Then worms ‘ll come and eat thee oop

I had a late night in the prosperous, liberal, Yorkshire town of Ilkley last night, doing a talk and question and answer session on nanotechnology at the local Cafe Philosophique. An engaged and eclectic audience kept the discussion going well past the scheduled finish time. Two points particularly struck me. One recurring question was whether it was ever realistic to imagine that we can relinquish technological developments with negative consequences – “if it can be done, it will be done” was the comment made more than once. I really don’t like this conclusion, but I’m struggling to find convincing arguments against it. A more positive comment concerned the idea of regulation; we are used to thinking of this idea entirely in terms of narrow prohibitions – don’t release these nanoparticles into the environment, for example. But we need to work out how to make regulation a positive force that steers the technology in a desirable direction, rather than simply trying to sit on it.

(Non British readers may need to know that the headline is a line from a rather odd and morbid folk-song called “On Ilkley Moor baht hat”, sung mostly by drunken Yorkshiremen.)

2 thoughts on “Then worms ‘ll come and eat thee oop”

  1. I gather that you favor the notion of relinquishing technological developments, avoiding research into areas that seem too dangerous to be developed? It would be interesting to see your arguments on this point.

  2. I certainly can imagine plenty of technological developments that I’d rather not see happen, so in that sense I would like to see some areas of research avoided. To give one example, I don’t think it’s a great idea to be doing research to increase the virulence of pathogens. But the question of where you stop research that could conceivably, but not necessarily, lead to unquestionably bad outcomes is a very difficult one that I don’t have a clear answer to. To pursue my earlier example, research aimed at understanding the origins of pathogen virulence obviously has many real benefits that one wouldn’t want to entirely give up, despite the fact that it undoubtedly leads to the possibility of a very bad outcome. Life is full of slippery slopes on which one nevertheless has to attempt to draw lines. This is a messy answer, I know, but I really don’t know how to frame the issue in any crisper way.

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