Biologist expresses concerns about nanobiotech

Biologist Alan Goldstein has a long essay titled I, Nanobot at Salon.com which expresses concern regarding potential dangers of nanobiotechnology, specifically, the creation of non-biological life forms.

Most of the stated concerns are abstract, e.g.: “Chemical intelligence can manifest as the ability to catalyze a single chemical reaction. It is a dangerous, and possibly terminal, error for the children of carbon to dismiss the power of pure electron fire.” Some readers may be put off by the use of terms such as “deconstruct” and “postmodern.”

Dr. Goldstein goes to some lengths to try to distance his concerns from those connected with non-biological nanotechnology. He believes that nanomedical and nanoenvironmental devices must be “hybrid molecular devices composed of both synthetic and biological components,” rather than fully synthetic, because they “will be required to ‘speak’ the language of biochemistry”. This is unpersuasive, however: it is unclear why only biological components can sense and interact at the molecular level with biological systems, though it makes sense that it may be — should be — easier to build such systems if one can include biological tools. In any case, the two authorities he cites were arguing a different point, debated here and here.

Embedded in the piece are a small number of specific scenarios in which future nanobiomedical devices are envisioned to cause problems. If these are indeed concerns — and they may be — it is not readers of Salon who will be causing the problems. One plausible course of action would be for Dr. Goldstein to gather a group of concerned individuals, head to Asilomar, and draft a clear document explaining the issues and specific suggested research safeguards. This has been done previously by genetic engineers and by early nanotech theorists, and should be a more effective way to move forward than by trying to explain these issues repeatedly in Salon.

If this is done, I suspect that the group’s recommendations might include a reduction of biological components to a bare minimum, which would bring nanobiobots much closer to non-biological nanobots.

Warning: in order to view the article, I had to watch an ad for The Sopranos that was quite loud. The Foresight staff is tolerant of these things, but your boss may not be. —Christine

Addendum: Hear Dr. Goldstein debate Ron Bailey of Reason at Foresight’s 2005 Vision Weekend. [Audio as 75.6 MB MP3]

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