TCS Daily


Visions of the Nanofuture

By Glenn Harlan Reynolds - May 7, 2003 12:00 AM

As I promised last week, I attended the Foresight Institute's "vision weekend" relating to nanotechnology, and I have a report. (If you don't know much about nanotechnology, read this for some general background.)

The good news is that interest in nanotechnology doesn't seem to have suffered as much as it might have in light of the economic woe that has swept Silicon Valley. Though I saw a lot of "space available" and "for lease" signs as I drove around Palo Alto, attendance at the conference was only slightly below last year's.

There was less Extropian-style enthusiasm about the long-term prospects that nanotechnology might lead to near-immortality, and more talk about near-term developments and venture capital. And I guess that's the biggest shift in the field. When talk about nanotechnology was new, the long-term prospects dominated. They're still important, and people are still talking about them (who doesn't want to live a long time - er, besides Leon Kass, that is?) but the big buzz was over startups that are promising to deliver interesting new nanodevices within the year. Venture capitalists were talking about nanotechnology-related products that they're backing, and there was more discussion of products that can be brought to market in the near term. (One fallout of the dotcom bubble's bursting is that the venture-capital community seems very interested these days in companies that will produce customer revenue sooner rather than later)

People were also interested in the politics of nanotechnology, politics that are taking place both within the scientific community and within the greater polity. Within the scientific community, the "nanotech isn't possible" argument, which seemed dead a couple of years ago, seems to have enjoyed a modest resurgence. This isn't because any new experimental evidence has appeared; but rather, most people seem to think, because many scientists - fearful of criticism by Luddites and technophobes - want to undermine fears of advanced nanotechnology by simply taking the subject off the table. This probably won't work, for reasons that I outlined in last week's column, but it's a natural instinct, I suppose. You'd think, though, that at least some of these people would beware of Arthur C. Clarke's observation that when a distinguished scientist says that something is possible, he is almost certainly right, but when he says that something is impossible, he is often wrong.

The larger world is taking notice, too. That's both a good thing and a bad thing. The good thing is that some - like Professor Lawrence Lessig of Stanford Law School - want to help "inoculate" nanotechnology against excessive legal interference, something that was the subject of Lessig's talk at the conference.

And some policymakers like Rep. Brad Sherman (D-CA), who attended the conference in its entirety, are taking nanotechnology rather more seriously than, say, Prince Charles. Sherman has drafted legislation calling for the National Academy of Sciences to study the impact of nanotechnology and wants to see far more attention paid to issues of economic, social, and political impact.

One Sherman-offered amendment to the current nanotechnology bill, HR766, called for 5% of nanotechnology funding to be set aside for such studies. That one didn't get adopted. But another, which was unanimously adopted, calls for a National Academy of Sciences study on the possible regulation of self-replicating machines, the release of such machines in natural environments, the distribution of molecular manufacturing development, the development of defensive technologies, and the use of nanotechnology to extend the capabilities of the human brain. (Sherman solicits your advice, and says you can email him at Brad.Sherman@mail.house.gov - with the subject line "Science" - if you like.)

The military aspects of nanotechnology have gotten more attention: In a speech last week, President Bush emphasized the role of technology in American military success, and noted that we are seeing weapons that are simultaneously more effective and less lethal. Some people at the conference wondered if this was entirely a good thing: weapons that are enormously powerful, but nonlethal, might tend to be used a lot. (And this isn't just handwringing - I can imagine nonlethal but powerful weapons that, say, manipulate brain chemistry to make people love their enemies, or Big Brother, that I wouldn't want to see used.) There seems to be a lot of military interest in nanotechnology, and for obvious reasons: mastery of nanotechnology could lead to the kind of military supremacy that mastery of steam power and repeating firearms gave the West in the 19th Century.

There was also a lot of discussion about the way that nanotechnology might affect property rights. If you can make pretty much anything at home, using nanodevices, then information becomes the key input. But how would the auto industry feel about a Napster for Ferraris?

It was a fascinating weekend, and you'll be reading more things that I learned there in future weeks. In the meantime, on the theory that a picture is worth a thousand words, I've done some video interviews with participants, including Lessig, Sherman, and nanotechnology pioneer Eric Drexler. I hope you find them interesting. This is sort of an experiment, but if it works well, we may repeat it.
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