Nanotechnology is just beginning to move out of the research labs and into the factories and it is already causing a stir, as examplyfied by Prince Charles’ recent pronouncements. As awareness of this new fields’ potential grows outside of the scientific community, public debate on nanotechnology and its applications will inevitably increase and this is to be welcomed. Our concern, however, is that the activities of lobbies [1] that are PR-savvy, well-founded, ideologically-motivated and strongly opposed to the development of advanced technologies will result in an unnecessary slow-down of progress in this area.

The recent years’ campaigns against GM crops are the perfect example of what we are concerned about: an expertly executed “spin” based on insufficient information and theatrical direct-action that nevertheless wins the hearts of substantial sections of the general public and has a negative impact on the development of an emerging industry. In the case of GM crops, it could be argued that there is relatively little loss for the consumer (in developed countries, at least) if GM produce is not available on supermarket shelves, but in the case of nanotechnology the long term loss would be substantially more significant.

We welcome the current applications of nanoparticles in material science, but we are also deeply aware that this is only a first step and that over the next ten to twenty years the use of nanoparticles will become more sophisticated, to the point where rudimentary nanosystems (prototypes of which we already see emerging from the research labs [2]) will be produced that could revolutionise the computer industry, medicine and manufacturing. If and when the more sophisticated nanosystems already being theorised [3] will become a reality, and it is worth remembering that no practical or theoretical reason against their feasability has so far being demonstrated, the potential for a profound trasformation of the human condition will become available [4], as well as the potential for truly nightmarish scenarios (e.g. the so-called “grey goo” scenario [5]).

This is no reason to relinquish this technology, as has been famously demanded by Bill Joy. Even if relinquishment was adopted by all the democracies, it might not be possible to impose it on oppressive regimes, which would result in some such regimes obtaining a key technological edge with significant military applications (mirroring what we are witnessing with nuclear proliferation). Furthermore, strategies that can help avoid the worst-case scenarios have already been proposed. [6]

The so-called precautionary principle in its strict interpretation has been used with the stated intention of contrasting progress in the areas its proponents do not approve of. This has proved effective in the past and it is likely to be the strategy of choice of the opponents of the development of nanotechnology. The problem with the strict interpretation of the precautionary principle is that it leaves us exposed to the risks inherent in the inaction it prescribes. As a positive alternative to that, we support the adoption of the so-called “active” version of the precautionary principle, especially in the medium to long term and in regard to the development of the more advanced nanosytems.

The disadvantages of the strict interpretation of the precautionary principle are:

1. No other solution may be found for certain pressing problems.

2. Inaction on the part of responsible people could simply lead to the development and use of MNT [molecular nanotechnology] by less responsible people.

3. Lack of understanding of the technology will leave the world ill-equipped to deal with irresponsible use. [7]

On the other hand, in it’s active interpretation, the precautionary principle “does not automatically forbid risky activities; instead, it calls for an appropriate effort to mitigate the risk—which may well involve finding and choosing a different activity.” “The active form of the Precautionary Principle urges more action instead of less.” [7]

As with any new technology, nanotechnology promises to solve a host of problems while creating novel ones. We should prepared to handle the risks with foresight and planning, rather than bury the head in the sand. The goal must be the safe development of advanced technologies in order to have access to the benefits while minimising the risks.

Fabio Albertario & Julian Snape – July 2003

[1] Etc Group (formerly the Rural Advancement Foundation International) is probably the most active in terms of recent activism, but larger bodies such as Greenpeace are beginning to mobilise in the same direction. The Etc Group curiously decided to rename nanotechnology “atomtechnology”, possibly as a way to smear the field with the negative implications they feel the general public associates with atomic energy.

[2] Even a cursory on-line search reveals hundreds of teams working at the edge between naturally-occurring and manufactured molecular motor:

[3] Nanosystems – Molecular Machinery, Manufacturing and Computation. K. Eric Drexler

[4] Nanomedicine, by Robert A. Freitas Jr. (Volume I: Basic Capabilities; Nanomedicine, Volume IIA: Biocompatibility; Nanomedicine, Vol. IIB: Systems and Operations; Nanomedicine, Vol. III: Applications)

[5] Ecophagy and Gray Goo. A survey of the field, compiled by Robert A. Freitas Jr.

[6] Foresight Guidelines on Molecular Nanotechnology – Foresight Institute and Institute of Molecular Manufacturing

[7] Applying the Precautionary Principle to Nanotechnology - Chris Phoenix and Mike Treder, The Centre for Responsible Nanotechnology

Fabio Albertario & Julian Snape