Once upon a time, or so the story goes, there was a young man who was hauled up before the court on charges that he had killed his father and mother. He readily confessed to the crime, but nevertheless pled for clemency: after all, he pointed out, he was an orphan.

Recently on his blog Soft Machines, Richard Jones posted an essay entitled The Economy of Promises, in which he asks:

It’s tempting for scientists to plead their innocence and try to maintain some distance from this. After all, the origin of the science fiction visions of nanobots and universal assemblers is in fringe movements such as the transhumanists and singularitarians, rather than mainstream nanoscience. And the hucksterism that has gone with some aspects of the business of nanotechnology seems to many scientists a long way from academia. But are scientists completely blameless in the development of an “economy of promises” surrounding nanotechnology?

Jones’ overall point seems a good one: nanoscientists shouldn’t over-promise what their research could do to funding agencies and to the public. But in using the word nanotechnology for what they are doing, Jones and the nanoscientists have, it seems to me, put themselves in the same logical position as the apocryphal parricide.


The term nanotechnology was introduced to the general public by Eric Drexler in Engines of Creation in 1986. This book of technological futurism was one of the most popular of its type ever published. For a decade, nanotechnology had no other meaning, in the public mind or anywhere else, than the Drexlerian vision.

Then a coalition of subfields in the physical sciences dealing with phenomena on the molecular scale appropriated the term. As Jones himself puts it,

As we see more and more pressure from funding agencies to do research with a potential economic impact, it’s inevitable that scientists will get into the habit of making more firmly what might be quite tenuous claims that their research will lead to spectacular outcomes.

(And I might point out that the competition between scientists is not merely for funding, but for the best and brightest grad students. EoC brought a significant number of smart, motivated students into science who would otherwise gone into other fields where they thought they could make a difference.)

Jones blames this in part on nanoethics studies:

An odd and unexpected feature of the way the nanotechnology debate has unfolded is that the concern to anticipate societal impacts and consider ethical dimensions of nanotechnology has itself contributed to the climate of heightened expectations. As the philosopher Alfred Nordmann notes in his paper If and then: a critique of speculative nanoethics, speculations on the ethical and societal implications of the more extreme extrapolations of nanotechnology serve implicitly to give credibility to such visions.

But this misses a blatantly obvious point: what gave credence to the vision, in the public mind, was that thousands of scientists claimed to be working on “nanotechnology.”

By appropriating the term nanotechnology for what it was they were doing, the scientists had pulled a neat rhetorical trick: they were associating themselves with the wonderful promises of Drexler’s vision without having explicitly promised anything themselves. And they reaped the benefits of billion-dollar funding levels worldwide, interest from investors and the media, the cream of the students, and all the rest.

But in so doing, they had managed to change the basic meaning of the term (without bothering to tell the public — which is the major point of Jones’ essay) from “a widely capable industrial base with a capital doubling time measured in hours instead of years,” to “laboratory experiments dealing with stuff measured in nanometers,” whether the latter had anything to do with the former or not. And mostly it did not — indeed, there was a strong if informal message in the academic field to exclude just those studies that would lead to molecular manufacturing!

And thus the pleadings of the “orphan.”

(I must hasten to add that the situation is not as bad as it was five years ago. The difference is that the political incorrectness of working towards a productive, transformative nanotechnology in the original sense, has faded somewhat. There are plenty of scientists in the field who, whether they agree or not how far we can go, agree that this is a good direction to try.)

Jones then proceeds to cast an odd aspersion:

In the case of nanotechnology, we have organisations like the Foresight Nanotech Institute and the Centre for Responsible Nanotechnology, whose ostensible purpose is to consider the societal implications of advanced nanotechnology, but which in reality are advocacy organisations for the particular visions of radical nanotechnology originally associated with Eric Drexler.

It seems to me that in so saying, he makes a basic category error. The Foresight Institute is explicitly a futurist organization (hence its name). It was founded as such over two decades ago, and is firmly committed to continuing in that role today. We do not promise. We predict. We have seen a vision of what the future might be, and we named that future nanotechnology. It is the scientists who promise, implicitly, when they borrow the word we made. We claim to identify goals; they claim to move toward them. We say, “This is possible, if you do X.” They say, “We’re doing X.”

Scientists who want to dissociate themselves from Foresight’s vision have an obvious way to start: quit using the word nanotechnology to describe your activities.

But there is another, and I think more preferable, way to proceed.

Keep your promise.

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