Conclusion of the Liveblogging Experiment
I started this blog last week chiefly to publicize and record this year's Foresight Institute conference, but also because I wanted to attempt a media experiment. I wanted to see whether liveblogging an event like this was useful, and wanted to see how it might work and what it might look like. I'd never blogged before, or even commented on a blog.
I'm sure that others could, and will, do this sort of thing better. Over the course of three days, I've written something like 12,000 words in more than 40 postings to the blog, and put up more than 60 pictures and about 9 videos. It was a lot of work -- I missed a few meals and a lot of sleep -- but it would have been easier if I was just blogging, and not also presenting a talk. I come away from this intense experiment with a profound respect for all those who blog regularly.
Here are the tools I used:
- Laptop = Sony Vaio
- Camera = Sony DSC-P93
- Blog software = TypePad (Pro subscription)
- Photo editing = Adobe PhotoShop 7
- Video editing = Windows Movie Maker and Windows Media Encoder
For anyone who wants to attempt this sort of "multimedia conferenceblogging" in the future, I've got a few suggestions.
- Bring extra batteries for your camera, and if possible, an extra flash memory card.
- Find out ahead of time the wireless Internet arrangements in the meeting space; you might have to pay to get online. (It cost me $10 each day.)
- No need to be as rude as a paparazzo, but don't be shy about walking around taking pictures.
- Bring a power strip, if you can. This weekend's conference hall didn't have many power outlets, so some laptop-users couldn't plug in. The power strip that I brought for the second and third days came in very handy.
- Bring headphones, too, if you intend to edit any video while people around you are trying to listen to the conference proceedings.
- Finally, if possible, don't work solo. A commenter on one of my early postings suggested "tag-teaming the presentations, and using several individuals for commentary." I wouldn't follow that advice for short events, but teamwork is probably the way to go for multi-day events like this conference.
In the end, I think this experiment shows that a blog can serve as a source of live news and as a permanent historical record of events. And I have a hunch that there's a tremendous business opportunity here. There are all kinds of events -- formal and informal, planned and unplanned -- that could and should be covered by bloggers. A company that provides "newsblogging services" might someday give the wire services a run for their money.
A few acknowledgements: Thank you to the Foresight Institute, for the invitation to speak. Thank you to the conference attendees who let me videotape them. Thank you to Nine Systems for streaming the videos. And thank you to my wife, for letting me borrow her laptop and for insisting that I eat and sleep.
Last Thoughts from the Foresight Conference
I am not a nanotechnology booster; I am an interested observer. For all I know, advanced nanotechnology might someday prove to be unfeasible. But given what the development of advanced nanotechnology could mean -- the potential for good and ill -- I'm glad that the Foresight Institute is thinking about these things now.
I argued in my presentation at the conference that the moment has arrived for the Foresight Institute to become much more engaged in politics, and I was gratified by the response of the twenty or so people who told me afterwards that they agreed. I won't reprint my whole talk here, but will mention the suggestions I made to get the ball rolling. In order to make the Foresight Institute -- and the rest of the advanced nanotechnology community -- more relevant, I suggested:
1) The development of a very simple and very clear definition for laymen of what nanotechnology is.
2) Likewise, the development of an explanation of what nanotechnology isn't.
3) Efforts to draw connections between advanced nanotechnology and issues that are politically important.
4) The selection and dogged pursuit of small, specific, short-term goals.
5) A greater use of the press.
6) An increased Washington presence -- including "blitzes" on Capitol Hill.
7) An effort to distance nanotechnology from fringe movements like transhumanism and extropianism, since the association with these movements brings no political benefit but risks bringing political harm.
Here's how I ended my talk:
In conclusion, I hope you will see the vision I have laid out, the vision of nanotechnology politics, not as a suffocation of your imagination, nor as selling your soul, but simply as making what might be called a "tactical adjustment" for the sake of relevance. American politics, rightly understood, is our society's way of seeking after wisdom. It is the clash of interests and ideas and ideologies, all forced through a wringer of public argumentation and deliberation. It can be messy or heartbreaking, or tedious or scandalous, molasses-slow or lightning-fast. And by making public arguments, by seeking to listen and to persuade, by making exertions "actually in the arena," by proposing and fighting for what specifically should be done today to prepare for a better tomorrow -- instead of just talking about what should ideally come to pass -- by doing all these things, you will go far to prepare the world for the promise and peril of nanotechnology. I hope you give it a try, and I hope the world has the wisdom and the courage to heed your advice.
Prizes for Encouraging Work in Nanotech
In the early 1990s, the Foresight Institute began awarding prizes to recognize important work in nanotechnology. These "Feynman Prizes" were named for the Nobel laureate physicist Richard Feynman (pronounced FINE-mun) whose 1959 speech "There's Plenty of Room at the Bottom" described atomic manipulation as "a development which I think cannot be avoided."
Over the years, Foresight has added several new prizes, like the Foresight Prize for Communication I already described below. Here are the other winners of this year's awards:
The Feynman Prize for Theory went to Dr. David Baker (pictured at left) of the University of Washington, and Dr. Brian Kuhlman of UNC. According to the Foresight press release, they were awarded the prize "for their development of RosettaDesign, a program that has a high success rate in designing stable protein structures with a specified backbone folding structure. Their work includes the design of the first protein to be constructed with a backbone fold not observed in nature; in experimental testing, the novel backbone structure was found to be extremely stable and to match the predicted structure with atomic-level accuracy. Their work marks a milestone on a path to molecular machine systems. Professor Baker has made RosettaDesign freely available to the research community."
The Feynman Prize for Experimental Work went to Duke University's Homme Hellinga (pictured at right) "for his achievement in the engineering of atomically precise devices capable of precise manipulation of other molecular structures. Building on a broad base of achievement in computationally directed protein engineering, he has extended this work to the construction of an enzyme. This achievement demonstrates an innovative blend of techniques, applying computational design to reengineer a structure found in nature into a novel one with a different function. This work breaks new ground in engineering devices that transform molecular structures."
And the Foresight Institute Distinguished Student Award went to Damian Allis (pictured at left with Foresight vice president Christine Peterson). Mr. Allis, a graduate fellow at Nanorex Corporation and a doctoral candidate at Syracuse University, was awarded the prize "for his work in the application of theoretical computational methods to the design and study of molecules and nanostructures, materials for molecular electronics, non-linear optical materials, and molecular building blocks and biomimetic principles."
Incidentally, the Foresight Institute will be revamping its prizes in the course of the next year. Peter Diamandis, the chairman of the committee that oversaw the X Prize, has agreed to advise Foresight on how to make these prizes more effective. Scott Mize, the president of Foresight, said at the prize banquet that there are plans to increase the prize amounts, and to "expand our relationships with the government" by creating a new prize for the government official who does the best nanotech-related work each year.
My two cents: Foresight should consider some negative awards, too, like the IgNobel Prize and the Bulwer-Lytton Award and Senator Proxmire's old Golden Fleece Awards. I'm sure it won't be hard to find deserving recipients of nanotechnology disservice awards...
A Batch of Pictures from the Conference
I've posted just over a dozen pictures from the conference, most of which don't appear on the blog, in a photo gallery you can reach here:
Nano vs. Despair?
One of the presentations I missed this morning was from Christine Peterson, one of the co-founders of the Foresight Institute. I actually heard her give the same talk a few days earlier, at a pre-conference luncheon. Her presentation was called "Maximizing Benefits and Minimizing Downsides of Nanotechnology" (abstract here). Ms. Peterson ran through several of the nanotech-related bills wending their way through Congress, and mentioned other legislation (like the R&D tax credit) that affects nanotech research.
When I heard her give the talk, she made one comment that I consider extremely revealing. After listing a litany of the problems facing the world -- according to my notes, she spoke of ethnic conflict, terrorism, infectious diseases, and global climate change, among others -- Ms. Peterson said "I'd be in despair if it weren't for the hope that nanotechnology offers." I don't share that sentiment at all -- I am both more optimistic and more pessimistic than Ms. Peterson. (I am more optimistic about our ability to overcome those problems without advanced nanotechnology, and more pessimistic about the likelihood that the development of nanotechnology will resolve those problems.) But I can see the power of that hope.
I should mention, by the way, that Ms. Peterson is going to be back in Washington in a few days for another conference, the second "Techno Sapiens" conference hosted by the Center for Bioethics and Culture, a group headed by Nigel Cameron. It's going to be a pretty diverse group of speakers. I'll be there, but won't be blogging it.
Conference Over... More Tonight
The last conference speaker was Christine Peterson, one of the co-founders of the Foresight Institute, who just thanked all the conference staff and sponsors. With that, everybody cleared out -- and I'm heading out, too.
I'll be back tonight, to post my backlog of pictures and videos, and to offer some concluding reflections on the conference, and on this blogging experiment.
UPDATE: Okay, I've posted three new videos -- brief comments from David Berube on what he's doing with his nano grant money, from David Friedman on copyright vs. patents in the nano age, and from Thomas McKendree on nanotechnology making access to space cheaper. I've also posted a neater version of the cryonics chat. I'll make a few more posts tonight, then that's it for this blog.
The next-to-last speaker at the conference is Ted Sabety, a patent attorney speaking on "Nanotechnology Innovation and the Patent Thicket: Which IP Policies Promote Growth?" (company homepage here, abstract here). He makes some interesting historical comparisons, to the development of radio and recombinant DNA. Rather than try to reproduce the argument of his talk, I'll direct you to the eponymous article he wrote for the September 2004 issue of the journal Nanotechnology Law & Business (you can read a summary here, and can pay for a PDF of the full article here).
During the Q&A, Sabety takes exception with the argument put forward yesterday by David Friedman (see below) that the dominant intellectual property regime in the age of nanotechnology will eventually be copyright, not patents. (Admittedly, Sabety only heard Friedman's argument secondhand.)
The current speaker is University of South Carolina Professor David Berube, who is receiving a good chunk of money from the federal government to study the social implications of nanotechnology. His talk is called "Nanotechnology: Hyperbole and Policy Making" (homepage here, abstract here). He's a smart, fast-talking, funny guy, who has much more to say than he has time to discuss today -- which is why, I guess, he's writing a book on nanotech. (From the sound of it, the book is basically finished, but he didn't mention when it's coming out.)
He's got a lot of different projects in the works, and Google can lead you to them if you're interested. Meanwhile, a few quotes from his talk:
- He mentioned studies on bass that apparently show brain damage when they ingested nanoparticles, although "it's not really clear to me how you would tell when bass has suffered brain damage."
- Berube and his cohort are "very concerned about this Olympic nationalism that's going on -- where it's the U.S. versus Japan versus China." Apparently, a lot of the nano-R&D statistics coming out of other countries include a lot that isn't actually nano, so this international competition is, Berube says, overhyped.
- Speaking of overhype, he thinks the public-relations effect of Michael Crichton's novel Prey, which some analysts considered a major PR-disaster, has been vastly overstated: "If you've read Prey -- it ain't no Silent Spring, folks.
Berube ultimately concludes that, despite the hype, and despite the various long-term problems nanotech might create, there are important "regulatory issues we should focus on now."
Here's a slide showing Berube's thesis (click to enlarge):
During the Q&A, this comment from Eric Drexler, from the audience: "If you read the press lately, you might get the impression that molecular manufacturing already exists -- and it's impossible."
UPDATE: At the end of Day 3, I pulled Professor Berube aside and asked him to say a few words about what he's doing with the NSF grant he received to study the social implications of nanotechnology. Click the picture below to watch Windows streaming video of his response:
Just got a few other videos, and a few more pictures, which I'll be putting up later. We're on the home-stretch now: there are just three more presenters before the conference is over.
For some reason, the blog has been going up and down during the course of the day. I don't know what the issue is, but for some reason I can open it in a Mozilla browser but not in IE, and then I can open it in IE but in in Mozilla.
My game plan: Keep liveblogging the remaining three presentations, go home and post my backlog of pictures and videos, and then make two closing blog posts -- one summarizing the conference, and one assessing the whole liveblogging experiment.
Guidelines for Developing Nano *Safely*
Some years ago, the Foresight Institute came out with a set of general guidelines intended for voluntary adoption by researchers, government, regulators, companies, and basically anybody engaging in nanotech-work. They were intended to stay ahead of the curve by preventing the worst possible abuses before they even become possible, and to reduce the risks of nanotechnology research.
The guidelines have evolved over time, and today marks the release of the newest version, version 4.0. They're being officially released in a talk happening right now (it's 3:07 in the afternoon as I write this) by Neil Jacobstein of the Institute for Molecular Manufacturing (abstract here). Mr. Jacobstein is one of the primary authors of the new version; the other primary author is Glenn "Instapundit" Reynolds. I don't think the new version is online yet, but you can see a previous edition, version 3.7, here.
No "Apollo Project" for Nanotech
Howard Lovy (blogger, award-winner) is speaking now, and he's very funny. (Those interested in blogging might be interested to note that the majority of his PowerPoint slides are actually screencaps of things he's written on his blog.) His talk might be characterized as tough-love for the nanotech crowd; he's giving advice about the lamentable political and public irrelevance of nanotech groups; it's a good complement for some of the other talks this morning. (Howard's abstract is online here.)
He mentioned that he recently talked on the phone with Mark Modzelewski, the former (and controversial) head of the NanoBusiness Alliance, and asked Modzelewski what he, not especially friendly to the Foresight Institute, would actually tell Foresight to do if he were its political advisor. Modzelewski told Howard, quite correctly, that if you want to be politically relevant, you have to emphasize things that are important to legislators -- like jobs, jobs, jobs.
Howard just argued that it's very unlikely that a huge crash development project -- an "Apollo Project" for advanced nanotech -- will ever happen. The Apollo Project (like the other example you commonly hear, the Manhattan Project) developed in response to meet dire political needs, and there isn't going to be a nano-Apollo Project.
UPDATE: Howard opened up the floor for some discussion, and several members of the audience had some strong comments. I hope that his talk, along with mine and the other talks from this morning, will have the effect of impressing upon the people in this room the necessity of engaging in nano politics.
Very interesting people
Well, I didn't get any lunch because -- as is so often true at conferences like this -- there are just too many interesting people here. And several of these interesting people wanted to chat with me (mostly to say very kind things) about my talk about nano-politics. I won't even try to reconstruct the discussions and arguments we had, but I will mention two other people who have made appearances at this conference.
One is Lev Navrozov (homepage here), who writes about nanotechnology for several Web sites. The other is James Hughes, the executive director of the World Transhumanist Association and a writer for Betterhumans.com. Interesting individuals, both.
Arms Control and Nanotechnology
The present speaker is Gary Marchant, and his talk is about international treaties that might, hypothetically, regulate nanotechnology. It's terribly, terribly interesting, even though the abstract (see here) makes it sound pretty dry. He spoke a great deal about the failings of efforts to create international regimes to regulate nuclear proliferation (A. Q. Khan, anyone?), and biological weapons, and chemical weapons. He talked about the difficulty of treaty compliance verification. And he makes an interesting comparison to the failed efforts to create a global ban of reproductive cloning, a failure he chalks up to disagreements about how broad the ban should be (i.e., should it include therapeutic cloning, too).
Maybe the most interesting point he makes is about the spreading adoption of the "precautionary principle," a term that means different things to different people. "The precautionary principle," he said, "has spread very quickly around the world -- it's spread much more quickly than nanotechnology has." Marchant mentions that it's been adopted in many European laws, and is "being advanced by some scholars as a principle that is now customary in international law" and there's an impending sense that it should automatically be applied to new fields -- like, say, nanotechnology. Marchant disapproves of the precautionary principle, and quotes from a 1999 letter to Nature (which you can read here) that argues that "the precautionary principle will leave us paralyzed."
One side note: Among the people who attended part of this conference was Ron Bailey, the Reason magazine writer. Bailey and I had a very nice talk yesterday, and he told me that he's done a lot of reading lately on the precautionary principle, and found articulations of it that go back to the early decades of the twentieth century. I'm sure Bailey will write something about this soon, maybe even for The New Atlantis.
UPDATE: Alright, I'm heading off to lunch, but I've got much, much more to post this afternoon...
Going to talk shortly
Sorry blogging has been light this morning; I was up late re-writing my comments, which I'm supposed to deliver here this morning in just a few minutes, at 11:30 a.m. I'll get back to this side of the lectern -- the comfortable blogging corner -- probably around noon.
UPDATE: Done talking. Delivered a long, probably only semi-coherent, caffeine-fueled rant about how the Foresight Institute, and those generally interested in advanced nanotechnology, have to work harder to stay politically relevant. I was the first speaker at the conference not to use PowerPoint, so I'm afraid some people who've become used to staying awake by reading slides might have nodded off during my talk. I may try to put the text up later today.
UPDATE: Scott Mize, the president of the Foresight Institute, just got up onstage to mention that Foresight has raised $4,600 so far to pay for the completion of the new desktop nanofactory animation (mentioned below). In my lecture, I mentioned how that animation could be important to improving the public debate about nanotechnology. And that $4,600 is actually worth $9,200, thanks to the matching grant mentioned below.
Scroll down for updates
That's all for the night; there'll be more tomorrow. Meanwhile, I've added some new things in the past few hours by updating previous posts, so if you scroll down you'll see some new pictures and new videos. (Check out the sidebar to the right for a list of all the posts since this blog was launched some 38 hours ago.)
Cryonics: "We don't believe nanotechnology is magic"
There has been very little talk at this conference about transhumanism and cryonics, two fields intimately connected to nanotechnology. I'll spare you my own rather skeptical feelings on these subjects, and will instead let a cryonics true-believer explain his interest in his own words.
This morning, Howard Lovy (the kindly and award-winning blogger mentioned below) sat in front of me in the conference hall, and during the breaks between presentations, a few people stopped by and talked with us. One of these was Mr. Brett P. Bellmore, a Michigander who signed up early (in the mid-1980s) for cryonic suspension. (He's on the just-freeze-the-head plan, not the full-body.) I wanted to get Mr. Bellmore on camera talking about the merits of cryonics, so Howard asked him a few questions and the footage is here. You'll hear Howard's voice off-camera, and also my voice at the end, asking about the necklace Mr. Bellmore is wearing. (It's a special cryonics-related necklace, as you'll see.) You'll have to watch the video all the way through to hear his answer to Howard's final question: "What do you think the odds are that you're going to be revived? Give me your realistic assessment."
The video is in streaming Windows media. Please try to ignore the annoying text that keeps flashing up across Mr. Bellmore's chest. (Turns out that I was too stupid to remember to record the interview in landscape instead of portrait, and I'm too cheap to plunk down the thirty bucks for a registered version of the software I used to rotate the video.) [UPDATE: It's just been pointed out to me that the software I've been using all along to edit the video clips posted on this blog can actually rotate the picture, so I needn't have bothered with finding another program. I'll probably re-encode and re-upload the video tomorrow, without the flashing words.] [UPDATE: Okay, it's been re-posted without the annoying flashing words.]
By the way, I'm hoping that we might get an article on cryonics out of Howard Lovy in a future New Atlantis issue.
Nano and Kidney Health
Early this afternoon, I asked Gayle Pergamit (mentioned below) to give, in front of the camera, the "elevator speech" version of her lecture. Here she is, in streaming Windows media, talking about the work her company, Biophiltre, is doing to make possible efficient artificial kidneys with nanoscale filtration:
How Might Nanotech Affect Privacy?
Brad Templeton (described below) just finished his talk about privacy in the age of nanotech. The official title of his talk was "Preserving Privacy as Nanosurveillance Arrives" (as you can see from his abstract, here), but on his PowerPoint slide, he called the talk "The Automation of Good and Evil." I'm not going to recount his whole argument here, except to say that most of it was an attempt to respond to the arguments put forward in David Brin's provocative book The Transparent Society, in which Brin argues, essentially, that the only way we can maintain our freedom is to willingly and thoroughly give up our privacy to one another.
Now, Templeton's 30-minute talk is being followed by a 45-minute debate on the subject, in which he is facing off against Mr. Robin Hanson, a professor at George Mason University (homepage here). The debate isn't great, frankly, but there've been a few interesting points made. Prof. Hanson, an economist, says that he is best known as "the guy behind terrorism futures" (indeed, he is: see the Wired article here), but that he's not worried about nanoterrorism, or even non-nano terrorism. (His exact words: "I'm not very worried about terrorism.") Professor Hanson argues that privacy serves to protect lazy employees (who don't want their laziness known) or treacherous spouses (who don't want their secrets known).
UPDATE: The questions from the audience helped enliven the debate somewhat, with questions about nanobots in the brain, and about the reliability of the information obtained through surveillance.
The current speaker is Brad Templeton, who has been associated for years with Foresight, and is on the board of the Electronic Frontier Foundation. He's speaking on privacy, but while building his argument, he mentioned a word he recently coined: spamigation. Spamigation is what happens when spam meets litigation. It's a spam-like use of the legal system to file massive numbers of lawsuits -- as has been done by the Recording Industry Association of America, which dumps lawsuits against filesharers (or music-pirates, if you prefer) into the legal system in batches of several hundred at once. A Google search shows that Brad did indeed coin this word (at least online).
What Does Nano Mean for Economics?
The next speaker is David Friedman, from the Santa Clara University School of Law, speaking on "What Would a Nanotech Economy Look Like" (personal homepage here, professional homepage here, abstract here).
Professor Friedman is trying to answer the basic questions that people have about nano-economics. Will we all be out of work if it's cheap and easy to manufacture every imaginable product? (No.) Aren't patents going to be a problem? (No, because patents aren't the kind of intellectual property we'll be dealing with. Most likely, when we get to the point of advanced nanotechnology, we'll be programming matter -- so we'll have to mostly be concerned with something like copyright, just like in programming software today.)
There are, Prof. Friedman suggests, two options to protect the world from the dangers of nanotechnology, and we can choose only one of those options. One option is to have government defend us (like in national defense today), and the other is private decisions to protect us (like private defenses against computer viruses). Prof. Friedman -- as you might guess from his writings on libertarianism and anarcho-capitalism -- prefers the latter.
Prof. Friedman refers the audience to a book he's writing, which is on the Web in draft form: Future Imperfect.
UPDATE: At the end of the conference, I asked Professor Friedman to explain on camera his argument about something like copyright, rather than patents, being the best model for the sort of intellectual property protections needed in the distant nanotech future. Click the picture below to see his response, in streaming Windows video: