June 2000.
- In an article on the Intellectual Capitol.com Web site ("Techno Worries Miss the Target," 8 June 2000), Glenn Harlan Reynolds forcefully argues the advantages of "openness" over relinquishment.
While many disagree (often vehemently) with Joy's views, it's worth noting that his article and the response to it has helped generate a very lively discussion and debate on some extremely important issues, and brought those issues to the attention of a much, much larger number of people than ever before. So far, the engagement has been a constructive one leading to an enhancement of the Foresight Guidelines, for example. This is encouraging.
References & Resources
From Foresight Update 41, originally
published 30 June 2000.