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.