Software control of matter – your ideas welcome

The ‘Ideas Factory’ on Software control of matter – in which a group of scientists from different backgrounds spend a week brainstorming new and innovative approaches to a difficult problem – is just over a week away. I’m directing the activity, the outcome of which, we hope, will be novel research proposals, for which £1.5 million has been set aside to fund by the UK’s Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council.

We were very gratified by the response, and from the applications we received we’ve selected a great group of scientists, from many different disciplines, including supramolecular chemistry, scanning probe microscopy, surface science and computer science, and ranging from some of the UK’s most eminent nanoscientists to young research fellows and postdocs. We’d like to open the process up to anyone interested, so we’ve set up a public blog for the Ideas Factory.

When the sandpit begins, on January 8, we’ll be writing about the process as it happens. But we’d also be very interested in any ideas any readers of the blog might have. You might have an opinion about how we might achieve this goal in practise; you might have thoughts about what kinds of materials one might hope to make in this way; or you might have thoughts about why – for what social benefit, or economic gain – you might want to make these materials and devices. All readers are invited to comment on the thoughts they might have through the comment facility on the Ideas Factory blog. Towards the end of next week, I’ll start putting up some posts asking for comments, and if we get any suggestions, we will feed the suggestions in to the participants of the Ideas Factory, using the blog to report back reactions. One of the mentors for the Ideas Factory – Jack Stilgoe, from the thinktank Demos – will collate and report the comments to the group. Jack’s a long-time observer of the nanotech scence, but he’s not a nanoscientist himself, so he won’t have any preconceptions of what might or might not work.

Playing God

I went to the Avignon nanoethics conference with every intention of giving a blow-by-blow account of the meeting as it happened, but in the end it was so rich and interesting that it took all my attention to listen and contribute. Having got back, it’s the usual rush to finish everything before the holidays. So here’s just one, rather striking, vignette from the meeting.

The issue that always bubbles below the surface when one talks about self-assembly and self-organisation is whether we will be able to make something that could be described as artificial life. In the self-assembly session, this was made very explicit by Mark Bedau, the co-founder of the European Center for Living Technology and participant in the EU funded project PACE (Programmable Artificial Cell Evolution), whose aim is to make an entirely synthetic system that shares some of the fundamental characteristics of living organisms (e.g. metabolism, reproduction and evolution). The Harvard chemist George Whitesides, (who was sounding more and more the world-weary patrician New Englander) described the chances of this programme being successful as being precisely zero.

I sided with Bedau on this, but what was more surprising to me was the reaction of the philosophers and ethicists to this pessimistic conclusion. Jean-Pierre Dupuy, a philosopher who has expressed profound alarm at the implications of loss of control implied by the idea of exploiting self-organising systems in technology, said that, despite all his worries, he would be deeply disappointed if this conclusion was true. A number of people commented on the obvious fear that people would express that making synthetic life would be tantamount to “playing God”. One speaker talked about the Jewish traditions connected with the Golem to insist that in that tradition the aspiration to make life was by itself not necessarily wrong. And, perhaps even more surprisingly, the bioethicist William Hurlbut, a member of the (US) President’s Council on Bioethics and a prominent Christian bioconservative, also didn’t take a very strong position on the ethics of attempting to make something with the qualities of life. Of course, as we were reminded by the philosopher and historian of science Bernadette Bensaude-Vincent, there have been plenty of times in the past when scientists have proclaimed that they were on the verge of creating life, only for this claim to turn out to be very premature.

Nanoethics conference at Avignon

I’m en-route to the South of France, on my way to Avignon, where, under the auspices of a collaboration between the University of Paris and Stanford University, there’s a conference on the “Ethical and Societal Implications of the Nano-Bio-Info-Cogno Convergence”. The aim of the conference is to “explore issues emerging in the application of nanotechnology, biotechnology, information technology, and cognitive science to the spheres of social, economic, and private life, as well as a contribution of ethical concerns to shaping the technological development.” One of the issues that has clearly captured the imagination of a number of the contributors from a more philosophical point of view is the idea of self-assembly, and particularly the implications this has for the degree of control, or otherwise, that we, as technologists, will have over our productions. The notion of a “soft machine” appeals to some observers’ sense of paradox, and opens up a discussion the connections between the Cartesian idea of a machine, our changing notions of how biological organisms work, and competing ideas of how best to do engineering on the nanoscale. There’s a session devoted to self-assembly, introduced by the philosopher Bernadette Bensaude-Vincent; among the people responding will be me and the Harvard chemist George Whitesides.

The commenters on the last item will be pleased to hear that, rather than flying to Avignon, I’m travelling in comfort on France’s splendidly fast (and, ultimately, nuclear powered) trains.

Driving on sunshine

Can the fossil fuels we use in internal combustion engines be practicably replaced by fuels derived from plant materials – biofuels? This question has, in these times of high oil prices and climate change worries, risen quickly up the agenda. Plants use the sun’s energy to convert carbon dioxide into chemically stored energy in the form of sugar, starch, vegetable oil or cellulose, so if one can economically convert these molecules into convenient fuels like ethanol, one has a route for the sustainable production of fuels for transportation. The sense of excitement and timeliness has even reached academia; my friends in Cambridge University and Imperial College are, as I write, frantically finalising their rival pitches to the oil giant BP, which is planning to spend $500 million on biofuels research over the next 10 years. Today’s issue of Nature has some helpful features (here, this claims to be free access but it doesn’t work for me without a subscription) overviewing the pros and cons.

The advantages of biofuels are obvious. They exploit the energy of the sun, the only renewable and carbon-neutral energy source available, in principle, in sufficient quantities to power our energy-intensive way of life on a worldwide basis. Unlike alternative methods of harnessing the sun’s energy, such as using photovoltaics to generate electricity or to make hydrogen, biofuels are completely compatible with our current transportation infrastructure. Cars and trucks will run on them with little modification, and existing networks of tankers, storage facilities and petrol stations can be used unaltered. It’s easy to see their attractions to those oil companies which, like BP and Shell, have seen that they are going to have to change their ways if they are going to stay in business.

Up to now, I’ve been somewhat sceptical. Plants are, by the standards of photovoltaic cells, very inefficient at converting sunlight into energy; they require inputs of water and fertilizer, and need to be converted into usable biofuels by energy intensive processes. The world has plenty of land, but the fraction of it available for agriculture is not large, and while this is probably sufficient to provide enough food for the world’s population the margin is not very comfortable, and is likely to get less so as climate change intensifies. One of the highest profile examples of large scale biofuel production is provided by the US program to make ethanol from corn, which is only kept afloat by huge subsidies and high protective tariff barriers. In energetic terms, it isn’t even completely clear that the corn-alcohol process produces more energy than it consumes (even advocates of the program claim only that it produces a two-fold return on energy input).

The Nature article does make clear, though, that there is a much more positive example of a biofuel program, in ethanol produced from Brazilian sugar-cane. Estimates are that it produces an eightfold return on the energy input, and it’s clear that this product, at around 27 cents a litre, is economic at current oil prices. The environmental costs of farming the stuff seem, if not negligible, less extreme than, for example, the destruction of rain-forest for palm oil plantations to produce biodiesel. The problem, as always, is scaling-up, finding enough suitable land to make a dent on the world’s huge thirst for transport fuels. Brazil is a big country, but even optimists only predict a doubling of output in the near future, which would still leave it accounting for less than one percent of the world’s demand for petrol.

Can there be a technical fix for these problems? This, of course, is the hope behind BP’s investment in research. One key advance would be to find more economical ways of breaking down the tough molecules that make up the woody matter of many plants, cellulose and lignin, into their component sugars, and then into alcohol. This brings the prospect of being able to use, not only agricultural waste like corn husks and wheat straw, but new crops like switch-grass and willow. There seems to be a choice of two methods here – using the same technology that Germany developed in the 1930’s and 40’s to convert coal into oil, using high temperature and special catalysts, or developing new enzymes based on the ones that fungi that live on tree stumps use. The former is expensive and as yet unproven on large scales.

What has all this got to do with nanotechnology? It is very easy to get excited by the prospect of a nano-enabled hydrogen economy powered by cheap, large area unconventional photovotaics. But we mustn’t forget that our techno-systems have a huge amount of inertia built into them. According to Vaclav Smil, there are more internal combustion engines than people in the USA, so potential solutions to our energy problems which promise less disruption to existing ways of doing things will be more attractive to many people than more technologically sophisticated but disruptive rival approaches.

Against nanoethics

I spent a day the week before last in the decaying splendour of a small castle outside Edinburgh, in the first meeting of a working group considering the ethics of human enhancement. This is part of a European project on the ethics of nanotechnology and related technologies – Nanobioraise. It was a particular pleasure to meet Alfred Nordmann, of the Technical University of Darmstadt – a philosopher and historian of science who has written some thought provoking things about nanotechnology and the debates surrounding it.

Nordmann’s somewhat surprising opening gambit was to say that he wasn’t really in favour of studying the ethics of human enhancement at all. To be more precise, he was very suspicious of efforts to spend a lot of time thinking about the ethics of putative long-term developments in science and technology, such as the transcendence of human limitations by human enhancement technologies, or an age of global abundance brought about by molecular nanotechnology. Among the reasons for his suspicion is a simple consideration of the opportunity cost of worrying about something that may never happen – “ethical concern is a scarce resource and must not be squandered on incredible futures, especially where on-going developments demand our attention.” But Nordmann also identifies some more fundamental problems with this way of thinking.

He identifies the central rhetorical trick of speculative ethics as being an elision between “if” and “then”: we start out identifying some futuristic possibility along the lines of “if MNT is possible “, then we identify some ethical consequence from it “then we need to prepare for an age of global abundance, and adjust our economies accordingly”, which we take as a mandate for action now, foreshortening the conditional. In this way, the demand for early ethical consideration lends credence to possible futures whose likelihood hasn’t yet been tested rigorously. This gives a false impression of inevitability, which shuts off the possibility that we can steer or choose the path that technology takes, and it distracts us from more pressing issues. It’s also notable that some of those who are most prone to this form of argument are those with a strong intellectual or emotional stake in the outcome in question.

His argument is partly developed in unpublished article “Ignorance at the Heart of Science? Incredible Narratives on Brain-Machine Interfaces”, which is well worth reading. It closes with a set of recommendations, referring back to an earlier EU report coordinated by Nordman, Converging Technologies – Shaping the Future of European Societies, which recommends that:

  • “science policy attends also to the limits of technical feasibility, suggesting for example that one should scientifically scrutinize the all too naive assumptions, if not (citing Dan Sarewitz) “conceptual cluenessness” about thought and cognition that underwrites the US-report on NBIC convergence.
  • Along the same lines, a committee of historians and statisticians should produce a critical assessment of Ray Kurzweil’s thesis about exponential growth.
  • Also, as Jürgen Altmann has urged, we need an Academy report about the Drexlerian vision of nanotechnology – is molecular manufacturing a real possibility or not?
  • Finally and most generally, we need scientists and engineers who have the courage to publically distinguish between what is physically possible and what is technically feasible.
  • As a citizen, I am overtaxed if I am to believe and even to prepare for the fact that humans will soon engineer everything that does not contradict outright a few laws of nature.”

    In short, Nordmann believes that nanoethics needs to be done more ethically.