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.

    Quotations for the week

    This week’s quotation on Soft Machines comes from that pioneer of British empiricism, Sir Francis Bacon:

    It cannot be that axioms established by argumentation can suffice for the discovery of new works, since the subtlety of nature is greater many times than the subtlety of argument.

    I write this with Philip Moriarty in mind, since he’s going to be taking a break from participating in debates on Soft Machines and elsewhere. I would like to record my gratitude to Philip, because he’s made a tremendous contribution to this blog in the last couple of months. I think he’s made a really important contribution to the debate, not least by forcibly reminding us how subtle and complex surface physics can be. As another oft-quoted saying goes (usually attributed to Wolfgang Pauli):

    God made solids, but surfaces were the work of the devil.

    Bits and Atoms

    I recently made a post – Making and doing – about the importance of moving the focus of radical nanotechnology away from the question of how artefacts are to be made, and towards a deeper consideration of how they will function. I concluded with the provocative slogan Matter is not digital. My provocation has been rewarded with detailed attempts to rebut my argument from both Chris Peterson, VP of the Foresight Institute, on Nanodot, and Chris Phoenix of the Center for Responsible Nanotechnology, on the CRNano blog. Here’s my response to some of the issues they raise.

    First of all, on the basic importance of manufacturing:

    Chris Peterson: Yes, but as has been repeatedly pointed out, we need better systems that make things in order to build better systems that do things. Manufacturing may be a boring word compared to energy, information, and medicine, but it is fundamental to all.

    Manufacturing will always be important; things need to be made. My point is that by becoming so enamoured with one particular manufacturing technique, we run the risk of choosing materials to suit the manufacturing process rather than the function that we want our artefact to accomplish. To take a present-day example, injection moulding is a great manufacturing method. It’s fast, cheap, can make very complex parts with high dimensional fidelity. Of course it only works with thermoplastics; sometimes this is fine but everytime you eat with a plastic knife you expose yourself to the results of sub-optimal materials choice forced on you by the needs of a manufacturing process. Will MNT similarly limit the materials choices that you can make? I believe so.

    Chris Peterson: But isn’t it the case that we already have ways to represent 3D molecular structures in code, including atom types and bonds?

    Certainly we can represent structures virtually in code; the issue is whether we can output that code to form physical matter. For this we need some basic, low level machine code procedures from which complex algorthms can be built up. Such a procedure would look something like: depassivate point A on a surface. Pick up building block from resevoir B. Move it to point A. Carry out mechanosynthesis step to bond it to point A. Repassivate if necessary. Much of the debate between Chris Phoenix and Philip Moriarty concerned the constraints that surface physics put on the sorts of procedures you might use. In particular, note the importance of the idea of surface reconstructions. The absence of such reconstructions is one of the main reasons why hydrogen passivated diamond is by far the best candidate for a working material for mechanosynthesis. This begins to answer Chris Peterson’s next question…

    Chris Peterson: How did we get into the position of needing to use only one material here?

    …which is further answered by Chris Phoenix’s explanation of why matter can be treated with digital design principles, which focuses on the non-linear nature of covalent bonding:

    Chris Phoenix: Forces between atoms as they bond are also nonlinear. As you push them together, they “snap” into position. That allows maintenance of mechanical precision: it’s not hard, in theory, for a molecular manufacturing system to make a product fully as precise as itself. So covalent bonds between atoms are analogous to transistors. Individual bonds correspond to the ones and zeros level.

    So it looks like we’re having to restrict ourselves to covalently bonded solids. Goodbye to metals, ionic solids, molecular solids, macromolecular solids… it looks like we’re now stuck with choosing among the group 4 elements, the classical compound semiconductors and other compounds of elements in groups 3-6. Of these, diamond seems the best choice. But are we stuck with a single material? Chris Phoenix thinks not…

    Chris Phoenix: By distinguishing between the nonlinear, precision-preserving level (transistors and bonding) and the level of programmable operations (assembly language and mechanosynthetic operations), it should be clear that the digital approach to mechanosynthesis is not a limitation, and in particular does not limit us to one material. But for convenience, an efficient system will probably produce only a few materials.

    This analogy is flawed. In a microprocessor, all the transistors are the same. In a material, the bonds are not the same. This is obviously true if the material contains more than one atom, and even if the material only has one type of atom the bonds won’t be the same if the working surface has any non-trivial topography – hence the importance of steps and edges in surface chemistry. If the bonds don’t behave in the same way, a mechanosynthetic step which works with one bond won’t work with another, and your simple assembly language becomes a rapidly proliferating babel of different operations all of which need to be individually optimised.

    Chris Phoenix: For nanoscale operations like binding arbitrary molecules, it remains to be seen how difficult it will be to achieve near-universal competence.

    I completely agree with this. A classic target for advanced nanomedicine would be to have a surface which resisted non-specific binding of macromolecules, but recognised one specific molecular target and produced a response on binding. I find it difficult to see how you would do this with a covalently bonded solid.

    Chris Phoenix: But most products that we use today do not involve engineered nanoscale operations.

    This seems an extraordinary retreat. Nanotechnology isn’t going to make an impact by allowing us to reproduce the products we have today at lower cost; it’s going to need to allow us to make products with a functionality that is now unattainable. These products – and I’m thinking particularly of applications to nanomedicine and to information and communication technologies – will necessarily involve engineered nanoscale operations.

    Chris Phoenix: For example, a parameterized nanoscale truss design could produce structures which on larger scales had a vast range of strength, elasticity, and energy dissipation. A nanoscale digital switch could be used to build any circuit, and when combined with an actuator and a power source, could emulate a wide range of deformable structures.

    Yes, I agree with this in principle. But we’re coming back to mechanical properties – structural materials, not functional ones. The structural materials we generally use now – wood, steel, brick and concrete – have long since been surpassed by other materials with much superior properties, but we still go on using them. Why? They’re good enough, and the price is right. New structural materials aren’t going to change the world.

    Chris Phoenix: A few designs for photon handling, sensing (much of which can be implemented with mechanics), and so on should be enough to build almost any reasonable macro-scale product we can design.

    Well, I’m not sure I can share this breezy confidence. How is sensing going to be implemented by mechanics? We’ve already conceded that the molecular recognition events that the most sensitive nanoscale sensing operations depend on are going to be difficult or impossible to implement in covalently bonded systems. Designing band-structures – which we need to do to control light/matter interactions – isn’t an issue of ordinary mechanics, but of many-body quantum theory.

    The idea of being able to manipulate atoms in the same way as we manipulate bits is seductive, but ultimately it’s going to prove very limiting. To get the most out of nanotechnology, we’ll need to embrace the complexities of real condensed matter, both hard and soft.

    Anyone seen my plutonium?

    The news that the UK nuclear reprocessing plant at Sellafield has ‘lost’ 29.6 kg of plutonium has been accompanied by much emphasis that this doesn’t mean that the stuff has physically gone missing. It’s simply an accounting shortfall, we are reassured, and a leader in the Times on the subject is notable for being probably the most scientifically literate editorial I’ve seen in a major newspaper for some time. Nonetheless, there is a real issue here, though it’s not related to fears of nuclear terrorism. The British Nuclear Group spokesperson is reported as saying “There is no suggestion that any material has left the site. When you have got a complicated chemical procedure, quite often material remains in the plant.” In other words, in all the complex and messy operations that are involved in nuclear reprocessing, some of the plutonium is not recovered, and remains in dilute solution in waste solvent. And in that form it’s potentially another small addition to the vast tanks of radioactive soup that form such a noxious legacy of the cold war nuclear programs in the UK, USA and the former Soviet Union.

    Can nanotechnology help? The idea of a fleet of nanoscale submarines making their way through the sludge pools, picking out the radioactive isotopes and concentrating them into small volumes of high level waste which could then be safely managed, is an attractive one. Even more attractive is the idea that you could pay for the whole operation by recovering the highly valuable precious metals whose presence in nuclear waste is so tantalising. Is this notion ridiculously far-fetched? I’m not so sure that it is.

    A very interesting technology that gives us a flavour of what is possible has been developed at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory. Nanoporous materials, with a very high specific surface area, are made using self-assembled surfactant nanostructures as templates. This huge internal surface area is then coated with a layer of molecules a single molecule thick; functional groups on the end of each of these molecules are designed to selectively bind a heavy metal ion. Such SAMMS – self-assembled monolayers on mesoporous supports – have been designed to selectively bind toxic heavy metals, like lead and mercury, precious metals like gold and platinum, and radioactive actinides like neptunium and plutonium, and they seem to work very effectively. Applications in areas like environmental clean-up and mining are obvious, in addition to applications to nuclear processing and clean-up.

    Who do we think we are?

    I’m grateful for this glowing endorsement from TNTlog, and I’m impressed that it takes as few as two scientist bloggers to make a trend. But I’m embarrassed that Howard Lovy’s response seems to have taken the implied criticism so personally. I’ve always enjoyed reading NanoBot. I don’t always agree with Howard’s take on various issues, but he’s always got interesting things to say and his insistence on the importance of appreciating the interaction between nanotechnology and wider culture is spot-on.

    But I think Howard’s pained sarcasm – “Scientists, go write about yourselves, and we in the public will read with wide-eyed wonder about the amazing work you’re doing and thank you for lowering yourselves to speak what you consider to be our language” – misses the mark. There are many ways in which scientists can contribute to this debate besides this crude and demeaning de haut en bas caricature, and many of them reflect real deficiencies in the ways in which mainstream journalists cover science.

    To many journalists, science is marked by breakthroughs, which are conveniently announced by press releases from publicity hungry university or corporate press offices, or from the highly effective news offices of the scientific glamour magazines, Nature and Science. But scientists never read press releases, and they very rarely write them, because the culture of science doesn’t marry at all well with the event-driven mode of working of journalism. Very rarely, real breakthroughs really are made, though often their significance isn’t recognised at the time. But the usual pattern is of incremental advances, continuous progress and a mixture of cooperation and competition between labs across the world working in the same area. If scientists can write about science as it really is practised, with all its debates and uncertainties, unfiltered by press offices, that seems to me to be entirely positive. It’s also less likely, rather than more likely, to lead to the glorification and self-aggrandisement of scientists that Howard seems to think is our aim.

    Artificial life and biomimetic nanotechnology

    Last week’s New Scientist contained an article on the prospects for creating a crude version of artificial life (teaser here), based mainly on the proposals of Steen Rasmussen’s Protocell project at Los Alamos. Creating a self-replicating system with a metabolism, capable of interacting with its environment and evolving, would be a big step towards a truly radical nanotechnology, as well as giving us a lot of insight into how our form of life might have begun.

    More details of Rasmussen’s scheme are given here, and some detailed background information can be found in this review in Science (subscription required), which discusses a number of approaches being taken around the world (see also this site, , with links to research around the world, also run by Rasmussen). Minimal life probably needs some way of enclosing the organism from the environment, and Rasmussen proposes the most obvious route of using self-assembled lipid micelles as his “protocells”. The twist is that the lipids are generated by light activation of an oil-soluble precursor, which effectively constitutes part of the organism’s food supply. Genetic information is carried in a peptide nucleic acid (PNA), which reproduces itself in the presence of short precursor PNA molecules, which also need to be supplied externally. The claim is that ‘this is the first explicit proposal that integrates genetics, metabolism, and containment in one chemical system”.

    It’s important to realise that this, currently, is just that – a proposal. The project is just getting going, as is a closely related European Union funded project PACE (for programmable artificial cell evolution). But it’s a sign that momentum is gathering behind the notion that the best way to implement radical nanotechnology is to try and emulate the design philosophies that cell biology uses.

    If this excites you enough that you want to invest your own money in it, the associated company Protolife is looking for first round investment funding. Meanwhile, a cheaper way to keep up with developments might be to follow this new blog on complexity, nanotechnology and bio-computing from Exeter University based computer scientist Martyn Amos.