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.


I’m grateful to Tim Harper for some kind words about me in his column on Giving his roundup of how nanotechnology fared last year, he notes that 2004 ” was also the year that the tricky issue of the Drexlerian idea of molecular manufacturing – the version popularised by the Foresight Institute – finally began to be addressed in a scientific manner”, and he mentions both this blog and my book Soft Machines in connection with this. But, as he goes on to say, “there is much work to be done, however, to build trust between the scientific and molecular nanotechnology communities”.

To build trust, you need understanding. It’s probably true that many in the scientific community have not made the effort to understand the point of view of the molecular nanotechnology community. But equally, I think that in that community that there is a very widespread lack of understanding about how science works. I don’t mean this in the sense that they don’t understand the scientific method or basic scientific results; it’s the sociological aspects of science as a human enterprise I’m talking about here. You need an understanding of how science as a collective effort selects problems and makes progress in order to be able to predict and understand the ways in which nanoscience will turn into nanotechnology.

A simple example of the sort of misconception that results is the widespread view in the molecular nanotechnology community that the high profile scepticism of figures like Richard Smalley is all that stands in the way of progress towards their goal, because scientists are discouraged from pursuing these lines of enquiry for fear of their career. The truth is absolutely the opposite; there would be no surer way for a young scientist to become rich and famous than by proving Smalley wrong, and you can be confident that if someone with the right experience and the right equipment could think of a way of making a big step towards demonstrating mechanosynthesis, they would be doing it now. And if they were successful, they’d probably find space for a few kind words about Drexler in the speech they gave as they accepted their Nobel prize…

Availability of Soft Machines

Anyone who has tried to buy a copy of my book Soft Machines: Nanotechnology and Life in the last few weeks will notice that there have been problems of availability – higher demand from the USA than the publisher anticipated has resulted in stocks being cleared out. My publisher now tells me that new stock has just arrived from the printer at the UK warehouse, so within a few days the book should be easier to get hold of.

Nanotechnology films from the European Union

A couple of 1/2 hour documentaries about nanotechnology, made by the EU nanotechnology program, are now available online.

Nano: the next dimension is a serious and straightforward documentary, introduced by the French Nobel Laureate chemist Jean-Maire Lehn, and featuring other eminent European nanoscientists such as Cees Dekker, Harry Kroto and Christian Joachim.

Nanotechnology is aimed at the younger audience. It has does have some good things, despite its rather cheesy attempts to connect with youth culture, and (in the English version) terrible dubbing. It does, however, feature a very silly animation of a medical nanobot.

My thanks to Raymond Monk from the European Commission for bringing this to my attention.

You can’t always get what you want

New readers of the more visionary writings on advanced nanotechnology could be forgiven for thinking that it’s the desires of the writers that come first. They want the material lifestyle of a billionaire, they want to travel in space, they want to live for ever – and advanced nanotechnology is invoked as a Deus ex Machina to make their wishes come true. Scientists are taught not to covet their own hypotheses – not to want to believe in their own theories so deeply that their critical judgement is clouded. This is a good principle, though one that’s difficult for fallible humans always to follow. Science has delivered huge improvements to the human condition, and nanotechnology has the potential to improve things much more. But, difficult as it is, we need to focus not on what we want, but what we can achieve, given the constraints of the universe we live in.

In the words of Sir Michael Jagger,
“You can’t always get what you want
But if you try sometimes you just might find
You get what you need”.

With thanks to David Bott, and a Happy New Year to all my readers.

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”.

A video seminar on soft nanotechnology

You can see a video seminar on soft nanotechnology jointly given by me and my colleague Tony Ryan on the web here. This isn’t exactly new; it was done a couple of years ago, but I’ve only just come across the web version, which was done as an experiment in e-learning under the aegis of the Worldwide Universities Network, an alliance of Universities in Europe, the USA and China. You’ll need a fast internet connection and the Shockwave plug-in to view it.

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?
  • Art, life and nanotechnology

    An event at London’s Institute of Contemporary Arts next Tuesday, 23 November, promises an inter-disciplinary panel discussion to imagine the possibilities of nanotechnology for life and art. Nano: the science of small things will be chaired by James Wilsdon, from the think-tank Demos. James is one of the authors of the pamphlet See-Through Science that I mentioned below. On the panel are the science fiction writer Paul McAuley, Tom Feilden, the science and environment correspondent for BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, Philip Moriarty, an outstanding young nanoscientist from the University of Nottingham, and myself.

    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.