New beginnings in nanotechnology policy

Writing in The New Atlantis, Adam Keiper points to "some new beginnings in the world of nanotechnology policy." Keiper cites a change in focus by Eric Drexler to more forcefully minimize "the gray goo scenario" in order to shift attention to more serious potential threats of nanotechnology, and to create a roadmap toward molecular manufacturing. Keiper also describes new leadership at the NanoBusiness Alliance and at the Foresight Institute as committed to more relevant efforts to addressing pressing issues in the development of nanotechnology.


By the Editors of The New Atlantis

The last few months have seen some new beginnings in the world of nanotechnology policy. First, Eric Drexler, the nanotechnologist whose writings established the field in the 1980s, has thoroughly backed away from the "gray goo" scenario that has been associated with nanotechnology since he first warned of it in his 1986 book Engines of Creation. This scenario, in which some or all of Earth's biosphere is converted into gray goo by runaway self-replicating machines built using an advanced nanotechnology, has been prominently cited and sensationalized over the years by nano-skeptics, science fiction authors, journalists, and worried environmental activists.

Although Drexler has mentioned repeatedly in the last decade that he considers a gray goo event extremely unlikely, he has now clarified and restated that point more forcefully, in a paper co-authored with Chris Phoenix of the Center for Responsible Nanotechnology. In the paper, which appeared in the June 9 edition of the journal Nanotechnology, Drexler and Phoenix explain that there is no need to build anything remotely resembling runaway replicators, chiefly because the goals of molecular manufacturing can be achieved better and more easily without them. They describe molecular manufacturing systems that will be "no more mobile than a desktop printer" and just as unlikely as a printer "to go wild, replicate, self-organize intelligent systems, and eat people." By minimizing the gray goo scenario, Drexler and Phoenix hope to shift attention to more serious potential perils of nanotechnology-including weaponization, economic disruption, and political abuse.

Drexler has also established a new website (, intended to complement his technical writings. He has told The New Atlantis that he hopes to include on the site an outline of nanotechnology milestones-essentially creating a much-needed roadmap for researchers hoping to work on molecular manufacturing.

Recent months have also marked a new beginning at the NanoBusiness Alliance, the industry organization that represents companies working in mainstream nanotechnology. The founder and president of the organization, F. Mark Modzelewski, resigned in May after months of controversy brought on by his sharp tongue and poison pen. (He mocked "bloggers, Drexlerians, pseudo-pundits, panderers, and other denizens of their mom's basements," and accused his critics of "nutty diatribes" and "delusional fantasies.") According to several sources, Mr. Modzelewski's intemperate public comments irked companies that his organization represented and led to his ouster. He was replaced by Sean Murdock, the former head of an Illinois-based nanotechnology coalition.

Finally, the Foresight Institute, the premiere nanotechnology organization, also has new leadership. Scott Mize, the organization's new president, has told The New Atlantis that he hopes to make Foresight "more relevant regarding pressing nanotechnology issues of the current day to leaders in government, business, academia and the non-profit sector, as well as the public at large.… [We] want to articulate much more clearly how nanotechnology can help to address the grand challenges to humanity … such as sustainable development, global warming, sustainable energy production, sufficient clean water supplies, pandemics such as HIV/AIDS, efficient food production and so forth." Before accepting the position at Foresight, Mr. Mize worked in both the private and nonprofit sectors.

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