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?
  • Stuff too cheap to steal

    Proponents of Drexlerian nanotechnology (MNT) often cite the disruption to the economy that they say will happen when MNT makes the cost of manufacturing everyday products negligibly small. But we’re not far off this situation already; only a fraction of the value in the goods we buy in the shops is added by the manufacturing process (as opposed to design, marketing, retailing and so on). Relentless incremental improvements in manufacturing technology, together with the economic pressures of globalisation, are already causing an unprecedented and sustained drop in the price of consumer goods. There’s rather poignant commentary on this process in today’s Times. It seems that burglary rates have recently precipitately dropped in Britain. Much as politicians would like to attribute this to their far-sighted crime policies, the police instead blame the fact that the traditional things that get stolen in break-ins – televisions, video recorders, computers and so on – are now so cheap to buy new, and are so quickly rendered obsolescent, that the markets for the stolen goods have all but collapsed.

    Even if Drexler is wrong, nanotechnology will have far-reaching impacts

    What are the possible impacts of nanotechnology? The answer you get depends on which of nanotechnology’s warring camps you ask. On the negative side, the supporters of Drexler paint a chilling picture of economies dislocated, overwhelming military hegemony for the technology’s developers, and at worst global catastrophe. The nanotechnology mainstream in science and business doesn’t accept that Drexler’s vision is feasible; given this there’s a tendency in these circles to downplay the seriousness of nanotechnology’s potential negative consequences. In this, quite widespread, view, there may be some worries about the toxicity of nanoparticles to be investigated, but by and large we can expect business as usual. I think both views are wrong.

    As I’ve made clear in many places, I doubt that Drexler’s vision of nanotechnology will come to pass. But when we come to discuss the impacts that nanotechnology might have, this matters less than one might think. I disagree with the analysis of Drexlerian groups like the Centre for Responsible Nanotechnology on many economic grounds as well as scientific ones, but there are a surprising number of places where I think that what they predict as impacts of Drexlerian nanotechnology will happen anyway. In fact, quite a few of these impacts are underway right now.

    The debate about the social consequences of nanotechnology is becoming polarised in exactly the same way as the technical debate. This is unhealthy and unnecessary; many of the impacts of technology are independent of the precise form that the technology takes. If computing power, in 30 years, is much cheaper and much more ubiquitous than it is now, then the social consequences that follow from that don’t depend on whether those computers are powered by molecular electronics, quantum computing or Drexler’s rod logic.

    Nanobusiness and nanoscientists need to raise themselves above their next grant proposal and funding round and start to think through the ways in which nanotechnology will be changing the world on a 20-30 years timescale. Prediction is very difficult, especially about the future (to quote Niels Bohr). But we do need to be thinking about bigger issues than how to regulate the disposal of nanotube enabled tennis rackets, important though it is to get those things right. The development of ubiquitous and ambient computing, the blurring of the line between human and machine; these are big issues that do deserve attention. And on the positive side, it’s going to be increasingly difficult to sell the huge outlays of taxpayers money by referring to the benefits of better cosmetics, important markets though those are. It’s not as though humanity isn’t facing some big challenges, and nanotechnology, if directed appropriately, could make some big positive impacts. Moving to a sustainable energy economy is one of our biggest challenges, and this is an area in which Richard Smalley has been rightly emphasising the transformational contributions incremental and evolutionary nanotechnologies can make .

    Meanwhile, followers of Drexler are in danger of finding themselves in denial about the potential impact of ordinary, evolutionary nanotechnology, because of their devotion to their brand of nanotechnology’s one true path. As they continue to insist that the development of true nanotechnology is being thwarted for short-sighted political reasons, they may overlook the far-reaching changes that evolutionary nanotechnology will bring. It would be ironic if, in thirty years, the Drexlerites find themselves still waiting for a revolution that’s already happened.

    Small talk about nanotechnology at the Royal Institution

    A debate about nanotechnology last Monday at the Royal Institution was run in association with a project called Small Talk, which is planning to run dialogue events about nanotechnology across the UK. This project is a collaboration between the leading organisations in science communication in the UK, The Royal Institution, the British Association, a group of science centres and the Cheltenham Festival of Science. For a science communication organisation they are being a bit reticent, in that they haven’t yet got a web-site up, but I guess we can take this as evidence that nanotechnology has come to the top of the agenda of the science communication professionals.

    To be honest, I thought that last Monday’s event actually highlighted some of the problems that this enterprise faces. There are a number of different levels at which one can talk about nanotechnology. You can have a straight discussion about what the technology actually is and what it is likely to become in the near future. At this level, there’s going to be some work to do explaining the basic science, as well as some mentions of the traditional exhibits of contemporary nano-business: tennis rackets, sun-cream, stain resistant trousers etc. You can discuss the debate about what the future holds for the technology, and what the prospects are for the Drexlerian visions. And you can also discuss how one ought to run debates about science and technology and what the right relationship between the public and scientists should be. It’s easy to end up trying to talk about all three, and the result of this is confusion and an unfocused discussion.

    While I do applaud James Wilsdon’s notion of an upstream debate, in which people get to discuss technology before it actually arrives, it does take for granted that there are some common assumptions about what the technology actually is. We don’t yet have that common ground when we talk about nanotechnology.

    Planet Earth calling Houston

    Rice University’s new initiative aimed at generating a positive public dialogue about nanotechnology seems to have run into a little difficulty before it’s even got going. I don’t normally have a great deal of sympathy for the ETC group, but their action in withdrawing from this organisation is entirely reasonable and understandable. The fact that funding for the organisation comes largely from industry sends a very negative message about how impartial it is likely to be, but the problems run deeper. The agenda for the council seems to be dominated by questions of nanoparticle toxicity and regulation. It is not just Drexlerites and an anti-globalisation activists who think that the potential implications of nanotechnology, both positive and negative, run a lot deeper than this one immediate, short term issue.

    As for the rest of us outside the USA, we can only look on at the “International” in the International Council on Nanotechnology with the same wry smile that the “World” in the baseball World Series provokes. Realists appreciate that the FDA has an influence well beyond the shores of the USA, where its formal writ runs. But could we not have some recognition that there are other sovereign domains outside the USA whose regulatory authorities also might have something to say about nanotechnology? And that this kind of venture might have something to learn from initiatives in other countries, like the UK’s Royal Society study, which somehow managed to avoid the sort of inept mishandling that has already led to such unnecessary polarisation.

    Nanotechnology at the Royal Institution

    For anyone in London and at a loose end next Monday, 1 November, there’s an event on at the Royal Institution from 7 pm to 8.30 pm: Nanotechnology: can something so tiny promise something so big?. It’s a debate about nanotechnology and its potential, chaired by the science writer Philip Ball, and featuring myself, Ray Oliver, an industrial nanotechnologist and one of the authors of the recent Royal Society report, and James Wilsdon, from the thinktank Demos, whose recent pamphlet about ways to engage the public about new technologies such as nanotechnology, See-through Science, I wrote about below. It should be an interesting evening.

    Let the scientists explain the science and the public speak for itself…

    …is the rallying cry at the end of an opinion piece in today’s Times by Tracey Brown. The article decries both the defensiveness of scientists about nanotechnology and the tendency to treat non-governmental organisations like Greenpeace as proxies for public opinion. I think both of these are important points to make, though I don’t agree with the implicit conclusion that the public debate that is developing about nanotechnology is premature.

    Who does Tracey Brown represent? Another NGO, of course – a pro-science pressure group called Sense about Science.

    Nanoparticles everywhere

    Even the cleanest environments in the world are contaminated by nanoparticles; these are the product, not of the nascent nanotechnology industry, but of natural processes. In the southern ocean between Cape Horn and the Antarctic, on the West Coast of Ireland, swept by Atlantic gales, significant numbers of particles in the 10nm – 100 nm size range can be detected. An interesting recent article in Nature (subscription required) provides an interesting analysis of natural nanoparticles from a sampling site in Ireland. These nanoparticles include, as you would expect, some made out of sea-salt. As is also already well-known, another major contribution to natural nanoparticles comes from sulfates, whose origin is probably the reduction of a chemical called DMS which is generated by plankton. This process has raised lots of interest because of its potential importance as a mechanism of climate control feedback as demanded by the Gaia hypothesis. The recent Nature paper adds a third class of materials to the mix – miscellaneous organic chemicals, that according to the season can comprise more than 60% of the mass of sub-micron particles. These, too, probably have their origin in the plankton near the sea’s surface.

    Sampling sites closer to urban life predictably show greater concentrations of organic nanoparticles, arising from volatile organic compounds emitted from vehicle exhausts and other manmade sources. Even here, one surprise is the potential importance of gaseous hydrocarbons of natural origin – isoprene and terpenes – as contributors to the total VOC load. There’s a good brief discussion of the nanoparticle exposure that arises as a result of pollution in the Royal Society Report.

    None of this diminishes the need to do good toxicological studies on new nanoparticles if there’s any danger of human or environmental exposure to them. But it does emphasise that a great deal is known about the behaviour of nanoparticles in the enivronment. The trouble is that the knowledge arises in a field – atmospheric chemistry – that seems at first to be far removed from the interests of nanotechnology. Nomenclature differences may seem trivial, but they actually take on a bigger significance in today’s world of computer searches. None of the literature on this subject would show up if you did a search on terms like “nanoparticles in the environment”; for these people nanoparticles aren’t “nanoparticles”, they’re “Aitken-mode aerosols”.

    My thanks to Brian Davison for taking me to The Moon for an in-depth briefing on all this.

    See-through Science

    See-through Science is the title of a pamphlet by James Wilsdon and Rebecca Willis, from the left-of-centre UK think-tank, Demos. It’s a thoughtful reflection on how one ought to engage the public in the development of new technologies, with the emerging debate on nanotechnology taken as its focus. I particularly like the undogmatic tone. The report is very clear on the failings of the old ideas of the “deficit model” of public engagement, which unconvincingly and patronisingly maintained that it is sufficient to educate the public in the wise ways of science to convince them of its benefits. The report also warns against the danger that all debates about new technology get twisted round to focus narrowly on risk assessment. This is particularly timely in view of the way the nanotechnology debate has unfolded, with its excessive focus on the one issue of nanoparticle toxicity.

    In terms of recommendations, perhaps for me the most telling point is the way the report highlights the almost complete absence of those parts of industry involved in nanotechnology from this debate. I think this situation needs to change, and very soon.

    Bad reasons to oppose nanotechnology: part 1

    An article in this month’s The Ecologist Magazine, by the ETC group‘s Jim Thomas, makes an argument against nanotechnology that combines ignorance and gullibility with the risk of causing real harm to some of the worlds poorest people. What, he says, will happen to the poor cotton farmers and copper miners of the third world when nanotechnology-based fabric treatments, like those sold by the Nanotex Corp, make cotton obsolete, and carbon nanotubes replace copper as electrical conductors? This argument is so wrong on so many levels it’s difficult to know where to start.

    To start with, is there any development economist who would actually argue that basing an third world economy on an extractive industry like copper mining is a good way to get sustained economic development and good living standards for the population as a whole? Likewise, it’s difficult to see that the industrial-scale farming of cotton, with its huge demand for water, can be anything other than an ecological disaster. Zambia is not exactly the richest country in Africa, and Kazakhstan is not a great advertisement for the environmental benefits of cotton growing.

    And is the premise even remotely realistic? I wrote below about how novel the nanotex fibre treatments actually are; in fact there are many fibre treatments available now, some carrying a “nano” label, some not, which change handling and water resistance properties of a variety of textiles, both natural and artificial. These are just as likely to increase markets for natural fibres as for artificial ones. And as for nanotubes replacing copper, at a current cost of ��200 a gram this is not going to happen any time soon. What this argument demonstrates is that, unfortunately for a campaigning group, ETC is curiously gullible, with a propensity to mistake corporate press releases and the most uncritical nano-boosterism for reality.

    This matters for two reasons. Firstly, on the positive side, nanotechnology really could benefit the environment and the world’s poor. Cheap ways of providing clean water and new sources of renewable energy are realistic possibilities, but they won’t happen automatically and there’ll be real debates about how to set priorities in a way which makes the technology bring benefits to the poor as well as the rich. What these debates are going to need from their participants is some degree of economic and scientific literacy. Secondly, there are some real potential downsides that might emerge from the development of nanotechnology; we need a debate that’s framed in a way that recognises the real risks and doesn’t waste energy and credibility on silly side-issues.

    Luckily, there is at least one NGO that is demonstrating a much more sophisticated, subtle and intelligent approach – Greenpeace. The contribution of their chief scientist, Doug Parr, to a recent debate on nanotechnology held by the Royal Society in the light of their recent report, is infinitely more effective at focusing on the real issues.