TCS Daily

A Nanotechnology Turnaround?

By Glenn Harlan Reynolds - May 26, 2004 12:00 AM

I've written some pessimistic columns on nanotechnology lately. In essence, my concern was that the nanotechnology industry was pursuing an ostrich-like strategy, trying to deny the potential risks posed by nanotechnology in the hope that nobody would notice. The industry was even going so far as to alienate a lot of its natural supporters, as it tried to argue that the kinds of advanced nanotechnology that might spur popular fears were impossible, and that those who felt otherwise were (despite being pioneers in the field) some sort of kooks.

Back in February, I wrote:

"I'm worried about the future of nanotechnology. Worried enough, in fact, that where just a few weeks ago I was wondering if I should invest in the field, now I'm relieved that I don't own any nanotechnology stocks.

"This worry doesn't come from any overinflated fears regarding the dangers of nanotechnology. . .

"I think that the nanotechnology industry has been unfortunately shortsighted in its effort to forestall criticism from environmentalists and Luddites. I've even noted that the industry seems to be going out of its way to alienate not only critics, but even allies."

And indeed it was. (More on that here, here, and here.) My fear was that if the industry continued this approach it would find itself in several kinds of trouble: scissored between environmentalists and Luddites on one side, and more visionary technology types on the other, with its credibility extremely low as the result of receiving fire from both directions.

Fortunately, the industry seems to have caught on. The Nano Business Alliance, which is the biggest trade group in the field, now has a new executive director (Sean Murdock, replacing the outgoing Mark Modzelewski), and there's considerable evidence that the new approach will be more sensible. This report in Small Times captures the change nicely:

"Melody Haller of the Antenna Group, a public relations firm that represents a number of nanotech companies and Small Times, also raised concern that "marginalizing" people such Eric Drexler and others who believe in the feasibility of molecular manufacturing might create "heroic martyrs" for nanotech opponents to exploit. Drexler is founder of the Foresight Institute and author of the influential 1986 book, "Engines of Creation."

"Modzelewski, normally an outspoken Drexler critic, was unusually courtly toward the group. 'Foresight has created some frameworks and guidelines for going forward that people should be looking at,' he said.

"In an interview after the policy panel, Sean Murdock, the NanoBusiness Alliance's incoming executive director, said that with respect to dangers, real or potential, the nanotech world must be proactive about studying safety issues. He also said he believed such risks can be quantified and protected against."

This is exactly right. As I've written elsewhere, most of the shorter-term threats posed by nanotechnology appear to be quite manageable. More advanced threats, of the sort raised in Michael Crichton's novel (and, soon, movie) Prey, are likely to prove either bogus or manageable. (I also recommend this piece by Freeman Dyson debunking the nanotechnology featured in Prey, and making a number of other useful points. And I should note that Michael Crichton -- when writing nonfiction -- has been very sensible on the issues surrounding real, as opposed to fictional, nanotechnology.)

What's important is that the industry take a role in helping people in general distinguish between the real and the fictional, and in helping them to understand the upsides of nanotechnology, both near-term and advanced. It looks to me as if the industry has avoided a serious mistake, and that it has done so before its earlier approach led to disaster. I'm very happy about that. And you should be too, if you want to enjoy the environmental, economic, and health benefits that nanotechnology is likely to bring over the next few decades.


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