July 16, 2004

Bedtime Stories for Nanotechnology

Cyborg democracy brings up Lawrence Lessig's criticism of how the nanotechnology establishment has grown negative to molecular manufacturing.

Lessig's critique largely mirrors my own criticism (c.f. Nanotechnology: Losing the Revolution and Smurfy Nanoethics). In order to establish itself as a serious, important and fundable field the researchers flocking to nanotechnology wanted to tone down anything that seemed too alarmist, too much science fiction. The result was a field that is profundly uneasy with discussions about long-range future goals and how it actually came into existence (everybody mentions Saint Feynman ritually, almost as if to ward off spooky Drexler).

Cyborg Democracy bemoans Lessig's bemoaning that the political process is plagued by irrationality, and correctly points out that it is the one we have and it is better to have a funding-savy advocate than none. But I think it is wrong to assume that we should be complacent about fields getting twisted to fit into what funding agencies would like.

Technological lock-in is a real problem: if all nanotech funding is empathically going to non-molecular structures, that means progress, investment, manufacturing procedures and eventually products will be based on that. It has a chance to becoming a technological paraprax (see secion V) that limits development in other areas of nanotechnology, rather than being a stepping stone towards the full potential of the field. Compare with how semiconductor technology has grown to become the dominant computing technology; optronics could likely do the same or even better but will only be developed for niche applications or when Moore's law hits the wall. It is not necessarily bad that nearly all effort in a field goes in a certain direction, but it should ideally be choosen because it is the most workable or has the greatest potential, not that it is the least upsetting to politicians. Imagine that stem cell research becomes focused solely on adult stem cells, spending enormous time, energy and money on overcoming the problems that embryonal stem cells do not have. In the end we might still end up with workable stem-cell technology, but the path was not chosen for its efficiency and many valuable research contributions (e.g. in embryonal differentiation and gene imprinting) would be foregone.

I think molecular nanotechnology will come to pass, but it will not be called nanotechnology but biotechnology. For a few years at the end of the 90's I shifted from my old opinion that wet nano was the likely way to reach true nanotechnology, impressed by the advances done in the surface physics and fullerene camp. But now these political developments are returning me to the old conviction. Biotechnology is a burgeoning field able to stand on its own. It can easily encompass the idea of molecular machines, redesigning biological components for industrial processes and the use of complex systems as tools. It will likely absorb many molecular nanotechnology refugees from chemistry and physics, and the first unequivocal molecular nanomachines will be biological.

Second, allowing fears of being seen as too radical or potentially risky to control how a technology is developed runs the risk of backfiring. Nanotechnology opponents are making radical claims, and they won't go away just because Smalley calls them tales to scare children. It is the tales that convince us as humans, not the rational arguments. Biotechnology made that mistake and has paid for it dearly. When the researcher cannot show a vision of what a technology is intended to be used for, in what framework and according to what ethical principles the winner in a confrontation will be the opponent who tells the story about the potential risks, how it fits in with some evil order (capitalism, world government, what have you) and how it is basically unethical.

And who does the politician listen to? Once the technocrats had the ears of the political class (and they largely overlapped, at least here in Sweden), but no more. Today the politician gets his worldview and much analysis from the media and less from the science advisor. In addition, more and more funding is politicized. The politician will act according both to a desire to be re-elected and whether he is convinced a certain technology is promising or not. It is in his interest to channel the fears of the population into calming pronounciations of starting new oversight, new safety studies or even stopping potentially dangerous research.

The audience might not agree with the visions presented by the researcher, but they will have to judge the visions rather than be affected by the sole vision presented by the opponent. And that may enable a far more intelligent debate about nanotechnology funding, usage and risks.

The example of how nanotechnology has developed should be examined closely. It is an enormously promising technology even in its weaker forms, and its brief and well documented history from bright idea, popularisation, rejection as science fiction, acceptance and current transformation into surface and materials science is instructive if we want to keep other technologies from being foreclosed into something far more limited than they could be. Do we wish to see cognitive enhancement being turned into only help for learning disabled, or interactive telecommunications into yet another broadcast medium with heavy digital rights control? The way of allowing the fields to fulfill their potential is to support a broad, free exploration of them. And that requires not just a close watch on the funding agencies and the rhetoric of how the fields are 'sold', but to stimulate visionary debate, low thresholds to entry and exploration and alternative funding structures.

Posted by Anders at July 16, 2004 02:32 PM