TCS Daily

Ethics Must Play Catch Up

By Glenn Harlan Reynolds - April 30, 2003 12:00 AM

After criticizing modern architecture and genetically modified foods, Prince Charles has now weighed in on nanotechnology:

The Prince is said to fear a worst case scenario in which nanotechnology spin-offs would annihilate life on earth.

It is claimed that Charles knows that the technology has huge potential for progress but fears that scientists plan to create miniscule nanorobots programmed to build new substances, atom by atom from raw materials.

The Prince is said to be concerned that this could lead to an apocalyptic 'grey goo' theory in which these miniscule robots would reproduce like viruses, feeding off all natural matter and consume the whole planet; leaving behind only a grey goo.

The "grey goo" scenario is old hat to nanotechnologists, of course. It's even been the subject of scientific papers that conclude that the danger from such a scenario is fairly, ahem, small. While nanotechnology might pose genuine risks, Prince Charles' invocation of "grey goo" suggests that he's not really up to speed on the subject. Not surprising, perhaps, as the House of Windsor isn't best known for its scientific pronouncements.

I tend to side with Tony Blair, who staked out a pro-nanotechnology position in opposition to that of the Prince, citing the role of nanotechnology in promoting economic growth, and in offering cures for diseases, as evidence of its "startling potential."

But I come today not to bury Prince Charles, but to praise him - or at least to suggest that there may be a place for more informed people to raise the question of nanotechnology's risks. For although I'm a pretty substantial booster of nanotechnology (read this long policy paper that I wrote last year, or this shorter article from TCS), I think that now is a good time to have an intelligent discussion of nanotechnology's risks and benefits.

Unfortunately, many people feel otherwise. The business community, which is investing heavily in nanotechnology, seems to feel that the less talk of downsides there is, the better. Such sentiments are understandable, in a way, but they have the side effect of leaving discussion to kooks, cranks, and members of the British royal family. Some groups are already calling for a moratorium on nanotechnology research, and others are calling for the application of the "precautionary principle" to nanotechnology, in a way.

Freeman Dyson, meanwhile, argues in favor of research, invoking Milton's Areopagitica in favor of the proposition that research should go ahead: "I am suggesting that there is an analogy between the seventeenth-century fear of moral contagion by soul-corrupting books and the twenty-first-century fear of physical contagion by pathogenic microbes." Neither fear, he notes, is groundless. But in both cases the price of giving into the fear is likely to be higher than the price of living with it - especially when one takes into account the benefits that the technology in question offers. As Dr. Peter Singer (not the animal-rights philosopher, the other one) says: "I don't want the science to slow down. I want the ethics to catch up." I agree, and the way we do that is by talking about it now, not by keeping our heads down and letting Prince Charles, and others, monopolize the idea-space.

I'll be talking about it this weekend, as I'm scheduled to attend the Foresight Institute's Vision Weekend in Palo Alto. Larry Lessig, Eric Drexler, and frequent TCS contributor Frederick Turner will also be there, among many others. The event is off-the-record for the media (I guess I count for these purposes) but I'll see if I can't provide some sort of a report next week, at least on the general mood. And I'll let you know if Prince Charles shows up.

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