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Arms Control and Nanotechnology

MarchantThe 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...

October 24, 2004 in Ethical / Social Implications | Permalink


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