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Regulating Nanotechnology and Designing the NGOs of the Future
Alex Steffen, 29 Jan 07
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We've written many times before about the promise and perils of nanotechnology. We've talked not only about how to understand nanotech, but how to make it safer; we've described the need for nanotechnology regulation, especially regulation on how nanotechnological industries operate abroad; and we've lauded efforts to track the risks and benefits different nanotechnologies bring and to empower a more democratic discussion of their adoption.

In a world overrun with so many immediate problems -- climate change, war, disease, hunger, poverty, etc. -- it can be difficult to see why we ought to wrestle with a technology that can seem distantly futuristic and abstract. Events this week have reminded us, though, that we are at most decades from the emergence of powerful molecular manufacturing capabilities. And one doesn't have to believe that the Diamond Age is right around the corner to recognize that bottled genies deserve caution, and we can no longer let nanotechnology go unregulated.

Indeed, the day may be nearer to us now than when we first believed. Several months ago, the UK's Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council created an innovative, interdisciplinary "Ideas Factory," with the goal of identifying key research projects that would lay out a path to nanofactories and the ability to build things atom by atom. Now, the Council has announced two fully-funded studies that it believes will blaze that path -- studies our friends at the Center for Responsible Nanotechnology believe are breakthroughs.

The first is to create a sort of artificial ribosome -- a mechanical DNA, if you will -- that can "synthesize linear chains of nanoscale building blocks in programmed sequence." In essence, the ability to forge synthetic chains of materials could soon (the team aims to complete the work in a few years for about $3 million) provide the fundamental spare parts for creating nano-scale machines.

If mechanical DNA can create the parts, though, an "actuator" will still be needed to serve as the conveyer belt through which a computer can assemble those parts into a working and useful whole. The Ideas Factory's second proposal is for the creation of exactly such an actuator.

Ally Mike Treder explained the significance of this work to me this way:

What's most significant is not just these particular breakthroughs -- although they are impressive -- but the fact that the breakthroughs occurred when a group of researchers got together, allowed themselves to think outside the box, conducted real-time peer review, worked cross-discipline (even having a sculptor involved!), and accepted a challenge that each of them alone would likely have dismissed.

The IDEAS Factory scientists took what many would have considered a 50-year goal, treated it like it was a 20-year goal, and then made a solid plan to get one-quarter of the way there in just a few years. They did it because they tried to do it, instead of simply assuming it couldn't be done.

This confirms for us, once again, that molecular manufacturing is likely to happen in less than 20 years. Probably much sooner, in fact, because CRN expects the rate of progress to continue accelerating.

If, in fact, full-blown nanotechnology erupts into our lives in 20 years, instead of 50, the results are likely to be as disruptive as the first century of the Industrial Revolution, but compressed into a much shorter time period. And, given that it might, it is the duty of those of us who would prefer an unimaginable future to an unthinkable one to take seriously the responsibility of handling nanotechnology carefully.

But it's also important to remember that we have a huge advantage that our ancestors lacked as they struggled with the first Industrial Revolution: we have a history of technology, and we understand that what technologies are adopted and how they are used is a matter of societal choice. We have the power to imagine, to anticipate and ultimately to steer the development of nanotechnology.

How might we go about that? The first step must be more research -- on that, nearly all the thinkers worth hearing agree.

We need to better understand the possible paths by which molecular manufacturing and other nanotech applications might develop. CRN, for example, has proposed "Thirty Essential Studies" which it believes will illuminate the way forward.

We also need to understand the potentially catastrophic consequences of unleashing industrial nanotech. The Millennium Project United Nations University, in its 2005 State of the Future report, focuses on two particular kinds of threats, military and environmental, and lists at length a number of the kinds of questions for which we do not yet have sufficient answers, including basic issues like "Can nanomaterials concentrate inside humans?" and "How biodegradable are nanotube-based structures?"

Then, too, there are societal effects to consider: how might economies be disrupted? Who will own the intellectual property which drives these industries? Will developing nations be left even farther out of the loop? Will nanotechology give everyone the power to better their own lives or concentrate power even more in the hands of the few?

We need, as well, to start taking seriously the need for national regulations and international agreements on the use of nanotechnology. If nanotechnology proves less impressive than its proponents insist it will be, no harm will have been done, but if it in fact bears both the importance and the dangers many claim, we will need effective, enforceable treaties and laws to stave off disaster.

Some might regard that last statement as hyperbole, but consider this: the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists recently moved the hands of its famous Doomsday Clock two more minutes towards midnight, both because of the threat of climate change, and the unprecedentedly dangerous possibilities of nano- and biotechnologies.

So, we need to start asking ourselves what sorts of institutions might respond effectively to these dangers: what regulations do we need? What sorts of labelling and consumer information ought to be mandated? Do we need a moratorium on certain kinds of research? How will products be tested? What sorts of trade rules ought to apply? There are many unanswered questions, and it is not to soon to start posing them in the public debate.

Finally, it is probably also not too soon to begin to consider what an effective citizen movement to demand responsible nanotechnology would look like and how it would act.

There is a profound risk that NGO response to nanotechnology will continue the approach it has so far taken: simple opposition to the technology, being merely a "No" in response to business' "Yes." (Greenpeace has attempted to be smart about the issue -- you can read their report here -- but unfortunately they don't have much company.) That would be a disaster.

As Stewart Brand says about biotechnology, "The best way for doubters to control a questionable new technology is to embrace it, lest it remain wholly in the hands of enthusiasts who think there is nothing questionable about it."

We need a new generation of emerging technology activists: not just NGOs and networks of citizens concerned about nanotech, but also advocates for better biotech, robotics, ubiquitous computing, space programs, deep ocean exploration, climate interventions and human life span extension techniques.

We need heroic geek NGOs that can wrestle with issues we're only beginning to understand, and can both use strategic anticipation to change the debate, and strategic communication to help the rest of us understand what's at stake. We, in turn, all need to learn more about these technologies, to be able to discuss them intelligently and to sway those working in these fields to become partners in efforts to unleash these revolutions the right way. Because making smart choices about emerging technologies may, in the end, be the tipping factor that proves the difference between a bright green future, and no future at all.

[images: here and here.]

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I feel that self regulation of a technology like this is the best way to go. In the 70's, biotech imposed a self regulation that was stringent and has been very successful in containing any contaminiation of the environment. As well, the new Synthetic Biology techs are self regulating at the same time they are developing the field.

Posted by: LiveGreen on 29 Jan 07

I want the US government to do its job and figure out if the nano products on the market are safe or not. People are eating this stuff, slathering it on their skin, breathing it at their jobs where it is manufactured or studied and sending it out into the soil, water and air (not always inadvertently). This is nuts to risk potential harm in the future that could have been researched and done differently or precations taken before it was too late. Right now it looks like the government is hoping it's nobody's job!

A group of us citizens in the Madison Wisconsin area have been asking that something be done for two years now. See our website We have done a lot to engage the public and nano experts so that our combined thinking and efforts might help get testing and research funded so we know what we're dealing with and what to do about it.

Posted by: Lynette on 29 Jan 07


You mean nano-particles like soot from a campfire? I suggest a moratorium on the burning of all materials until we can guaranty there is no possiblilty of danger.

I certainly think nano particles should be studied to avoid poisoning but the real focus should be on developing molecular maunfacturing ASAP. The benefits are so mind blowing that it's hard for me to see how people can put so much effort into possible dangers. Medicine, green manufacturing, cheap clean energy... the list goes on.

Posted by: Ian on 29 Jan 07

Before anything else, people need to understand what nanotechnology is. There seems to be this impression that nanotechnology is one blanket field, which it isn't. In a world where people think that the internet is a set of tubes, the thought of the same people legislating "nanotech" products, is a scary thought. Consumer information is critical as well, especially since the only stories that show up in the press are either nothing to do with nanotechnology, alarmist, or over-hyped.

Personally, I like the self-policing approach. It has mostly worked for biotechnology and nanotech can learn from biotech's mistakes. Regulatory bodies don't need to necessarily change their current procedures, e.g. the FDA does not need to treat nanoscale delivery systems any differently from current technology. It needs to make sure that the new delivery systems meet the existing standards.

Posted by: Deepak on 29 Jan 07

Lynette: You're right that the US government needs to do its job. I disagree with you on the nature of that job, however. You can't expect government to ever understand technology until it has been commonplace for 20 years. What you must demand that government do, however, is foster oppportunity and provide incentives to develop a more intelligent society.

We need more scientists, mathematicians and engineers, and we need a society that is willing to learn enough to understand what these experts are saying. That's what the government should working on. Not laws that stifle progress in the name of saving us from Crightonesque intelligent gray goo.

Posted by: Dan on 2 Feb 07



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