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.
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:
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.
Choose Your Words Carefully
Much of the beginning of Merkle's talk was about the importance -- the political importance -- of getting your terms right. "The term 'self-replication,'" he said, "has been around for quite a while.... The problem is when you talk with ordinary people about 'self-replication'... they think you're talking about biological self-replication.... This issue has come to the fore of late because it turns out there are scary things in the realm of self-replicating things... [This has caused, among other things,] redirection of funding. It helps to explain ideas using terms that avoid preconceptions." He uses, as an example, the technology formerly called nuclear magnetic resonance, which didn't catch on because the word "nuclear" scared people away. Now that it goes by a less-threatening name -- magnetic resonance imaging, MRI -- it's everywhere.
Yesterday, before the conference officially began, Foresight hosted a luncheon on nanotechnology policy. I'll put up more pictures of it later, but wanted first to mention one item. At the lunch was Eric Werwa, a senior legislative assistant to Congressman Mike Honda (Democrat of California). Mr. Werwa described a bill his boss sponsored, the Nanomanufacturing Investment Act of 2004 (H.R. 4656).
So what's the bill about? No need for me to tell you: click the picture below to see how Mr. Werwa describes the bill in twenty seconds (streaming Windows video).
Of course, nothing is going to happen with the bill this year -- Congress is essentially done for the year, so the bill will have to be reintroduced next year. You can read the text of the bill here, and a press release from Congressman Honda's office summarizing the bill here.
(By the way, the streaming video is made possible by Nine Systems, a media firm that I heartily endorse, and not just because I have a friend who works there and who arranged for them to stream this video.)