Nanotechnology at the Institute of Contemporary Arts

A very mixed, but very engaged audience, including journalists, artists and business types, attended last night’s discussion of nanotechnology at the Institute of Contemporary Arts. If they enjoyed it as much as I did, they will have got their money’s worth. The mix of panelists – including a science journalist, a science fiction writer and two scientists – worked very well, I thought. Paul McAuley, the science fiction writer, made sure we didn’t concentrate too much on the here and now, while the journalist, Tom Feilden, brought some perspective and some telling comparisons with previous technology debates. Philip Moriarty kicked the evening off, with a trenchant broadside against the Drexlerian vision. His perspective on this is rather different to mine, in that he’s from the “hard” end of nanotechnology and is very familiar with the practical problems of moving atoms around in a scanning tunnelling microscope, so his critique is based on what he sees as a huge practical gaps in Drexler’s implementation path. I should mention that (like me) Philip has read Nanosystems very closely and very carefully. Drexler remained an omnipresent theme through the evening (the ICA had thought about bringing him across in person, but couldn’t afford the fee).

Some questions and themes from the discussion:

  • how do you represent things that you can’t see, and what implications does this have for any claims visual representation might have for objectivity?
  • can philosophy tells us anything about the way informal social agreements grow up to provide an effective ethical framework for regulating behaviour in new circumstances even in the absence of anything more formal, and the possibility that this might provide surprisingly robust defenses against problems from new technology?
  • what is the role of the profit motive and military imperatives on steering the direction of research in nanotechnology?
  • what can be done about the tendency for discussions on new technologies always to revert to simple questions of risk assessment rather than more challenging issues about the way we want society to be heading?
  • 3 thoughts on “Nanotechnology at the Institute of Contemporary Arts”

    1. Great questions! I wish I’d been there.

      Representation and objectivity: There’s no way to represent more than a fraction of nanoscale behavior in any one presentation. Make sure your audience knows at least implicitly what you’re representing and what the limitations are, and make sure the representation conforms to the physics.

      Informal agreement emergence and robust defenses: Sounds good, but here’s a counterexample: Societies may not change when economic conditions change, and may be unnecessarily miserable or unsustainable. An example of the former is clan society in Italy (and I suspect elsewhere) which bases its interaction on zero-sum assumptions; see The Moral Basis of a Backward Society. An example of the latter is Western and especially American society.

      Role of profit and military in steering nano research: Obviously significant. One thing worth investigating is the role of nanoscale technology research interests (both researchers and government bureaucracy) in attacking molecular manufacturing in order to deny gray goo and protect/promote short-term business interests.

      Risk assessment vs. the direction of society: EXCELLENT question!!!! Partial answer: It’s hard even to think about changing society, much less talk about it. I’m currently reading The Different Drum: Community Making and Peace. A very insightful book, and its proposals may be valuable; but who’s going to recommend them, or anything like them? Community-making that requires vulnerability and a period of psychological depression? Voluntary economic depression? Nah.

      Also, let’s remember what archbishop Dom Helder Camara once said: “When I feed the poor, I am called a saint. When I ask why they are poor, I am called a communist.” He was assassinated a few days later. Even those who don’t fear physical assassination must fear character assassination–“Starry-eyed idealist.” If CRN started to recommend social change, we’d be denounced as off-topic and dangerous. If we express even mild opinions about American Democrat-vs-Republican politics (I know this from experience) we will instantly lose much of our readership.

      A compromise may be to find groups that are working to change society for the better, and show them how nanotech can improve their chances.


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