July 5, 2004

NANOTECHNOLOGY UPDATE: Larry Lessig has a piece in Wired that makes some observations on nanotechnology and politics:

Suddenly, nanotech replaced Y2K as the nightmare du jour. And this in turn inspired some scientists, hoping for funding, to push a very different approach – not the bottom-up vision of molecules manufacturing things, but a top-down system of human-controlled machines making ever smaller stuff. There was lots that could be done without nanobots. Buckyballs, nano-building blocks, had already been discovered; nanoscale computer chips were just on the horizon. The billions that Clinton had offered could be put to good use, scientists promised. There was really no need for scientists “to scare our children,” Nobel Prize-winning chemist Richard Smalley scolded, with talk about self-replicating monsters.

Then things turned really ugly. For it wasn’t enough for some to argue against building tiny assemblers. The world of federal funding would only be safe, critics believed, if the idea of bottom-up nanotech could be erased. Molecular manufacturing, Smalley asserted, was “just a dream,” and “simple facts of nature [would] prevent it from ever becoming a reality.” In an ideal world, such scientific controversy would be settled by science. But not this time: Without public debate, funding for such “fantasy” was cut from the NNI-authorizing statute. Thanks to Senator John McCain, not a single research proposal for molecular manufacturing is eligible for federal dollars. . . .

Given the politics of science, this strategy is understandable. Yet it is a strategy inspired not by the laws of nature but by the perverse nature of how we make laws. We are cowards in the face of Bill Joy’s nightmare. We dissemble rather than reason, because we can’t imagine rational government policy addressing these reasonable fears.

It is this that we should fear more than any nightmare Bill Joy might imagine.

Indeed. (Via Howard Lovy).

It’s also a strategy that has already backfired, though there’s reason to hope that things are improving.

UPDATE: More thoughts here: “bemoan it all you want but this is the political process we have.”

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