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.

    Soft Machines in agreement with the ETC group shock…

    Soft Machines is making a guest appearance on Howard Lovy’s Nanobot, with my impressions of the event at the Science Museum at which the Science Minister, Lord Sainsbury, announced the government response to the Royal Society report on nanotechnology. Howard had hoped that by juxtaposing my report with the report of the ETC group’s Jim Thomas, he’d have an interesting point-counterpoint. Remarkably, Jim and I seem to be rather more in agreement than usual.

    I’ll give a more detailed analysis of the government’s written response here later.

    UK Government announces its response to the Royal Society report

    The Science Minister, Lord Sainsbury, today announced the government’s response to the Royal Society study on nanotechnology, Nanoscience and nanotechnologies: opportunities and uncertainties.


    The Royal Society itself seems to be disappointed by the response : its own press release is here: Government commits to regulating nanotechnologies but will it deliver?

    An early news report from the BBC reports disappointment also from environmental groups (and, indeed, me).

    I was at the launch event in person; a full report on the event as well as a detailed analysis of the response will follow.

    Nanotechnology moves up the UK news agenda again

    I arrived at my office after my afternoon lecture today to find a note saying a film crew was arriving in 30 minutes; sure enough my colleague, Tony Ryan, and I spent a couple of hours filming interviews amid the bubbling flasks of the chemistry department talking about what nanotechnology is, is not, and might become. This will be boiled down to about a minute and a half on Yorkshire Television’s early evening news magazine. Such is the lot of a would-be science populariser.

    The reason for this timing is a bit of pre-positioning that’s going on by the media in the UK at the moment. We’re expecting some significant nanotechnology related news on Friday, so people are getting their stories ready.

    Converging technologies in Europe and the USA

    Last Thursday saw a meeting in London to introduce to the UK a report that came out last summer on the convergence of nanotechnology, biotechnology, information technology and neuroscience. Converging technologies for a diverse Europe can essentially be thought of as the European answer to the 2002 report from the USA, Converging Technologies for Improving Human Performance. The speaker line-up, besides me, included social scientists, futurologists, an arms control expert and an official from the European Commission. What was striking to me was how much this debate was framed in terms Europe trying to position itself somewhat apart from the USA, though perhaps this isn’t surprising in view of the broader flow of international politics at the moment.

    It’s almost a clich?� that public opinion is very different on the two continents, with the USA being much more uninhibited in its welcoming of new technology than the more technophobic Europeans. George Gaskell, a sociologist from the London School of Economics, presented survey data that at first seems to confirm this view. In his 2002 surveys, he found that while 50% of people in the USA were sure that nanotechnology would be positive in its outcome, only 29% of Europeans were so optimistic. But the picture isn’t as simple as it first appears; the figures for the proportion who thought that nanotechnology would make things worse were not actually that different – 4% in the USA compared to 6% in Europe. The Europeans were simply taking the attitude that they didn’t know enough to judge. The absence of any across-the-board distrust of technology is shown by a comparison of attitudes to three key technologies – nuclear energy, computers and information technology and biotechnology. The data showed almost overwhelming opposition to nuclear power, equally overwhelming enthusiasm for computers and communication technology, and a mixed picture for biotech. The key issues for acceptance prove not to be any deep enthusiasm or distrust for technology in general; it’s simply a balance of the benefits and risks together with a judgement on how much the governance and regulation of the technology can be trusted.

    Where there is a big difference between Europe and the USA is in the importance of the military in driving research. J?�rgen Altmann, a physicist turned arms-control expert from The University of Dortmund, is very worried about the military applications of nanotechnology, and his worries are nicely summarised in this pdf handout. His view is that the USA is currently undertaking an arms race against itself, wasting resources that could otherwise be used both to boost economic competitiveness and to counter the real threat that both the USA and Europe face by more appropriate and low-tech means. Others, of course, will differ on the nature of the threat and the best way to counter it.

    The balance between civil and military research and development was also highlighted by Elie Faroult, from the Research Directorate of the European Commission, who pointed out with some glee that the EU was now considerably ahead of the USA in investment in most civil research, and that this trend is accelerating as the USA squeezes spending on non-military science. For him, this gave Europe the opportunity to develop a distinctive set of research goals which emphasised social coherence and environmental sustainability as well as economic competitiveness. But having taken the obligatory side-swipe at the USA he finished by saying that of course, looking to the future, it wasn’t the USA that Europe was in competition with. The real competitor for both the USA and Europe was China.

    Competitive Consumption

    Partisans of molecular nanotechnology keep coming back to the theme of the devastation that they say will be caused to the world’s economic systems when it becomes possible to manufacture anything at no cost. Surely, they say, when goods cost nothing to make, then the money economy must wither away? I don’t accept the premise of this argument, but even if I did I think it is based on a misunderstanding of how economics works. The laws of economics, inasmuch as anything in that discipline can be described as a law, are really observations about human nature, and as such are not likely to be overturned on the basis of a mere technological advance. The key fallacy in this way of thinking is very succinctly put in an excellent book I’ve just finished: A nation of rebels: why counterculture became consumer culture, by Joseph Heath and Andrew Potter.

    This book is mainly an entertaining polemic against the counterculture and the anti-globalisation movement. What’s relevant to us here is its gleeful demolition of the idea of postscarcity economics, as proposed by Herbert Marcuse and Murray Bookchin. This is the idea that once machines were able to take care of all our material needs and wants, we would be able to form a society based not on the demands of economic production, but on fellowship and love. It’s very easy to see the connection between this and the arguments made by the proponents of molecular nanotechnology.

    The key concept in understanding what’s wrong with these ideas is the notion of a “positional good”. Positional goods get their value from the fact that not everyone can have them; people pay lots of money for an expensive and rare sports car like an Aston Martin, not simply because it is a nice piece of engineering, but explicitly because possession of one signals, in the view of the purchaser, something about their exalted status in society. The whole aim of much advertising and brand building is to increase the value of artefacts which often cost very little to make, by associating them with status messages of this kind. Very few people are immune to this, unless they live in cabins in the wilderness; for most of the middle class majorities of rich countries their biggest expenditure is on a house to live in, which by virtue of the importance of location and neighbourhood is an archetypal positional good.

    When one realises how important positional goods are in market economies, the fallacy of the idea that molecular manufacturing would cause the end of the money economy becomes clear. In the words of Heath and Potter:

    “What eventually led to the undoing of these views was the failure to appreciate the competitive nature of our consumption and the significance of positional goods. Houses in good neighborhoods, tasteful furniture, fast cars, stylish restaurant and cool clothes are all intrinsically scarce. We cannot manufacture more of them, because their value is based on the distinction they provide to consumers. The idea of overcoming scarcity through increased production is incoherent; in our society, scarcity is a social, not a material, phenomenon.”

    Nanotechnology and universal surveillance

    What potential impact of nanotechnology on society should we worry about most? The headlines are being made by the possibility that nanoparticles are especially toxic. This is a real concern, but the problem is relatively bounded and the solutions aren’t difficult to put in place (even if those solutions are going to be bad news for laboratory rats). The primal fear is of loss of control of a technology so powerful that it could lead to the extinction of all life – the problem of grey goo. But as the hubris and lack of realism implicit in the assumption that we will, any time soon, be able to engineer what amounts to a new and superior form of life becomes more apparent, this fear should lose its force.

    My major worry is in the way we’ll deal with a world in which computing and communication power is so cheap that every object and artefact can have the capability to sense its environment and interact with its neighbours. RFID and smart dust give us a good idea of which way this technology is heading, and developments in evolutionary nanotechnology are sure both to greatly increase the capability and dramatically decrease the cost of such devices.

    Worries about the way this is heading are eloquently stated in an interesting new essay on nanotechnology by one of the grandest figures of US academic nanoscience, George Whitesides (the essay is in the current edition of the new Wiley nanotechnology journal, Small, but it probably needs a subscription for full text access).

    “In my opinion, the most serious risk of nanotechnology comes, not from hypothetical revolutionary materials or systems, but from the uses of evolutionary nanotechnologies that are already developing rapidly ….
    ���Universal surveillance������the observation of everyone and everything, in real time, everywhere; a concept suggested by those most concerned with terrorism���is not a technology that I would wish to see cloak a free society, no matter how protectively intended.”

    Small but deadly?

    A piece in today’s Independent newspaper – Small but deadly – neatly illustrates much of what is good and bad about mainstream journalism about nanotechnology today.

    The main text of the story reports a study from the Rice group reporting on the mechanism by which unmodified buckminster fullerene damages human cells, and the way in which this toxicity is greatly reduced by attaching functional groups to the surface of the fullerene molecule. Although the story is not exactly news (the paper in question appeared on September 23rd, and was extensively reported elsewhere), the main text of the report is fairly clear, accurate and well written.

    But if the science reporting is good, the context in which the story is introduced is lamentable. The introductory paragraph moves quickly from Michael Crichton’s Prey, via self-replicating robots consuming the planet, to Prince Charles’s warning that nanotechnology could lead to a thalidomide-like health disaster.

    And if only the science journalist could have a quick word with the picture editor. Once again, the story is illustrated with a completely idiotic medical nanorobot image from the Science Photo Library’s extensive range of stupid nanotechnology graphics. To add insult to injury, this is described in the caption as a “computer simulation”.

    Nanotechnology: making new combinations of atoms never before seen in Nature

    One thread of the narrative being constructed by anti-nanotechnology groups like ETC is that the reason nanotechnology is so fundamentally dangerous is that it allows one to build completely new and unnatural forms of matter, from the bottom up, by manipulating the most basic ingredients of matter itself, the atoms. It sounds scary, and it fits into their broader narrative rather well. Scientists, having impiously dared to manipulate the building blocks of life in genetic engineering, have now gone one step further, and propose to meddle with the very basis of matter itself, producing new combinations of atoms never yet before seen in nature. Superficially, this view is supported by some of the rhetoric of the nanotechnologists themselves, for example in the title of the National Science and Technology Council report, Nanotechnology: shaping the world atom by atom. The kind of spin anti-nanotechnology activists put on this is very succintly summed up in this phrase from the recent UK protesters who dressed as angels to disrupt a nanotechnology conference: ���The same greedy corporations who messed with the genetic basis of life are now seeking to alter and privatize nature right down to the atomic level���. This just goes to show that the angelic hosts haven’t been following events on earth very closely over the last six thousand years.

    The creation of new combinations of atoms to make unnatural materials is indeed a profoundly transformative technology with the potential to turn human societies upside down. The trouble is that this transformation began about 6000 years ago, with the discovery of copper smelting. The following millenia have seen rather a lot of the alteration and privatisation of nature as the crafts of metallurgy and alchemy have slowly turned into chemistry and materials science. There’s been a lot of thought, too, over the years, about what this means for the relationship between man and nature; a recent book, Promethean Fire by William Newman, gives a fascinating account of the reaction of philosophers and churchmen to the medieval alchemists.

    If there is nothing fundamentally new or different about nanomaterials, does this mean that the fuss about nanotechnology is all about nothing? No, and here I disagree with those eminent scientists (mostly, as it happens, chemists) who say about nanotechnology “it’s just chemistry”. The transformative consequences of nanotechnology will come, not from simple nanomaterials, but from devices that manipulate energy, information or other matter on the nanoscale. Some of the effects of these nanotechnologies will be very positive, others, potentially, less so. But in debating these issues we need to have some awareness of how the history of technology has got us to where we are today, and we need to resist the temptation to slide lazily into the sort of prepackaged sets of beliefs that angels seem to come equipped with.