Tim O'Reilly on Nanotechnology at the Foresight Gathering
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Sunday Morning Talks

The Foresight Guidelines on Nanotechnology

Neil Jacobstein of the Institute for Molecular Manufacturing gave a report on the Foresight Guidelines for responsible nanotechnology.

Especially with the current backlash from 9/11, and the fear of out-of-control self replication (the "grey goo"), it's important to do some "meme engineering." Nanotechnology advocates are still fighting the old war of convincing people that nano is possible, while the new issue is fighting the idea that it's dangerous and that the risks outweigh the benefits.

According to Jacobstein, the risk of not pursuing nanotechnology research is actually higher. A growing world population with increased affluence requires this for basic maintenance of the environment, if nothing else, since only nano offers a real hope of low-impact affluence.

There's also the risk that if we don't do it others will. Criminalizing nano and biotech (as in stem cell and cloning research) is possible. But the counter-meme is that there's a global market. There's more risk if nano is driven underground.

There is a future risk of abuse by terrorism. Unfortunately there are no guidelines to avoid that. There is always a cycle of attack and defense. However, the focus with regard to terrorism should be accountability, transparency, and so forth, with regard to research. The real way to address the risk is to deal with the horrible conditions many people live in, to alleviate the reasons for terrorism. And if nano lives up to its long-term promise, it may be the best way to do that.

There's a worry that nano will lead to uncertain futures. However, we a facing a known bad future.

There's a worry that we are usurping nature or God. But current technology does a lousy job of interacting with nature, so nano won't be worse. And in fact, the current situation will get worse as more people adopt our current tech.

Here are eight things nanotech advocates have to do:

  • Make Necessary Distinctions. Get the facts out. For example, we have to distinguish between nanoscale science and engineering (MEMS, carbon nanotubes) vs. true molecular nanotech (molecular assemblers).

  • Make Tradeoffs Explicit. We talk about material abundance with zero emissions, but we must address security procedures. We talk about cleaning up the environment but we don't talk about the possibility of interacting with the envrionment in unknown ways. If MNT (molecular nanotech) enables desktop matter compilation, it will require innovative controls.

  • Produce Compelling and Specific Benefits. There's a Catch 22: we can be grounded and specific (but boring) vs. showing strong benefits with a science-fiction taint. We hit the extremes: modeling molecular gears today or describing future technology. We need a realistic roadmap of the messy interim.

  • Look at relative risks and credible safeguards. There are biases in human cognition: people adapt to current risks, but rate unknown risks much higher. E.g., we all have self-replicating critters right now -- bacteria and viruses represent an "ancient molecular manufacturing system." There are also lots of risks that we accept today that could be ameliorated by nanotech. But we do need guidelines. [At this point, Neil walked through the guidelines but since they are on the Web, I won't recap them here.]

    Neil noted though that these guidelines are good for accidental misuse, but not for terrorism.

  • Emphasize common context and values. We occupy a very small world with increasing transparency and accountability. We all share the risks of continuing use of today's deadly technologies. There are common values in US -- democracy, pluralism, capitalism, freedom of choice, environment, religious tolerance, technical and economic progress. The vast global majority wants technology to bring them a higher standard of living, health, and safety, and these values are part of the story.

  • Depolarize the dialog. We have to get out of right and wrong, and moral vs amoral. We can argue that not developing nanotech is amoral. We can't let anti-tech people take the moral high ground. All of this debate is values-driven, on both sides.

  • Provide opportunities for involvement rather than protest. Let's get opponents involved in the debate, rather than treating them as persona non grata. We all have a lot to learn.

  • Use professional PR practices. Opponents of technology have figured out how to use professional PR and lobbying techniques. We rely too much on preaching to the converted, and messages that are too complex.

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