Thursday, March 03, 2005

NanoBots are Needed

Nanobots Not Needed, declares the Center for Responsible Nanotechnology.

    The popular idea of so-called nanobots, powerful and at risk of running wild, is not part of modern plans for building things “atom-by-atom” by molecular manufacturing. Studies indicate that most people don't know the difference between molecular manufacturing, nanoscale technology, and nanobots. Confusion about terms, fueled by science fiction, has distorted the truth about advanced nanotechnology. Nanobots are not needed for manufacturing, but continued misunderstanding may hinder research into highly beneficial technologies and discussion of the real dangers. More here
OK, well, I'll try not to be offended. They're referring to nanobot as a concept and not NanoBot, the "leading source of nanotechnology information and commentary." (I just made up that little slogan. I might have a future in PR).

Let me raise a couple of points. Does CRN believe the general public is really concerned with these distinctions?

To whom is their clarification aimed? Journalists who write about nanotechnology? Or those in government and business who have narrowed nanotechnology's definition to fit neatly into their own commercial and research goals?

The word "nanobot" is often used as a term of derision by those who now set the agenda, but CRN needs to get a bit of perspective and stop hanging around those who only speak nanotech-ese. It's a habit journalists get into, also -- a kind of Stockholm Syndrome, where they speak the language of those they cover and come into contact with, forgetting that there's a much-larger audience out there waiting to be informed.

The Center for Responsible Nanotechnology should know -- perhaps better than most groups -- that what is tossed aside as silly in one political season can be embraced in another. So, I hope it's not the derision that CRN is reacting to. And if they have truth on their side, they'll eventually be brought in from the cold.

To me, fighting against a word like "nanobot" -- a word that has been adopted by the general public and infused into the culture -- is akin to Eric Drexler's failed attempt to rename his vision of nanotechnology "zettatechnology." They're spitting into the wind. Why would they want to take a simple word that has captured the public imagination and muck it up with distinctions that mean little to the public at large? Nanobot is a cool word (if I do say so myself), and it should be embraced when speaking to the general public. It's only in our own closed circle that it takes on political or derisive meanings.

CRN should make those distinctions when they're at a nanotech conference, speaking to a bunch of other folks in our little world. But when it comes to making a connection with the people who really count -- those who will ultimately accept or reject a technology or technological direction -- I'm sticking with NanoBot.

NanoBot Backgrounder
NanoBots control the horizontal and vertical
Antediluvian NanoBots
Nano's most fantastic image
Smalley plays with 'Rage'
NanoBot Soup
Stop worrying and learn to love nanobots


Anonymous said...

How about the term Ultra-fineBot. Ultra-fine (i.e. Nano) particles have been around for quite some time and nobody seems to be worried about them

Howard Lovy said...

That could work, Jonathan. "Fine" also has two meanings and conjures up feelings that everything will be alright. The problem is, you can't really "decide" what the wider culture will adopt. Worth a shot, though. Have you brought this up with your colleagues at Luna?


Anonymous said...

We were in fact writing for journalists. Now that molecular manufacturing is starting to become respectable, it seems important that journalists not dig through their decade-old information and resurrect gray goo fears.

If someone wants to talk about "nanobots" cleaning blood vessels, I won't complain. But if they talk about "nanobots" building stuff, they're only one step away from raising fears of those nanobots turning into gray goo.


Anonymous said...

The comment comes from a conversation I had with a coworker. Magnox Pulaski, Inc. has a plant in Pulaski Co. that has been making ultra-fine (i.e. nano) iron particles for quite some time now and was a tad upset when it was announced that Luna was giong to be the first nanomaterials maunfacturer in the Commonwealth of Virginia. It's all in what you call it and when.

Anonymous said...

Unfortunately, Chris, most journalists will bring up the whole gray goo thing anyway because it gives the story a nice hook.

Howard Lovy said...

Let me repeat here what I wrote on Nanodot, and then I'll shut up and read what everybody else has to say.

Take control of the word and redefine it to fit the meaning you'd like to give it. "Nanobot" is a perfectly vague word and can take on different meanings, depending on whose brain it passes through. I've argued before that the Feynman/Drexler vision of nanotechnology is the one that has has the upper hand in the wider culture. It's the business community that has the tough job of redefining nanotech as cosmetics, pants and tennis rackets.

So, don't make your job harder. Take the word, the concept that the public already has regarding nanotechnology and then talk about the distinctions for anybody who's interested.

Step back. Get some perspective. The average reader will take a look at this CRN brief and either misinterpret it as meaning it no longer believes in molecular manufacturing or, perhaps even worse, they're just another "insider" nanotech group joining these squabbles over definitions.

Believe me. I'm a writer and believe in the precise meanings of words. I also believe that words have cultural connotations and definitions that one must also be aware of.