Checking out the website of the anti-nanotechnology campaigning group ETC, I see that their position on nanotechnology seems to have subtly changed. A press release dated November 23 2004 says “In 2002, ETC called for a moratorium on the commercialisation of new nano-scale materials until laboratory protocols and regulatory regimes are in place that take into account the special characteristics of these materials, and until they are shown to be safe”. But currently their website calls for a rather different moratorium: “The ETC group believes that a moratorium should be placed on research involving molecular self-assembly and self-replication.”
I wonder what they mean by this? If it is Drexlerian self-replicating nanobots they are talking about, then the nanobusiness and nanoscience communities will no doubt cheerfully agree with them. But the usual understanding of the term molecular self-assembly is that it refers to the propensity of natural and synthetic molecules like soaps, proteins and block copolymers to arrange themselves, under the influence of Brownian motion and programmed patterns of molecular stickiness, into well defined nanostructures. This is certainly an important theme in nanoscience and technology today – there’s a chapter devoted to the subject in Soft Machines. As a principle that’s extensively exploited in biology self-assembly exemplifies the powerful approach to nanotechnology that learns lessons from nature. But it’s difficult to see that it has any particularly sinister or dangerous overtones, and its use in technology isn’t at all novel. Every bar of soap or bottle of shampoo depends on self-assembly to give it its unique properties, and the thermoplastic elastomers and polyurethane foams that are used in the soles of many shoes and trainers actually have quite complex self-assembled nanostructures. So just what is ETC opposing here?