Nanotechnology and science fiction: debate and live webcast

A debate on the relationship between science fiction, nanotechnology and reality is being held at the Dana centre, at the Science Museum in London this evening, between 7 and 8.30 pm. I’m one of the speakers. There are details here, including a link for the live webcast.

“Nanotechnology has recently stared in films such as Spiderman 2, Hulk and Minority Report. But how realistic is the science behind these the sci-fi fantasies? Many of the predicted applications of nanotechnology, from tiny medical ‘robots’ in the bloodstream to self-replicating nanobots turning the world into ‘gray goo’, sound like they belong to the realms of science fiction. How have such images been used by the media to portray the realities of nanotechnology? If these images are not realistic, what are the potential risks and benefits of future developments in nanotechnology? What are its limitations?”

5 thoughts on “Nanotechnology and science fiction: debate and live webcast”

  1. Hi Richard,

    I watched your 15 minutes of fame with some interest. However, it seemed that only Techies were listening! I am not sure the experiment worked!

    Anyway, I believe that the ‘revolution’ is for real this time!

    1. If only 5% of what has been promised occurs (a.k.a superstrong materials to build elevators to the solar system), then the world will REALLY change (For the middle classes anyway).

    2. Now the microelectronic revolution changed the lives of the middle classes in developed countries, beyond that it did not effect very much as costs for base tech was still too high for farmers on 1 dollar a day. However, it we could ‘grow’ technology, then the cost of say basic communication devices could fall to say $5.00 and a car to $100.00, which is well within the reach of $300.00 a year 3rd world peasants! (I understand you can already ‘buy’ 2nd hand cars for $100.00 dollars, but I am also talking about a similiar fall in inferstructure costs.)

    My only worry, is the capitalist system. I.E, we technophiles seem to believe that anything that can be built will be! Well unless there is at least 25% profit for startups it wont! (This is also the main problem in the Third world, not aid!!! As companies in the Third World are essentially startups, they have no ‘history’ to them and cannot get capital. That is the reason why the only third world countries which are catching up have strong authoritarian governments. Catchup requires huge amounts of capital to be ‘redistributed’ from agriculture to industry. Can Nanotech change this? Well only if the industry process is simplfied. But it appears that Nanotech is even more complicated than Microelectronics (ref Softmachines)!!!
    However, if the west did all of the ‘clever stuff’, then maybe the west in its self interest would open up trade with the third world and create a virtuous cycle? We will see. Unfortunately it appears to me that for the Third World, it will take some more radical steps other than capitalism to get the ball rolling.

    So, I believe that the major ‘moral’ issue facing Nanotech will be the ever growing divide between rich and poor.

    Finally, why aren’t rich countries trying to build the Space Elevator? I mean scrap the ISS (pile of *$%@), and start over on something which in the long term is GUARANTEED to lead to commercial space exploitation!

    Thanks in advanced

  2. Prof Jones

    I watched the webcast last night and must agree that the audience seemed very bias in their makeup towards the nanotechnology informed, but this must be expected given the setting and presumably the publicity the event received, although this didn’t stop me from greatly enjoying the debates. I at one stage e-mailed in a question, which you answered, about the investigation of the toxicity of nanoparticles. I totally agree that it is a small part of the subject that (and I’m paraphrasing from memory) could have been dealt with by the government once and for and all and forgotten about, but I was using this as an example along with the governments seeming lack of interest to communicate nanotechnology with the public (and I realise that last nights debate was sponsored the DTI), to ask the wider question about the panels opinions for the future government involvement and possible regulation of research for nanotechnology. I asked in the context of someone recently started on their PhD in molecular electronics, and wondered if you had any further thoughts on the subject?

  3. You’re both absolutely right about the audience – but maybe that’s only to be expected in a venue that’s about 20 yards away from one of the biggest science and technology campuses in Europe, Imperial College. And the non-University people who introduced themselves afterwards included such typical lay citizens as one of Tim Harper’s colleagues from CMP Cientifica and (somewhat embarassingly, in the light of my comments on the government response to the RS report) one of the senior civil servants dealing with nanotechnology policy at the DTI.

    Both of you raise very interesting points that I will return to – just now I’ve got a bit of an avalanche of university administration to deal with.

  4. Eleggua, I’m not sure I agree entirely with your analysis of the problems of implementing nanotechnology in the third world. After all, 40% of the world’s population live in India and China, two countries that have made immense progress in escaping from poverty (according to this week’s Economist, increasing their GDP per person in the last twenty years by a factor of 3, for India, and 5, for China). China, in particular, has been able to draw on colossal amounts of capital, it has moving increasingly into high-tech manufacturing, and it is the world’s third largest spender on research and development. Nanotechnology certainly accounts for a high proportion of this R&D spend.

    I certainly agree with you that the ISS should be ditched! Making a space elevator, of course, needs a commercial process for making carbon nanotubes in macroscopic lengths with something approaching their theoretical strength. Plenty of people are trying to achieve this, but it’s going to be a tall order.

  5. Ben, I don’t know what the government is planning to do in the future about regulating nanotechnology. To be fair to them, they are very well aware of the need to communicate nanotechnology with the public, but I think they aren’t very sure how to do it. I think they are all too aware of the criticism and scepticism that surrounded the GM Nation project, and would like to do better this time. I certainly think that they should give a lot of thought to how to regulate the field wisely. Such regulation, rather than holding the technology back, will instead make sure that any small sub-section of the technology that is shown to lead to problems won’t impede the development of the rest of the field.

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