Monday, January 10, 2005

NanoBot Soup

Hello Howard,

Been a fan of your blog (and your work at Small Times) for some while now.

We saw your piece about our study. The general consensus here was that it was pretty funny - especially for those of us who are familiar with your blog. Although I didn't write the press release, I did write the study and am therefore the one primarily responsible for its first sentence, which mentioned "'killer nanobot' alarmism".

I have to confess that I liked the phrase when I'd seen it before, as in a late-2003 article in the Guardian, so I concede that I appropriated it to refer to some of the grey goo-based distress that appeared in print over the past couple of years - from the ETC Group, Prince Charles and elsewhere. I'm pretty sure that neither the Prince nor ETC has ever really said anything about "killer nanobots" in any public forum, but I thought the phrase was an amusing example of some of the overstated wariness (and hysterical overreaction to some of Drexler's statements) about "the next big thing" - in the hope of suggesting that our study focused on the area between both of those sides.

Anyhow, thanks for mentioning us. Having our URL in the piece would have been helpful, but being mentioned in what has to be the foremost nanotech blog is a big compliment to us.

Mike Richardson


Thank you very much for your note. I'm glad you and the rest of the Freedonia folks saw the humor in it (shocking as it may seem, not everybody always does).

I used your press release to try to make, I hope, a larger point about the difficulty in even pinning down the source of nanotech fears. The "killer nanobot" specter can be brought out by anybody at anytime to either spread fear or mock those who spread fear. Yet when you truly try to hunt this Frankenstein, and back it into a corner, it leaps back over the wall of fiction. What remains are more-legitimate fears of the unknown as espoused by the ETC Group, Prince Charles and other groups or individuals. You can deal with their arguments on the merits -- whether nanotech is a potential threat to the environment and living organisms -- and you're back in the nonfiction world, having a discussion over potentially real scenarios.

But, at any time, lurking just over that wall, is the "killer nanobot" that can be brandished by either side. Yet, so far, the only things it has shown a tendency to kill are conversations.


Hi Howard,

In our study, we really try to skip the "overspeak" on both sides of that particular coin, and focus on the market outlook for nanoscale products and related markets. In press releases and the like, I confess that we sometimes use the same kind of attention-seeking phrasing that many nanotech firms have used. But that's sort of the point of press releases, isn't it?

I think you are essentially correct - the "scary scary nanotech" argument has been used to self-defeating effect by nanotech proponents and opponents alike. Whether it's the nanotech supporter who boasts of the amazing and heretofore unseen properties of these materials (who doesn't acknowledge that there could be unintended risks associated with them) or the environmental activist who plays the grey goo card (without acknowledging that nanomaterials hold great promise for such things as water purification and other beneficial applications), what we're seeing is a profound lack of respect for an opposing viewpoint. But, well, that's hardly unique to the nanotech discourse, right?

An unfortunate result of all this hollering, however, has been - as you stated in your note - a drowning out of legitimate concerns about the possible effects of these materials. But I suppose stuff that sounds like it came from the Crichton novel (which I thought was a pretty decent read) garners more attention than stuff that sounds like press releases from the EPA or OSHA. I read those all the time in this line of work, and they aren't too sexy.


NanoBot Backgrounder
Hail! Hail! Freedonia!
The Golems of our Era
NPR can't tell Crichton from cosmetics
2004 was blowin' in the wind
Stop worrying and learn to love nanobots

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