In April of this year, my organization, the Centre for Responsible Nanotechnology,
made contact with members of the Royal Society to offer our assistance. This
was in response to news reports about the interest of St. James Palace in the
risks of nanotechnology. We understand that you will direct a new study of nanotechnology
and that your study group may issue recommendations on how it should be regulated.
At CRN, we are examining the risks that advanced nanotechnology may bring (see http://www.crnano.org/dangers.htm). So-called "grey goo" is the most notorious concern, but perhaps more dangerous and more likely is the prospect of an unstable nanotech arms race. Indeed there are numerous risks, and many of them are quite worrisome. However, any effort to halt further research and development into nanotechnology would be irresponsible and dangerous. An attempted global shutdown of molecular nanotech development would not assure anyone's safety or security. Rather, it would drive research underground and could result in a dangerous and unstable black market.
It is our belief at CRN that an unprecedented level of international cooperation may be required to safely develop and effectively administer advanced nanotechnology. In that spirit, we offer our assistance to you, should it be deemed helpful.
Executive Director, Centre for Responsible Nanotechnology
Position of the Center for Responsible Nanotechnology
As noted in your Call for Views, nanotechnology is a broadly diverse collective term. It might be easy to dismiss the field known as molecular nanotechnology (MNT). The work in this area, while extensive, has been largely theoretical to date. Nevertheless, we feel that it is important, for several reasons, to pay serious attention to the technical results that have been calculated, and to the claims that have been attached to them. The position of the Center for Responsible Nanotechnology (CRN) is that MNT will likely turn out to be possible and practical, and close attention may be necessary to prevent undesired consequences or even catastrophe.
Several aspects of MNT distinguish it from other branches of nanotechnology, and indicate the need for focused attention. Perhaps the most important is that MNT promises to produce not just components, but flexible manufacturing systems and powerful products. The effects of this, if it works as claimed, could be quite widespread and significant.
The plausibility of MNT has been the subject of much contention. Our Director of Research has followed the debate for years, and has recently observed a shift in the argument. It used to be claimed that the underlying proposal of MNT–the use of mechanically guided chemistry to build rigid structures–was flatly impossible. Recently, however, some scientists have been saying merely that it is not worth doing. This position, while more defensible, is open to debate.
By design, mechanical chemistry would be flexible, able to build a wide variety of shapes. Its power and precision remain to be determined, and techniques for integrating myriad devices remain to be developed. However, early indications are intriguing. Precise, mechanically guided covalent chemistry has been demonstrated. Serious design work has produced architectures for MNT-based production systems that are (in theory) quite a bit more robust, productive, and easy to use than the initial proposals. CRN is conducting research in this area, and believes that designing a meter-scale factory device from micron-scale "assembler" components may be within the scope of current engineering practice. The fact that no one has proved the basic concept unworkable in more than a decade, while certainly not conclusive, may be significant.
We do not assert that MNT will work--merely that those who believe it to be impossible or unworkable have failed to make a strong case, and that the issue cannot be decided without serious study. There is also strong theoretical evidence for the utility of MNT systems. Nanometer-scale chemical fabrication may have several advantages over human-scale manufacturing techniques. If correct, the theory supports a self-contained manufacturing system capable of producing cheap copies of itself in a very short time.
Engineering practice would of course be somewhat different for massively parallel systems of nanoscale machines than for today's products. However, the broad similarities and differences are fairly well understood. Techniques in common use in software engineering, in particular modular design and levels of abstraction, could allow the rapid development of human-scale products from a small number of carefully engineered components. When and if a basic MNT capability is obtained, diverse products (including integrated manufacturing systems) could be developed quickly, and could even be pre-designed to some extent.
It will be tempting to ignore such a lengthy chain of reasoning. However, there are strong arguments in favor of further investigation. The chain of reasoning outlined above has already been published and publicized. A plausible argument, unanswered by detailed criticism, will continue to generate not only reasonable concerns but also unreasonable and unlikely projections. A detailed and unbiased examination of the feasibility of MNT would be a significant public service, and may be necessary to enable reasonable discussion to proceed in other fields of nanotechnology. Moreover, if flexible, self-contained, self-duplicating, nanotech-based factories can be developed, the ethical and social implications are profound. The benefits, as well as the problems, of such a technology would be extreme.
On the positive side, such a system would facilitate the bootstrapping of industrial infrastructure in underdeveloped areas; greatly reduce the environmental impact of extraction of resources and the manufacture and transportation of goods; allow the rapid prototyping and production of new products, without retooling or retraining; accelerate medical research; permit cheap fabrication of extremely complex and powerful devices; and facilitate widespread distribution of simple lifesaving technologies.
These positives are challenged by a variety of potential negatives: rapid development of weapons leading to an unstable arms race; disruption in many economic sectors; increased independence of nations, reducing incentive to cooperate; small foraging self-replicators (which couldn't happen by chance, but might be developed for sabotage); tiny, non-biodegradable products leading to pervasive litter and possible health problems; a variety of powerful, undesirable products that would be difficult to detect or prevent; and high-stakes intellectual property conflicts arising from cheap but valuable blueprints/products.
Ideally, the possibility or impossibility of MNT will be established far enough in advance of its development to leave time for effective policy to be created. The technology is potentially as useful as plastics and computers, and as dangerous as weapons of mass destruction. Dealing with such a capability may require administration of global scope and unprecedented flexibility.
Unfortunately, this may be complicated by national interests. If MNT can function as claimed, sooner or later nations will realize this, and will begin to race each other to develop it first. If a military development program is begun in any nation, policy options will be sharply narrowed, and the time available for response will be limited.
The Center for Responsible Nanotechnology strongly urges you to give close
attention to the question of feasibility of molecular nanotechnology. If its
feasibility cannot be disproved, then investigation of its potential capabilities,
possible development scenarios, and policy implications should be given high
For more information, please see http://CRNano.org.
Mike Treder, Executive Director
Center for Responsible Nanotechnology
Brooklyn, New York, USA