The Rat-on-a-chip

I’ve written a number of times about the way in which the debate about the impacts of nanotechnology has been highjacked by the single issue of nanoparticle toxicity, to the detriment of more serious and interesting longer term issues, both positive and negative. The flippant title of this post on the subject – Bad News for Lab Rats – conceals the fact that, while I don’t oppose animal experiments in principle, I’m actually a little uncomfortable about the idea that large numbers of animals should be sacrificed in badly thought out and possibly unnecessary toxicology experiments. So I was very encouraged to read this news feature in Nature (free summary, subscription required for full article) about progress in using microfluidic devices containing cell cultures for toxiological and drug testing. The article features work from Michael Shuler’s group at Cornell, and a company founded by Shuler’s colleague Gregory Baxter, Hurel Corp.

Nanotechnology and the developing world

There’s a rather sceptical commentary from Howard Lovy about a BBC report on a study from Peter Singer and coworkers. At the centre of the report is a list of areas in which the authors feel that nanotechnology can make positive contributions to the developing world. Howard’s piece attracted some very sceptical comments from Jim Thomas, of the ETC Group. Jim is very suspicious of high-tech “solutions” to the problems of the developing world which don’t take account of local cultures and conditions. In particular, he sees the role of multinational companies as being particularly problematic, especially with regard to issues of ownership, control and intellectual property.

I see the problem of multinational companies in rather different terms. To take a concrete example, I’d cited the case of insecticide-treated mosquito nets for the control of malaria as a place where nanoscale technology could make a direct impact (and Jim did seem to agree, with some reservations, that this in could, in some circumstances, be an appropriate solution). The technical problem with insecticide treated mosquito nets is that the layer of active material isn’t very robustly attached, and the effectiveness of the nets falls away too rapidly with time, and even more rapidly when the nets are washed. One solution is to use micro- or nano-encapsulation of the insecticide to achieve long-lasting controlled release. The necessary technology to do this is being developed in agrochemical multinationals. The problem, though, is that their R&D efforts are steered by the monetary size of the markets they project. They’d much rather develop termite defenses for wealthy suburbanites in Florida than mosquito nets. The problem, then, isn’t that these multinationals will impose technical fixes on the developing world, it’s that they’ll just ignore the developing world entirely and potentially valuable technologies simply won’t reach the places where they could do some good.

To overcome this market failure needs intervention from governments, foundations and NGOs, as well as some active and informed technology brokering. Looking at it in this light, it seems to me that the Singer paper is a useful contribution.

The BBC’s Reith Lectures cover nanotechnology

Every year the BBC broadcasts a series of radio lectures on some rather serious subject, given by an appropriately weighty public intellectual. This year’s series is called “The triumph of technology”, and the fourth lecture (to be broadcast at 8 pm on the 27th April), is devoted to nanotechnology and nanoscience. The lecturer is Lord Broers, who certainly qualifies as a prominent member of that class that the British call the Great and Good. He’s recently stepped down from being Vice-Chancellor of Cambridge University, he’s President of the Royal Academy of Engineering, and is undoubtedly an ornament to a great number of important committees. But what’s interesting is that he does describe himself as a nanotechnologist. His early academic work was on scanning electron microscopy and e-beam lithography, and before returning to academia he did R&D for IBM.

The introductory lecture – Technology will Determine the Future of the Human Race – has already been broadcast; you can read the text or download an MP3 from the BBC website. This first lecture is rather general, so it will be interesting to see if he develops any of his themes in more unexpected directions.

Massive Change

Philip Ball‘s column in the March edition of Nature Materials (subscription required) draws attention to the designer Bruce Mau‘s Massive Change project.

Massive Change is an exhibition, currently on show at the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto, a website, and a book, all with the ambitious aim of showing how design can change the world for the better. Design here is interpreted broadly, to encompass town planning, architecture, and above all technology, and the aims are summarised in bold, manifesto statements. These three examples give the flavour:

  • We will bring energy to the entire world
  • We will eradicate poverty
  • We will eliminate the need for raw material and banish all waste
  • Nanotechnology, in various guises, makes frequent appearances in support of these goals, though it’s the incremental and evolutionary versions rather than the Drexlerian kind that are invoked. Nonetheless, advances in materials science are described in these visionary terms:

    Material has traditionally been something to which design is applied. New methods in the fields of nanotechnology have rendered material as the object of design development. Instead of designing a thing, we design a designing thing. In the process we have created superhero substances endowed with superlative characteristics, from the hyperbolic to the almost human. Materials now have strength, agility, memory, intelligence. Mere matter no longer, materials have become active carriers of meaning and program.

    One can quibble at the hyperbole and the lack of detail, but I can’t help applauding a project which is both idealistic and assertive, in the sense that it stresses the view that we aren’t simply helpless victims of the progress of technology, but that we can imagine the outcomes we want and decide how to use technology to get there.

    Nanotechnology and public engagement

    The UK government today announced funding for work in public engagement in a number of technology areas, including nanotechnology, under their Science Wise scheme. There are two schemes related to nanotechnology. One of these, “Nanodialogues” will be run by the thinktank Demos, and will carry out four experiments in “upstream public engagement”. At the back of everybody’s mind as people try to design these schemes is a previous, not entirely happy, experiment in public engagement over genetic modification of food, GM Nation. There’s a general will to learn from the shortcomings of that experience.

    Entirely co-incidentally, I was in London today, at the Greenpeace UK headquarters, for the first meeting of the steering group of a pilot experiment in nano-public engagement. This is a project to run a citizen’s jury about nanotechnology. The project is supported by Greenpeace UK, the Guardian newspaper, and the Cambridge University Nanoscience Centre, and operations will be run by an outfit from Newcastle University with experience of this sort of thing, Policy, Ethics and Life Sciences. I’m chairing the science advisory panel.

    It’s too early to be saying much about the project yet, but I’ll be reporting on the process as it unfolds over the spring and summer. It’s unknown territory for me, but even this first meeting was fascinating. We had representatives from the NGOs Greenpeace and ETC, high level representation from government and research councils, and a few academics. Just getting this bunch round the table in the first place was impressive enough, but I was surprised at how easily the group was able to reach a consensus.

    Debating nanotechnologies

    To the newcomer, the nanotechnology debate must be very confusing. The idea of a debate implies two sides, but there are many actors debating nanotechnology, and they don’t even share a common understanding of what the word means. The following extended post summarises my view of this many-faceted discussion. Regular readers of Soft Machines will recognise all the themes, but I hope that newcomers will find it helpful to find them all in one place.

    Nanotechnology has become associated with some very far-reaching claims. Its more enthusiastic adherents believe that it will be utterly transformational in its effects on the economy and society, making material goods of all sorts so abundant as to be essentially free, restoring the environment to a pristine condition, and revolutionising medicine to the point where death can be abolished. Nanotechnology has been embraced by governments all over the world as a source of new wealth, with the potential to take the place of information technology as a driver for rapid economic growth. Breathless extrapolations of a new, trillion-dollar nanotechnology industry arising from nowhere are commonplace. These optimistic visions have led to new funding being lavished on scientists working on nanotechnology, with the total amount being spent a subject for competition between governments across the developed world. As an antidote to all this optimism, NGOs and environmental groups have begun to mobilise against what they see as another example of excessive scientific technological hubris, which falls clearly in the tradition of nuclear energy and genetic modification, as a technology which promised great things but delivered, in their view, more environmental degradation and social injustice.

    And yet, despite this superficial agreement on the transformational power of nanotechnology, whether for good or bad, there are profound disagreements not just about what the technology can deliver, but about what it actually is. The most radical visions originate from the writings of K. Eric Drexler, who wrote an influential and widely read book called “Engines of Creation”. This popularised the term “nanotechnology”, developing the idea that mechanical engineering principles could be applied on a molecular scale to create nano-machines which could build up any desired material or artefact with ultimate precision, atom by atom. It is this vision of nanotechnology, subsequently developed by Drexler in his more technical book Nanosystems, that has entered popular culture through films and science fiction books, perhaps most notably in Neal Stephenson’s novel “The Diamond Age”.

    To many scientists, science fiction novels are where Drexler’s visions of nanotechnology should stay. In a falling out which has become personally vituperative, leading scientific establishment figures, notably the Nobel Laureate Richard Smalley, have publically ridiculed the Drexlerian project of shrinking mechanical engineering to molecular dimensions. What is dominating the scientific research agenda is not the single Drexlerian vision, but instead a rather heterogenous collection of technologies, whose common factor is simply a question of scale. These evolutionary nanotechnologies typically involve the shrinking down of existing technologies, notably in information technology, to smaller and smaller scales. Some of the products of these developments are already in the shops. The very small, high density hard disk drives that are now found not just in computers, but in consumer electronics like MP3 players and digital video recorders, rely on the ability to create nanoscale multilayer structures which have entirely new physical properties like giant magnetoresistance. Not yet escaped from the laboratory are new technologies like molecular electronics, in which individual molecules play the role of electronic components. Formidable obstacles remain before these technologies can be integrated to form practical devices that can be commercialised, but the promise is yet another dramatic increase in computing power. Medicine should also benefit from the development of more sophisticated drug delivery devices; this kind of nanotechnology will also play a major role in the development of tissue engineering.

    What of the products that are already on shop shelves, boasting of their nanotechnological antecedents? There are two very well publicised examples. The active ingredient in some sunscreens consists of titanium dioxide crystals whose sizes are in the nanoscale range. In this size range, the crystals, and thus the sunscreen, are transparent to visible light, rather than having the intense white characteristic of the larger titanium dioxide crystals familiar in white emulsion paint. Another widely reported applications of nanotechnology are in fabric treatments, which by coating textile fibres with molecular size layers give them properties such as stain resistance. These applications, although mundane, result from the principle that matter when divided on this very fine scale, can have different properties to bulk matter. However, it has to be said that these kinds of products represent the further development of trends in materials science, colloid science and polymer science that have been in train for many years. This kind of incremental nanotechnology, then, does involve new and innovative science, but it isn’t different in character to other applications of materials science that may not have the nano- label. To this extent, the decision to refer to these applications as nanotechnology involves marketing as much as science. But what we will see in the future are more and more of this kind of application making their way to the marketplace, offering real, if not revolutionary, advances over the products that have gone before. These developments won’t be introduced in a single “nanotechnology industry”; rather these innovations will find their way into the products of all kinds of existing industries, often in rather an unobtrusive way.

    The idea of a radical nanotechnology, along the lines mapped out by Drexler and his followers, has thus been marginalised on two fronts. Those interested in developing the immediate business applications of nanotechnology have concentrated on the incremental developments that are close to bringing products to market now, and are keen to downplay the radical visions because they detract from the immediate business credibility of their short-term offerings. Meanwhile the nano-science community is energetically pursuing a different evolutionary agenda. Is it possible that both scientists and the nanobusiness community are too eagerly dismissing Drexler’s ideas – could there be, after all, something in the idea of a radical nanotechnology?

    My personal view is that while some of Smalley’s specific objections don’t hold up in detail, and it is difficult to dismiss the Drexlerian proposals out of hand as being contrary to the laws of nature, the practical obstacles they face are very large. To quote Philip Moriarty, an academic nanoscientist with a great deal of experience of manipulating single molecules, “the devil is in the details”, and as soon as one starts thinking through how one might experimentally implement the Drexlerian program a host of practical problems emerge.

    But one aspect of Drexler’s argument is very important, and undoubtedly correct. We know that a radical nanotechnology, with sophisticated nanoscale machines operating on the molecular scale, can exist, because cell biology is full of such machines. This is beautifully illustrated in David Goodsell’s recent book Bionanotechnology: Lessons from Nature. But Drexler goes further. He argues that if nature can make effective nanomachines from soft and floppy materials, with the essentially random design processes of evolution, then the products of a synthetic nanotechnology, using the strongest materials and the insights of engineering, will be very much more effective. My own view (developed my book “Soft Machines”) is that this underestimates the way in which biological nanotechnology exploits and is optimised for the peculiar features of the nanoscale world. To take just one example of a highly efficient biological nanomachine, ATP-synthase is a remarkable rotary motor which life-forms as different as bacteria and elephants all use to synthesise the energy storage molecular ATP. The efficiency with which it converts energy from one form to another is very close to 100%, a remarkable result when one considers that most human-engineered energy conversion devices, such as steam turbines and petrol engines, struggle to exceed 50% efficiency. This is one example, then, of a biological nanomachine that is close to optimal. The reason for this is that biology uses design principles very different to those we learn about in human-scale engineering, that exploit the special features of the nanoworld. There’s no reason in principle why we could not develop a radical nanotechnology that uses the same design principles as biology, but the result will look very different to the miniaturised cogs and gears of the Drexlerian vision. Radical nanotechnologies will be possible, then, but they will owe more to biology than to conventional engineering.

    Discussion of the possible impacts of nanotechnology, both positive and negative, has shown signs of becoming polarised along the same lines as the technical discussion. The followers of Drexler promise on the on hand a world of abundance of all material needs, and an end to disease and death. But they’ve also introduced perhaps the most persistent and gripping notion – the idea that artificial, self-replicating nanoscale robots would escape our control and reproduce indefinitely, consuming all the world’s resources, and rendering existing life extinct. The idea of this plague of “grey goo” has become firmly embedded in our cultural consciousness, despite some indications of regret from Drexler, who has more lately emphasised the idea that self-replication is neither a desirable nor a necessary feature of a nanoscale robot. The reaction of nano-scientists and business people to the idea of “grey goo” has been open ridicule. Actually, it is worth taking the idea seriously enough to give it a critical examination. Implicit in the notion of “grey goo” is the assumption that we will be able to engineer what is effectively a new form of life that is more fit, in a Darwinian sense, and better able to prosper in the earth’s environment than existing life-forms. On the other hand, the argument that biology at the cell level is already close to optimal for the environment of the earth means that the idea that synthetic nano-robots will have an effortless superiority over natural lifeforms is much more difficult to sustain.

    Meanwhile, mainstream nanobusiness and nanoscience has concentrated on one very short-term danger, the possibility that new nanoparticles may be more toxic than their macroscale analogues and precursors. This fear is very far from groundless; since one of the major selling points of nanoparticles is that their properties may be different from the analogous matter in a less finely divided state, it isn’t at all unreasonable to worry that toxicity may be another property that depends on size. But I can’t help feeling that there is something odd about the way the debate has become so focused on this one issue; it’s an unlikely alliance of convenience between nanobusiness, nanoscience, government and the environmental movement, all of whom have different reasons for finding it a convenient focus. For the environmental movement, it fits a well-established narrative of reckless corporate interests releasing toxic agents into the environment without due care and attention. For nanoscientists, it’s a very contained problem which suggests a well-defined research agenda (and the need for more funding). By tinkering with regulatory frameworks, governments can be seen to be doing something, and nanobusiness can demonstrate their responsibility by their active participation in the process.

    The dominance of nanoparticle toxicity in the debate is a vivid illustration of a danger that James Wilsdon has drawn attention to – the tendency for all debates on the impact of science on society to end up exclusively focused on risk assessment. In the words of a pamphlet by Willis and Wilsdon – “See-through Science” – “in the ‘risk society’ perhaps the biggest risk is that we never get around to talking about anything else.” Nanotechnology – even in its evolutionary form – presents us with plenty of very serious things to talk about. How will privacy and civil liberties survive in a world in which every artefact, no matter how cheap, includes a networked computer? How will medical ethics deal with a blurring of the line between the human and the machine, and the line between remedying illness and enhancing human capabilities?

    Some people argue that new technologies like nanotechnology are potentially so dehumanising that we should consciously relinquish them. Bill McKibben, for example, makes this case very eloquently in his book “Enough“. Although I have a great deal of sympathy with McKibben’s rejection of the values of the trans-humanists, who consciously seek to transcend humanity, I don’t think the basic premise of McKibben’s thesis is tenable. The technology we have already is not enough. Mankind currently depends for its very existence at current population levels on technology. To take just one example, our agriculture depends on the artificial fixation of nitrogen, which is made possible by the energy we derive from fossil fuels. And yet the shortcomings of our existing technologies are quite obvious, from the eutrophication that excessive use of synthetic fertilisers causes, to the prospect of global climate change as a result of our dependence on fossil fuels. As the population of the world begins to stabilise, we have the challenge of developing new technologies that will allow for the whole population of the world to have decent standards of living on a sustainable basis. Nanotechnology could play an important role, for example by delivering cheap solar cells and the infrastructure for a hydrogen economy, together with cheap ways of providing clean water. But there’ll need to be real debates about how to set priorities so that the technology bring benefits to the poor as well as the rich.

    Duckboy in Nanoland

    It’s worth taking a look at the website that goes with the new exhibition on nanotechnology at the Science Museum in London – Nanotechnology: small science, big deal – it’s an interesting, though necessarily brief and superficial, trip through the subject, with a good overview of the incremental end of the technology.

    The highlight has to be the splendid video game, Duckboy in Nanoland, which has clearly already diverted the finest minds in the nanobusiness world for far too long. I too was captivated by its cheesily retro graphics. I’m relieved, though, that the introduction to the first game “Strange attractions” has been changed. In the early version of the game, which I road-tested on my postdocs, you were asked to “steer duckboy through a sticky patch in the tunnel of love“. For some reason they all thought this was terribly funny. If only for suggesting this change, I think I deserve my name on the acknowledgements list.

    It isn’t science that drives the nanotechnology news agenda

    The event on nanotechnology at the Dana Centre in London last night was interesting in that it focused, not on what scientists or technologists think that nanotechnology is or will be, but on the way the subject is portrayed in popular culture and the media. The conclusions are rather sobering for any scientists who still believe that it’s their laboratory work that sparks public interest in nanotechnology.

    Clare Wilkinson, working at the University of Plymouth, talked about her comprehensive study of treatment of nanotechnology in British national newspapers between 2003 and 2004. What’s striking about her results is how little of the media coverage was generated by science correspondents (only 13%), and how small was the proportion of stories that were sparked by a research report or journal article (only 15%). And what’s not at all surprising to anyone who’s been following press coverage of nanotechnology is the way stock images and metaphors are used, again and again, to place stories in context.

    What are the favourite stock images? Nanosubmarines and nanobots, of course, and to see where that’s come from one only has to look at the treatment of nanotechnology in the cinema. David Kirby, another of last night’s speakers, traced the history of nanotechnology in the movies from the inevitable Fantastic Voyage, through Star Trek: The Next Generation, to the recent crop of Virtuosity, Minority Report, The Hulk and Agent Cody Banks. He singled out Spiderman 2 (2004) as the first explicit invocation of something like the Grey Goo nightmare, pointing the way, perhaps, to the nano-dystopia of Prey. That film we’re still waiting for; but perhaps James Cameron’s remake of Fantastic Voyage will be even more significant. David’s research, based at the University of Manchester, has involved extensive interviews with the scientific consultants for Hollywood studios, and he reports that virtually every script that’s now being considered that has any kind of technological component is invoking nanotechnology in one form or another.

    It’s clear that nanotechnology now has a status akin to nuclear energy in the fifties; an unseen power that serves as a universal plot device, facilitating miracles, on the one hand, and breeding monsters on the other.

    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?”

    Nanotechnology uncertainties and (missed) opportunities: the UK government responds

    The UK government’s official written response to the Royal Society nanotechnology report can be found in this 26 page PDF document. As I wrote in this report from the launch event, the response is a missed opportunity to put the UK in the lead in establishing a sensible regulatory framework for the development of nanotechnology in a way that maintains public confidence. This has caused some dismay, not just from anti-nanotechnology activists, but also from pro-business voices. It’s telling that the only coverage of the story in the national press yesterday was in the Financial Times, which had both a news item and an editorial . The FT points out that in potentially controversial technology areas, good regulation can be a source of competitive advantage, and it fears that this response could signal a loss of momentum, with damaging consequences for the nascent nanotechnology industry.

    Of course, the report expresses many perfectly fine sentiments about the need to coordinate research, to engage with the public and to develop an appropriate regulatory framework. But, in response to the rather specific recommendations of the Royal Society report, there’s very little in the way of actual action. There are four main categories of issues to be addressed:

  • Research into the potential toxicity of nanoparticles
    The headline here is the dismissal of the recommendation of the Royal Society to fund a dedicated research centre for the study of potential nanoparticle toxicity and the behaviour of nanoparticles in the environment. Instead, research will be commissioned by a Research Coordination Group comprising representatives from research councils and government departments. But does this group have the authority to tell the Research Councils, for example, to set aside money for this purpose? That is not specified, and it seems unlikely.
  • Regulation
    The government announced a study by DEFRA on environmental regulations, to report by end 2005. As far as Health and Safety legislation is concerned, the response reports that the Health and Safety Executive believe that there are currently no gaps in regulations. Chemicals will carry on being regulated under the Notification of New Substances regulations, which won’t be changed in the way the report recommended, to make nanoparticles be considered as new substances. it looks like the Government can’t see the point of doing anything while the replacement for these regulations, the Europe-wide Registration, Evaluation Authorisation of Chemicals, are being negotiated. To fend off accusations of inactivity on this front, the government has announced a review of the advisory committee structure, but anticipates that responsibility for advice on health and environmental risk will remain diffused over a total of 9 different advisory committees . As regards the issue of specifying the inclusion of nanoparticles in cosmetics, the government will look into the matter (no mechanism for this or date for reporting is specified.)
  • Social and ethical issues
    The Royal Society’s recommendation for an interdisciplinary research program on social and ethical issues is not endorsed; instead there is simply a lukewarm general commitment to “delivering the science and society agenda”. It is clear that the Government is content that this be left to the research councils to sort out, but there’s a strong steer that scientists must be involved in any such research programme, and that the research should be geared to providing practical guidance on policy making and regulation.
  • Public dialogue
    There’s general support for the importance of public dialogue, and a rather unspecific commitment to find funds and resources for it. The report cites one specific example – the Small Talk project. The scheme under which this was funded (COPUS – the committee for public understanding of science) has now been replace by another scheme, Sciencewise, which has had a recent call for proposals singling out nanotechnology for special attention. Not mentioned in the response is the ominous fact that government funding under this scheme is conditional on matched funding being raised from the non-government sources. This is unfortunate, as it could easily compromise the perceived independence of this kind of project.
  • Connoisseurs of committees will enjoy this report; in addition to the Research Coordination Group, we’ve also got the Nanotechnology Issues Dialogue Group, which will be reported to by the former and will report to and brief the two year and five year independent reviews, to be carried out by the Council for Science and Technology. This is a classical committee of the great and good (in this case, university vice-chancellors and other senior academics, industrialists and financiers), which, in its quarterly meetings has to provide advice to the Prime Minister on everything to do with science and technology, including both research and education, in government, academia and industry. Fitting in a complete independent review on nanotechnology as well shouldn’t prove too difficult. And of course, there’s the committee to review the advisory committee structure.