Wednesday, October 29, 2003

Settle a little bet for me

Here we are, through the looking glass, where we ponder the impact of molecular nanotechnology upon the ethical fiber of our society, when we have yet to settle a cosmic bar bet on whether it's possible at all.

Let me explain: The U.S. government is paying for a University of South Carolina effort to study the societal and ethical implications of nanotechnology. The university is jumping enthusiastically into the project and will examine issues like what exactly our culture thinks of when it pictures "nanotechnology." It's going to hold what sounds like a fascinating conference in March to explore how nanotech images in the movies, visual arts and other media influence public understanding, and they'll look at how "self-replication and cascading effects" (translation: "gray goo") is becoming an immovable feature of that image.

As we saw from early 20th-century images of space travel, reality and popular myth often diverge in entertaining ways. In today's mythology, molecular manufacturing is often given a biological analogy, even though it's more likely that an exponentially growing nanosystem – whose individual components would lack the sophistication of a biological molecule – would be easier to predict and control than any mythical monster we've created.

Great stuff. All worthy of study. One problem. One … big … problem:

We're told that true molecular manufacturing is impossible. That's what eminent scientists have told Congress, anyway, and that's the focus of many spirited debates among the nanorati. The National Science Foundation can't seem to make up its mind, labeling large-scale self-replication "very speculative, more like science fiction," yet also part of its vision for the future.

Do you think it's time to settle the bet?


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