As you are no doubt aware, I am one of those asked by the Royal Academy for views on the recent Workshop. I have been reading the document with interest. My problem is that although I spent much of my working life involved in the sharp end of many aspects of Technology, I am long since retired and out of touch. I do read a lot, including such as the New Scientist on a regular basis, so I have some general perception. At best, any comments I might make are of a general nature. In some respects, my comments might be provocative.
In one or two places, there are speculative dates mentioned. For example, page 5 mentions SPM as an important process tool around 2020, possibly heralding the real nanotechnology commercial revolution. Is there any basis for such a date? Another example is the mention of self-replicating nanorobots not earlier than 2080. This second example in particular I find incredible. It can only be a wild guess at best. That is 77 years away. I am 70 years of age and when I think of what has happened in my own lifetime, making statements which are pure speculation must surely be avoided. Perhaps the authors consider that any ensuing problems are for future generations to worry about. I have felt for some time that the boundaries between Science & Science Fiction are more blurred than ever.
Another general point concerns the "politics" of this subject. I am convinced that here and elsewhere, one of the main drivers is funding for academia. I like to think that I am a supporter of Science and Technology but the UK has an unfortunate history of pursuit of these matters without adequate consideration of the very necessary connection to the Market Place. Publication & Kudos remain as leading reasons. There are exceptions but it is a culture thing. On another aspect, perhaps this Workshop has been kicked off by scare mongering about grey goo and there are no uniform answers. Reminds me of GM Crops. In terms of trying to organise things to prevent scare mongering, it is surely too late. My response makes use of the Internet. There are already signs that many people have begun to use this medium as a means of "voicing" their opinions. It is not only the so-called Media of Newspapers & Television which must be borne in mind.
The subject(s) under discussion worry me. By definition, we are talking about the depths of Quantum Physics. Unless I have missed some outstanding revelation in recent times, no Physicist from Planck, Einstein, Bohr, Dirac, to Feynman (to name a few of the giants) ever claimed to understand the Quantum World. Indeed, some went on record to confirm that there was no real understanding beyond working mathematical models of admittedly outstanding accuracy. We have our Wave Equations, QED, QCD & so on but the Quantum World remains a mysterious place. Many are familiar with the tale that Physics was almost complete as we approached the end of the 19th century, only to find that by 1905 the cosy world of Physics was torn apart. The pieces have not been put back together. In fact, it seems that the more we find out, the more there is to discover. The human brain may well be incapable of achieving a complete understanding of the world we inhabit and I really doubt that it is possible to predict the outcome of many experiments. I suppose that there are some exceptional characters who understand more than most. They do exist certainly but do they agree with each other? Certainly not. What hope the general public who cannot possibly be expected to grasp the arcane material with conflicting views from the "experts" providing their interpretations?
Other historical experiences are worthy of consideration in dealing with matters of such complexity and lack of understanding of the implications (This statement has to be accepted otherwise there would be no need of workshops and so on, We would just get on with making things). Galileo damaged his eyesight, as did Newton if only on a temporary basis. Others such as Curie did themselves harm playing with their version of fire. Are we venturing into other unknown areas? We must be, especially in the bio area. I take comfort from the fact that the subject is being discussed but perhaps from a base of over confidence? In the comparatively young world of computer software there are few if any programmes of substance which are bug free. Complexities abound and market forces drive the release of products which fail the end user. Loss of functionality or data might be annoying or expensive or both but when dealing with complex products which might have serious effects on life and/or the environment, that is another matter entirely. You may wonder at using software as an example. I am assuming that software in some form will feature strongly. There are many insoluble problems out there, with no known solutions - even some proofs that certain puzzles have no solution. There is a school of thought in dealing with the unknown, that we should move from the posture of Innocent until proven Guilty to the converse.
In my hobby reading of many books on Physics & Science, I have arrived at the conclusion that Science & Science Fiction are intermingled more than ever and it is difficult to separate one from the other. Using Cosmology as an example, there are definitive pictures of the Universe as it is (or as it was?), based upon a strange mixture of models and observations. The observations use all sorts of assumptions to arrive at astronomical distances. They are not really pure observations at all but adjusted by some model or other. Fact or Fiction? Nice pictures though but one needs a packet, not a pinch, of salt. In the Quantum World, surely many observations are also subject to interpretation, by definition. Uncertainty Principle etc. It never ceases to amaze me that contemporary models of the astronomical Universe have their roots in the ill-understood Quantum Theory of the very small. We are all here because of a Quantum Event?
Let me pick up on a few specific points as they occur to me as I read:
Page 6 c) Applications.
I note reference to targeting the young in market terms. That is a matter of concern. There is already much criticism of the adverse economic effects upon young families today from contemporary advertising. I have first hand experience of this with three grandsons and their "must have" toys.
In the same section, it is suggested that the defence market would not be significant and yet the US DoD is a major player. Does not make sense. Also in the same section, there is reference to "6" or even "9" reliability. What on earth does this mean?
Page 7 d) Science Fiction.
I have already questioned the wisdom of quoting throwaway dates such as 2080. Reference is made to rigorous use of known Physical Laws but they are at best incomplete. By implication, there are unknown Laws yet to be found. Which particular set will be used?
Page 7/8 e) Other areas.
The first paragraph seems too vague. It is really saying we don't know. On the subject of road maps, when we are talking about product road maps, surely these are largely industrial secrets until the next big thing hits the news. If true, how do you persuade industry to co-operate? Quoting an example, Apple suddenly announced the G5 last June, using a different CPU source, switching road maps from Motorola to IBM in the process. There is a basic conflict between the "open" nature of Academia and the "closed" posture of Industry. Being cynical, I read co-operation to mean funding.
Page 9 a) Nanotechnology.
There is an admission here that Technology already exists where the underpinning Science is not well understood. If I equate Technology with Products in the Market Place, this is inevitable. Clear examples are GM Crops, Mobile Phones, Masts & even Overhead Power Lines. It seems there are no definitive answers on subjects which have been around for some time. What hope N&N? As an aside, this does remind me that I did indulge in Technology at the sharp end without adequate understanding of the underlying Science & Physics, on more than one occasion. This has troubled me for years, especially recently when looking back at some documents for nostalgic
Page 9 b) ii) Biology related.
Very much a danger area in the public mind.
Page 12 iv) Protein misfolding.
Need I say anything.
v) Empirical understanding .... Second paragraph says it all. There
are models and the real world. Weather Forecasting comes to mind.
vi) Toxicity. No doubt the authors are right. We do not really know what is out there now. Seems to me that exploration of N&N might have a real plus by providing better monitoring tools. Make a positive statement on this, rather than being on the defensive?
Page 13 I am saying it should be viewed as Risky until better understood. One problem here is that Academia does not like restrictions of a bureaucratic or security nature but surely some restraints are necessary. Take my Madame Curie example, with her lab notes in lead lined boxes today.
Page 15 Beyond Roadmap. .... being aware of but not driven by Industry needs ... ? Not sure about that. Are we not all driven by making money nowadays, for better or for worse?
Page 17 Bionanotechnology.
What a word! This may well be the crux of ethical & regulatory considerations.
Page 24 Other Factors.
It comes as no surprise that major corporations are (more) secretive. Sadly, I do not see much hope of more open discussion. The reverse is much more likely.
Overall, the document covers a lot of ground and highlights problem areas. In some ways, it tries to cover too much ground in my view. As I have said earlier more than once, there is a blurring of the boundary between Science & Science Fiction. Again, repeating earlier remarks, we seem to be moving rapidly into areas which are not well understood, especially the entire Quantum World.
I hope you can make sense of my rather rambling observations. Approaching your
deadline, I decided to send as is. Perhaps you would have preferred me to have
forgotten all about it! One more thing. Do we have enough new young minds coming
through to tackle this stuff and who is teaching them? Teaching does tend to
lag behind does it not, using old material with which the teacher is comfortable.
I educated myself in Relativity & Quantum Theory to a rudimentary level
as a hobby. None of this was ever mentioned in my schooling but was not new
stuff. Currently working with Mac OS X latest version on a G5. I try to keep
the brain cells active.
Jim Stark FREng