Tuesday, February 15, 2005

NanoSight, NanoScheme and NanoHype

Photo by Adam Keiper

Pictured from left is Dave Rejeski of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, Neil Jacobstein of the Institute for Molecular Manufacturing and David Berube of the University of South Carolina.

Blogger's Note: I apologize to those who have been waiting too long for Adam Keiper's last dispatch from the "molecular manufacturing hearings" (I should really come up with a catchier title -- "MoleGate?" "Committee on UnNanopants Activities?" "The Contra-NNI Hearings?"). Family duties called me away from my computer for a few days. Someday, perhaps I'll have a team of NanoBot bloggers working around the clock for you. A man can dream, can't he? Anyway, here's what Adam filed for me on Feb. 11. Thank you, Adam, for your great work and thanks, also, to those who are contributing to the discussions on this site and others. -- Howard

By Adam Keiper
Managing editor of The New Atlantis,
Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, and …
NanoBot Correspondent

The National Research Council committee that spent last week examining the feasibility of molecular manufacturing wrapped up the public portion of its workshop with a discussion of the “impacts and implications” of nanotechnology.

The workshop’s final panel included three presenters with starkly different perspectives:

  • David Berube, professor at the University of South Carolina. The title of Berube’s forthcoming book, NanoHype, gives a good indication of his take on nanotech talk. He believes that the development of molecular manufacturing is at least 50 years away, making it reasonable for nanotech research funded by the public purse to have “a more immediate focus.” When it comes to nanotechnology, there has been “hype from all sectors,” Berube said, and the “time frames are muddled” so that wildly disparate kinds of nanotechnology get conflated. Berube also criticized the oft-heard comparison of the potential effects of fears about nanotech to the paralyzing fears about genetically modified foods; this comparison, Berube said, was an act of “rhetorical prestidigitation” intended to make a nano crisis seem more urgent than it really is. (Berube, incidentally, is a lead investigator on one of the four proposals vying for the huge grant from the NSF to establish a Center for Nanotechnology in Society. That grant is expected to be awarded later this year.)
  • Neil Jacobstein, chairman of the Institute for Molecular Manufacturing. Jacobstein takes strong exception to the notion that molecular manufacturing is five decades away; he thinks it likely to come “a lot sooner” than that. The core of his presentation is a discussion of the Foresight Guidelines for the safe development of nanotechnology. These guidelines, modeled on the Asilomar scheme for coping with the development of recombinant DNA technology, have evolved several times since their original incarnation five years ago. The latest version, which Jacobstein co-authored, comes with scorecards that let any individual or company working toward advanced nanotechnology assess how well they comply with the guidelines.
  • Dave Rejeski, director of the Foresight and Governance Project at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. Rejeski emphasized the unpredictability and contingency involved in the development of advanced nanotechnology, and cautioned against holding a number of “dangerous assumptions,” like the assumptions that the public will accept advanced nanotechnology, that press coverage will be fair and accurate, and that nanotech won’t be used by terrorists. It is very difficult for policymakers to keep apace the with accelerating rate of technological and industrial change, Rejeski said, warning that “there’s nothing more dangerous than a surprised politician.” What policymakers need, he argued, is an improved “ability to see all sides and to manage what’s going on” -- not merely foresight, but what David Gelernter has called “topsight.”

The presentations from those panelists was followed by some questions from the committee and then a few rounds of closing comments from the other panelists and observers in the room. This discussion included a few interesting remarks about the millions of taxpayer dollars presently being spent on “education and outreach” to persuade the public of the wonders of nanotechnology.

During the workshop’s final minutes, Eric Drexler make closing remarks arguing that “at this point, there is a large weight of evidence -- detailed quantitative analysis -- indicating that large-scale molecular manufacturing is feasible.” [Author's note: The original version of this dispatch here included a quotation from Clayton Teague, head of the NNI, responding to Drexler by saying, “I agree with you very much, and I think you’ll find everyone on the NNI thinks that it is something of international importance.” I have since been granted a glimpse of part of the unpublished transcript of this NAS meeting, and it shows that Teague's remark was not directed at Drexler; it was in response to someone else and on a different subject. I apologize for the mistake, caused by rapid note-taking and hasty blog-reporting, and any confusion it may have created.]

Most of the day was characterized by similar attitudes of agreement and agreeableness, with a few supporters of molecular manufacturing expressing their considerable surprise at the committee’s “open-mindedness.” Although most of the committee’s work is done behind closed doors and no tapes or transcripts of this workshop will be made available to the public, the plain fact is that no recording could capture the full atmosphere of the three-day workshop, in which some of the most important work happened off-the-record, in the conversations over meals and during breaks between panels. There were indications of conciliation and comity, and there seemed to be new avenues of communication and cooperation, between representatives of the government, nano-commerce, and the molecular manufacturing community.

Of course, it remains to be seen just how deeply various hatchets have been buried -- and the report produced by this nanotech assessment committee will have a lot to do with whether they stay buried. The final report is expected early next year; an interim report is scheduled to come out in four months.

NanoBot Backgrounder
Molecular manufacturing: Who needs it, and why?
Molecules, machines and miracles
Molecular manufacturing back on the table
My grassroots are showing

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