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Don't Be Afraid. Don't Be Very Afraid: Nanotechnology Worries Are Overblown.

By Glenn Harlan Reynolds - December 6, 2001 12:00 AM

When physicist Richard Feynman first raised the possibility of molecular nanotechnology in 1960, terrorism was the last thing he had in mind. But since September 11, nanotechnology is back in the crosshairs. A while back, it was Bill Joy's article in Wired magazine that was postulating a threat: bacterium-sized nanorobots might devour everything alive and turn it into copies of themselves (something known in the nanotech trade as the "gray goo problem") or they might allow the development of supersmart artificial intelligences that would rule the world by virtue of their superior intellects.

The latter worry should perhaps have been a tipoff that Joy's understanding of the world was a bit skewed. One need only glance at the headlines to see that enormous intelligence is not the sine qua non of power anywhere. For this and for other reasons, Joy's worries received a rather cool reception, and after a brief flurry of attention his concerns faded from popular view. In fact, interest in the positive applications of nanotechnology became so widespread that by last January, Gail Collins was writing in the New York Times that it had become a cliche for governors to talk about nanobots in their annual "state of the state" speeches.

Now the subject of nanotechnology has come up again, this time in relation to terrorism. After all, if we're seeing terrorism with biological technologies now, surely nanoterror is a worrisome possibility for the future. Some media outlets, including the Times, are already worrying that this might be the case. Well, yes and no.

As someone who has been interested in both the up- and downsides of nanotechnology for many years, I have to admit that I read these stories with mixed emotions. Nanotechnology is in its absolute infancy right now. It's a real field, with real scientists, real companies, and real products, (and a nanotechnology conference where I spoke last week was absolutely swarming with venture capitalists) but it's probably about where computer science was in 1950. So it will be a very long time before we reach the point where we have to worry about gray goo or superintelligent machines. For the coming decades, stores of Soviet smallpox and other pathogens pose a much more immediate threat.

On the other hand, I, along with a lot of others in the nanotechnology community, have been warning about the potential downsides of nanotechnology for some time, and it's kind of nice to be noticed. But, of course, hysteria isn't always better than ignorance.

Nanotechnology Links

The Foresight Institute, a nonprofit dedicated to fostering the peaceful and safe use of nanotechnology

Scientist Ralph Merkle's nanotechnology page, with a short nontechnical description of nanotechnology

The U.S. Government's National Nanotechnology Initiative

Images of nanodevices

Nanotechnology
, a scholarly journal published by the Institute of Physics
If nanotechnology lives up to its promise, and I think it will, then it's important to take an approach that lets us reap the benefits while avoiding the potential problems. One possibility, urged by Bill Joy, is that we consider the possibility of "relinquishment" - that is, of simply abandoning the technology entirely. Whether or not this would be desirable in the abstract, which I doubt, in the real world this can't possibly work. As Daniel Boorstin once wrote, technology is a field where there are neither counterrevolutions nor restorations. Nanotechnology cannot be un-discovered, and a ban on nanotechnology research is unlikely to prevent abuse. As the more- or-less complete failure of efforts to outlaw germ warfare and nuclear proliferation demonstrates, when nations want a technology, they're not going to let a ban stand in their way. To coin a phrase: when nanotechnology is outlawed, only outlaws will have nanotechnology.. All that a nanotechnology ban will achieve is to ensure that the good guys are at a disadvantage.

We don't have far to look for examples of this phenomenon. In 1875, worried about the new technology of high explosives and its possible use by terrorists, Britain passed the Explosives Act, which forbade private experimentation with explosives and rocketry. The chief result of that piece of legislation was to ensure that when missiles flew in World War Two, they were launched by Germans, against Britain, rather than the other way around.

Nanotechnology: A Small Description

Richard Feynman's first description of nanotechnology still serves:

The principles of physics, as far as I can see, do not speak against the possibility of maneuvering things atom by atom. [I]t would be, in principle, possible for a physicist to synthesize any chemical substance that the chemist writes down. How? Put the atoms downwhere the chemist says, and so you make the substance. The problems of chemistry and biology can be greatly helped if our ability to see what we are doing, and to do things on an atomic level, is ultimately developed - a development which I do not think can be avoided.

Modern nanotechnology researchers want to go beyond synthesizing "substances" (though that has great importance) and use nanotechnology's atom-by-atom construction techniques to produce objects: tiny, bacterium-sized devices that can repair clogged arteries, kill cancer cells, fix cellular damage from aging, and make other devices of greater size or complexity. Other researchers believe that nanotechnology will allow for a degree of miniaturization that might allow computers a millionfold more efficient than anything available now. And still others believe that nanotechnology's tiny devices will be able to unravel mysteries of the microscopic world (cell metabolism, the aging process, cancer) in ways that other tools will not be able to.

So far, research has produced some small devices, but nothing as exotic as those above. But nanotechnologists are refining both their instrumentation and their understanding of nanofabrication at an accelerating rate. Will they be able to fulfill the field's promise? Richard Feynman thought so.
Similarly, as Ed Regis reports in his excellent book on germ warfare, The Biology of Doom, the ink was barely dry on the 1972 Biological Toxins and Weapons Convention (usually known as the Germ Warfare Treaty) before many of its signatories, particularly the Soviet Union, decided that they could steal a march on the United States, which could be expected to abide by the Treaty, by secretly setting up new and more ambitious germ warfare programs. (The Soviet program, which was enormous, revolved around an entity called Biopreparat, which was created in response to the treaty.)

Ironically, the very stocks of biowar-engineered smallpox that now threaten humanity probably would never have been created if it had not been for the 1972 treaty outlawing germ warfare. (A lesson in unintended consequences if ever there was one.) Even more ironically, with our military biodefense capability seriously eroded by the Treaty, it is our commercial biotech industry that offers the most hope for dealing with the threat. That, too, is a lesson for nanotechnology. A robust commercial sector is likely to do more to protect us against threats than government programs that may have their budget cut, or their mission hijacked (as with the CDC, which has wasted its time and money worrying about guns and motorcycle helmets instead of infectious disease). There's nothing surprising about that, when you think about it: it's commercial operations like Symantec and McAffee that protect us from computer viruses, after all.

Still, just because outlawing nanotechnology won't work is no reason to give up on making things safer. Commercial (as opposed to military) biotechnology has a history of being safe and responsible, in no small part because of guidelines originally created by the scientists themselves at a famous conference in Asilomar, California in 1975. Following this lead, the Foresight Institute held a conference on nanotechnology safety (at which terrorism was extensively discussed) in Monterey in 1999. The conference produced a draft set of guidelines which were then posted on the Web and revised in light of comments from many experts (and even Bill Joy). The Foresight Guidelines are designed to foster safeguards that will protect against accident and abuse, while allowing the technology to flourish. They're not perfect, but very much a work in progress, and readers are encouraged to visit the site and contribute their own suggestions.

Of course, the real protection against the abuse of technology is an emphasis on people, not the technology itself. The Germ Warfare Treaty, like various nuclear nonproliferation agreements, did little good because it was not enforced. The Israeli raid on the Iraqi Osirak reactor was the only truly successful nuclear nonproliferation measure to date. To coin another phrase, nanobots don't kill people: people kill people. If you're unwilling to face the reality that rogue regimes and the terrorists that they harbor must be dealt with, then no agreement will do any good.

Overall, the best defense against the abuse of nanotechnology by terrorists, rogue governments, or anyone else is a combination: reasonable regulations to foster responsibility and safety, governments willing to police abuses by terrorists or other governments, and a world order in which such acts are discouraged in general. We're quite a distance from these factors, but fortunately we have at least a couple of decades to get there. It's time to start working.

Reynolds is law professor at the University of Tennessee, teaches law and technology and writes for the InstaPundit.Com website.
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