Sunday, June 19, 2005

Irresponsible NanoHype


Those responsible boys at the Center for Responsible Nanotechnology are fired up over accusations of nanobot hype-mongering and are blasting back at the U.S. government's nanotech program. The best part is that Chris Phoenix and Mike Treder do not even need to write any commentary around it. Using U.S. science policy leaders' own words, they reveal exactly where the hype is coming from. Read the intro, Part 1 and Part 2.

I found the passage below particularly amazing:

  • Enabling the blind to see better, the lame to walk better, and the deaf to hear better
  • Curing and preventing AIDS, cancer, diabetes and other afflictions
  • Ending hunger
  • Clean, renewable energy
  • Supplementing the power of our minds, enabling us to think great thoughts, create new knowledge and gain new insights.

What molecular manufacturing nutcase is making those irresponsible claims? U.S. Commerce Undersecretary Phil Bond, the same Phil Bond who, just a month before making those comments last year, told me that it's time to "aggressively" counter nanotech misinformation.

Sounds like the patriots at CRN are carrying out the undersecretary's orders.

Backgrounder
'Crain's-ing' my neck to see the hype
Commerce's call to nano arms
Blogging responsibly

6 comments:

Anonymous said...

Seems to me that the guys at CRN are guilty of the same thing only in the opposite direction. I don't think I'll ever get over the whole "flying syringe" idea.

Mr. Smith

Anonymous said...

CRN's "problem" is they talk about both the potential upside and the pontential downside of MNT. And that disturbs both the pro-nanotech and the anti-nanotech folks.

Richard Jones said...

There are many different dimensions of hype, and it's worth distinguishing between the exaggeration of the feasibility of a technology which is currently hypothetical, and the exaggeration of the impact of a technology which, in embryonic form, already exists. CRN's hype is of the first kind; they persist in predicting an indefensibly short time-line for the development of MNT, even though even the first, most basic steps towards MNT have not yet been taken in the laboratory. Their reaction to attempts to discuss these issues on the basis of science is hostility and outright rudeness; this has led me to conclude that CRN's position is essentially ideological and as such is not going to be changed by reason or evidence.

Giving ideology precedence over scientific evidence isn't exactly unknown in US administrations, but Bond's statements seem to fall into the second category of hype. With the possible exception of the last bullet, one can point to developments taking place in laboratories now which could, in principle, lead to all of these developments taking place at some unspecified time in the future. Of course, there are many hurdles in the way of getting this science out of the lab and it's a type of hype that's all too common to downplay or neglect these obstacles.

One final point is that, while it may seem obvious that revolutionary impacts on society can only come from radically new technologies, this isn't necessarily so. The development of, say, quantum computing or true molecular electronics, would be a radical jump both for science and for society. But one can imagine changes that in science terms are very incremental that could dramatically change society. An example would be if developments in unconventional solar cells - like Graetzel cells - improve their efficiency and lifetime to the extent that cheap solar cells could be produced by the square mile. This is a question of the incremental development of rather mundane nanoscience, very much on the same level as better sunscreens, yet the economic impact could be very large.

TallDave said...

They left out

- Bringing the dead back to life

- Ensuring world peace

- Making everyone live forever

T.H.O.N.G. said...

Mr. Jones,
With all due respect(and we mean that -- you're quite respectable,) you're making a distinction without a difference. Hype is hype, the least common denominator being the bullshit content. It is difficult to escape the conclusion that your distinction is designed to favor profit-driven hype over ethics-driven hype.

But we can escape that conclusion, because you have a demonstrated history of addressing these issues thoughtfully, and you make a serious effort to avoid bias. Perhaps your bias got the better of you this time?

Richard Jones said...

My biases may well be showing - they often do - but I think you're wrong to say "your distinction is designed to favor profit-driven hype over ethics-driven hype". Actually I think the ethics driven hype of ETC, say, is exactly of the same type as the profit driven hype exemplified by Bond's comments. There's no distinction there at all, and indeed you can often trace the hype of the pro- and anti- camps back to the same source, usually some over-heated press release. CRN, on the other hand, is an entirely different matter; for reasons I don't entirely understand they really deeply want to believe in their own hypothesis. As far as I'm concerned this makes it a faith-based organisation, whose hype has quite different roots.