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« Nanotechnology and Wealth | Main | CRN Task Force Update »

August 24, 2005


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Tom Craver

I think the lesson of GM foods is "Don't threaten the sacred cows of powerful interest groups".

GM foods were never much of a threat to human health - the threat of GM foods was to the natural gene pool of plants. That angered the Greens, who - realizing that most people couldn't get emotionally involved in something so remote and abstract - cleverly played on people's fears by creating the "FrankenFoods" meme.

Stem cell research had the misfortune of stepping into the middle of the abortion debate - and got blind-sided by the neo-cons. The association with cloning and the implication of duplicating a soul or creating a soul-less human also didn't help.

So - what sacred-cow-pie is nanotech likely to blunder into?

There's already the meme of dangerous nano-particles. I view that as a loaded gun laid out in plain sight by the Greens - a warning to nanotechnologists: "Don't put the environment at risk, or mobs of frightened people will be demonstrating outside your research lab."

The smartest move here is to make sure nanotech is NEVER invisbile - always tie nanotech firmly to human-visible objects. There's nothing easier to stir people up about than an invisible, unavoidable threat (radiation, poisons in food or water, nanobots/nanoparticles).

It would also be foolish to talk about unleashing hordes of nanobots into the atmosphere to reduce global warming - the Greens will NOT be saying "Oh, what a nice idea!" They already know how they want to fix Global warming - their paradigm is ALWAYS to reduce human interference with Nature.

Even the idea of free-roving in-body nanobots is going to be suspect - they could too easily escape the body, perhaps get into wild animals. A decent compromise may be to put medical nanobots on ultra-fine and essentially un-breakable tethers - possibly fractal - running out from tiny but human-visible implants. This could also be useful for signalling and coordinating. Hopefully that'll be biologically compatible, or the whole idea of medical nano is at risk.

The neo-cons haven't laid out any explicit threats against nanotech, but clearly if nanotech gets real and does anything touching on the human soul (death, reproduction, some aspects of the mind), they will very quickly get involved.

Avoid pushing ideas like mind uploads, memory recording or alteration (not even for possible restoration of Alzheimer patients, let alone directly implanting knowledge or memories from other people), sentient AI, cryonic resuscitation, and nano-equivalents of recreational drugs.

I'm not saying no one should ever work on those areas - just hold off pushing those ideas until nanotech is well established, lest they become the bathwater that infant nanotech gets tossed out with.

- No invisible nanotech
- Keep your nanotech firmly attached at all times
- Don't mess around with Mother Nature
- Obey all "Keep off the Soul" signs

Chris Phoenix, CRN

Tom, good point about no invisible nano. As far as I can see, large aircraft will be better than small ones for removing CO2. They should be large enough to navigate (fly upwind to a destination) and small enough to be solar-powered. I'm guessing bird-sized.

If they're too small, they won't be able to fly efficiently, and their intake will be diffusion-limited. Flying is also important to reach the upper atmosphere, if you want to clean things up quickly (atmosphere mixing time said to be 3-5 years) and is necessary to be able to reach the CO2 offload point.

MM will have many medical applications, just as it will have many military applications. I think we'll be talking mainly about the applications that could kill a lot of people--which are not the medical ones. Association with cryonics caused a lot of problems for MM acceptance a decade or two ago; I don't propose to repeat that mistake.

As far as I can see, MM leads to nanofactories, which lead to lots of implications (including much better nanofactories and computers and a possible design-improvement feedback and a substantially higher level of capability, which I don't know how to think about).

If someone wants to ban nanofactories, they can say that nanofactories can make spooky brain implant devices. Or they can just say "What if a kid hurts themself with a dangerous nanofactory?" Given the level of political noisemaking in this country recently, I feel somewhat fatalistic about this. But I agree, we shouldn't spoonfeed arguments to demagogues.


Mike Treder, CRN

Good points, Tom and Chris. I'd say the three most important areas of focus in our public presentation of MM should be:

1. Nanofactories
2. Nanofactories
3. Nanofactories

After that, we can talk about:

4. Nanofactory benefits
5. Nanofactory risks
6. Nanofactory solutions

But in discussing 4,5,6 we should remember:

7. No nanobots
8. No cryonics
9. No implants
10. No immortality
11. No human cloning
12. No food creation (meat machines)
13. No mind uploads
14. No sentient AI

What we have here is a simple list of do's and dont's for presenting MM.

Let's make nano macro: as big as a breadbox. No threatening germlike or buglike bots (mistakes made by Ray Kurzweil and Josh Hall in their books); just stuff people can see and touch and relate to in everday terms.

The implications of nanofactories are plenty big enough and REAL enough -- and if we can't effectively manage those dangers, we probably won't be around to worry about all the rest anyway.

michael vassar

Great analysis all. These are important points.
Why would you need or want ANY flying device to remove CO2? Shouldn't earth-bound nanofactories which use CO2 in order to build practical devices remove all you want as a side effect? Who cares about atmosphere circulation time (are you thinking of Ozone not CO2)? Most of the atmosphere is down here, and since CO2 is heavy this applies even more to it.

I will add another item to the list of concerns. Don't be a liberal or a conservative. Either way you will get written off, and half of your ideas will be superimposed on slightly similar cliches. Stay far away from any politically charged topic.

Oh, yes, for when you are not speaking publicly but are thinking among yourselves, never forget that an AI doesn't need to be "sentient" to kill you. Evolution is a perfectly effective non-sentient local reproduction maximizer and you don't want to mess with it. Don't even think of messing with global maximizers of anything.

Mike Treder, CRN

"Don't be a liberal or a conservative... Stay far away from any politically charged topic."

Michael, thanks for this. It helps to be reminded again.

Mike Deering

Nanotech is not going to be like anything that has ever happened before. Control of the structure of matter at the atomic/molecular level opens up more new fundamental capabilities than we can imagine. It's going to come too fast for the forces of resistance to stop, slow, or guide. As soon as they identify one facet that they want to control, five more will appear. The market, security, and creative foreces are so strong that it will flow around any obstacle built in its path. You might as well try to plan for each wind gust of a hurricane.

I just got google ads on my
http://www.nano-catalog.com website, so everyone please visit it and make me rich.


Chris Phoenix, CRN

Michael, nanofactories probably won't be very useful for pulling carbon out of the air. There's a pretty low concentration of carbon in the air; it makes a lousy feedstock.

At the same time, there's far more carbon in the air than we could use quickly--especially if using it required putting in several times the energy that it released when it was burned. Storing CO2 will be far cheaper, energy-wise, than building diamond.

If it's important to clean the atmosphere quickly (say, less than a decade) then it will be necessary to build dedicated gathering/storage devices.

There are advantages to doing your gathering higher-up in the atmosphere. Stronger sunlight, less weather, less dirt. Closer to the ozone layer, if that still needs repair. Less visual intrusion. Opportunity to piggyback scientific or communication payloads on your fleet.


Tom Craver


I agree that MNT could do the CO2 cleanup.

But I'll bet that if you bounce that idea off of Greens as a group (not one-on-one with individuals) - you'll get a horrified reaction, and they'll quickly bend their minds to thinking of subtle ways that your scheme may threaten to harm Nature as much as the CO2 cleanup helps.

The idea that technology can fix problems in Nature threatens Green interests, because it implies that harming the environment isn't so bad or dangerous. They will see it as promoting an "Oh, don't over-react, we can clean that problem up in a few years" attitude.

So - "Don't mess with Mother Nature" - especially don't appear to be saying that problems considered major by Greens will be easy to solve in the future.

Note - I'm not criticizing Greens, I'm trying to accurately characterize their attitudes, so we can avoid drawing their opposition by promoting ideas for "techno-fix" solutions.

Tom Craver

If you want to use MNT to take up CO2, I'd say focus on collecting CO2 at fossil fuel plants, where it's concentrated, and condensing CO2 out of the air could be done reasonably efficiently even without MNT.

THAT would be the kind of solution Greens could support - reducing human pollution - though of course they'd much rather see the fossil fuel power plant shut down entirely due to MNT-built solar power plants and MNT-enabled efficiency in machines.

Wes Du Charme

It is all well and good to not feature, or lead with, some of the more radical implications of nanotechnology. However, in an age in which information just wants to be free, you had better be prepared to discuss such things as cryonics, immortality, nanobots, and AI. The alternative, in front of an audience in which at least some members are knowledgeable, is to look foolish or duplicitous.

Jamais Cascio

Tom, although I think your list of do's and don't's are a very good start as an answer to this question, I think you have a somewhat dated view of "Greens," by which I take you to mean people with a strong environmental focus, rather than the rather ineffectual (in most places) political party.

The fastest-growing and most intellectually energetic group of environmentalists these days are those who have a strong bias towards adopting well-vetted emerging technologies as tools for reducing and repairing environmental damage. Bruce Sterling's Viridian group, the eco-magazine Grist, and the site I edit, WorldChanging.com, are all examples of this movement.

Note that I said "well-vetted" above. That there are rapidly-growing numbers of enviros who are happy to use smart technologies as green tools doesn't mean that it's a blank check for whatever new technologies happen to emerge. Rather, it means demands for abundant research on system effects, transparency of results, ongoing monitoring post-adoption, and an institutional willingness to both admit mistakes and resolve them. That is, demands for responsibility.

Although the "Frankenfood" meme certainly was effective marketing of anti-GMO attitudes, the strength of those feelings are greatly heightened by the behavior of many of the companies involved in producing GM foods. From lawsuits over wind-blown seeds to claims of suppressed research results to an endemic "we know what's good for you, citizen, so shut up" attitude, the GM foods industry has been its own worst enemy, and has done far more damage to itself than any group of chanting hippies ever could.

There is a lesson here, too: don't just pay attention to how citizens responded to biotech (although that's important), pay attention to how biotech companies (especially agro-biotech) mishandled their situation. They are a lesson in what not to do.

And Tom, I appreciate when you say that you're not criticizing Greens, and I believe you. I just want to make sure that the attitudes you're trying to accurately characterize are the ones most likely to hold sway in the nanotech era.

Chris Phoenix, CRN

Tom, MM and fossil fuel are almost exclusive, in the sense that soon after we have MM we won't need fossil fuel plants anymore. And I'd like to see calculations for efficient condensing of CO2 out of the air. Liquid nitrogen isn't *that* much cheaper than liquid fuel, and there's more than three orders of magnitude more nitrogen than CO2 in the atmosphere.


Wes, cryonics and immortality do not look like major risks, at least compared to devastating war or even the societal change that could be created by full-immersion VR. (You think TV is bad...)

We can talk about rapidly advancing medical breakthroughs, and if someone asks, I can say that I can't easily think of a chronic disease that can't be addressed with MM-enabled technology.

Products of MM will come in a variety of sizes, but there will be few applications for sub-micron robots, and they will be harder to design than larger products.

Massively parallel computation may or may not accelerate research into AI. I don't think MM will enable anything AI-wise that we couldn't do without it, but it could make it easier. It should be looked into.

So, we can talk about immortality, cryonics, nanobots, and AI. But I don't think our mission requires focusing on them (with the possible exception of AI).


Janessa Ravenwood

Personally, my primary "wish list" focus is medical nanotechnology. As a cryonicist (one of the few who actually has TWO cryonics contracts) discussions of cryonic suspension, revival, and immortality are more or less unavoidable. My typical policy is: try to sound upbeat but realistic and above all else try not to make it sound crazy as it's an inherently radical concept to most people. Well, it's almost a mundane concept for me at this point, but I live with such ideas daily and I recognize that not everyone shares my perspective.

Tom Craver

Fossil fuels are a much denser energy source than solar or wind. Unless centrally organized society collapses, or use of fossil fuels is banned, we'll probably still find them convenient to use, even if we no longer use them to make electricity or to power our cars.

I'm not arguing that using liquid CO2 as a fuel would be practical - just that it could be zero net addition to the atmosphere.

Mike Treder, CRN

Jamais, I agree that the often condescending and paternalistic reassurances from industry and government will not cut it with nanotech. The public won't get fooled again -- nor should they.

With all emerging technologies, openness is not only good politics and good business, it's also essential for the making of responsible policy.

Tom Craver

Jamais - I don't think we need to debate how nuanced the average or majority of Green's views on technology are, or will be by the time MNT becomes practical. Probably impossible to get agreement, as everyone thinks their own views are "just right", no matter how extreme or ordinary they are.

But I would expect a typical Green to reject anything that sounds remotely like it means "Polluting today is ok, because we'll be able to fix all pollution once we get nanotech."

So I'd avoid talking about using nanotech to reduce CO2 in the atmosphere, or pull heavy metals out of the soil or water supply, as hopeful and probable as those scenarios might be. I'd certainly avoid suggesting any sort of free-range nanobots roving about - even bird sized ones.

The other way to think of those sorts of ideas is that they're not just politically risky - but that in fact they ARE risky and probably not nearly well enough thought out.

anand krishan singh

it will come closer as the vieu that all the cell info is expressed in nano scale only

Chris Phoenix, CRN

Tom, fossil fuels aren't all that convenient. Sure they're dense, but so are buckytube springs or flywheels. And fossil fuels require oxygen; check out the size of the air-handling pipes on your car's engine. And the mix of chemicals is likely to cause inefficiency, which means waste heat. And they're flammable and poisonous. Better to have a self-contained power source that can produce mechanical or electrical power with 99+% efficiency.

I don't think a model-airplane-sized flyer is anyone's idea of a "nanobot." I'd feel pretty comfortable suggesting that CO2 gathering capacity be built into the flyers that people will be launching for myriad reasons anyway.

Perhaps, when thinking about green responses to technology, the most important distinction is this: Will a green person or group be happy to hear that things may be less disastrous than they look?

Will they be relieved or dismayed at the statement, "With MM, the earth's sustainable carrying capacity is comfortably over ten billion people, and if population projections are accurate, we need not face a resource crisis in the forseeable future"?

I don't see how to find common ground with people who would be dismayed by that statement. I would expect that those who would be relieved would like to hear about things like CO2 cleanup.


Jamais Cascio

>>But I would expect a typical Green to reject anything that sounds remotely like it means "Polluting today is ok, because we'll be able to fix all pollution once we get nanotech."<<

Tom, I believe you are entirely correct here.


Chris asks whether greens would be relieved or dismayed by an argument that MM would allow increased carrying capacity without resource crisis. The answer depends heavily upon whether the argument for MM is presented in a way that explicitly engages the larger issues not covered by the "resource crisis" label. If MM makes it easier for the planet to supply the resources for a much larger population, but doesn't address the resulting effects of said growth, you're going to see push-back.

Examples of possible non-resource problems that would generate resistance: increased suburban/exurban sprawl and greenspace reduction; increased cheap production without corresponding increased material recycling and reuse; increased reliance upon industrial agriculture and plant monocultures; environmental toxins resulting from misuse/accidents; patenting of designs based on naturally-occuring organisms and/or existing "traditional" local knowledge (something that doesn't get talked about a lot in the US/Europe, but is a huge, huge deal in South America and Africa); environmental feedback arising from attempts to manipulate insufficiently-understood systems. I'm sure we could imagine others, too.

I'm not saying that *any* of those are inevitable results of MM, or even likely results; further, Mike and Chris know that I'm a strong supporter of responsible research into and development of MM. What I am saying is that the concerns many greens will have arise from more than just whether MM reduces harm in a single issue area; the much bigger concern will be about unintended consequences, unexpected system interactions, and developments that make it even cheaper to pollute or damage ecosystems.

Fortunately, it seems to me that the discussion here largely accepts these types of cautions. My emphasis, then, is on making sure that MM proponents work from the outset to grapple with these possibilities, and to do so in as transparent and collaborative a way as possible.

Tom Craver

I think you've mis-read me - regardless of what energy STORE we use for cars, fossil fuels (oil, coal) are a dense energy SOURCE, and therefore likely to be used. Even with carbon sequestration, fossil energy will likely be affordable, especially with MM enhanced devices for efficiently extracting them.

Let's examine CO2 bird-bots, to see how attractive they're likely to be to Greens.

Assume the birdbot floats - so all it's solar energy collection can go into processing air. Let's assume it has 400sq-cm of area (bird-sized) and collects about 10 watts of electricity (averaged over a day). Perhaps it could remove all CO2 from 1cu-cm/second?

Assume the goal is just a 10% reduction in CO2 levels - processing 10% of one cubic meter takes a bird about 1e5 seconds. Assume the program runs for ~32 years - about 1e9 seconds - with each bird handling 1e4 m^3.

The atmosphere is about 5e18 kg, and density at sea level is 1.2kg/m^3. Assume the air mixes, so the birdbots only have to process ~4e18 m^3 of air. So we'll need about 4e14 birdbots.

400 million-million birdbots - nearly 1 per square meter of Earth's surface! Collecting 4000 TeraWatts - all of the current electricity generation capacity on the planet is only about 4 Terawatts!

I think Greens MIGHT have some concerns about such a program.

If you want to do massive climate engineering, you might as well release 400 million-million floating mirrors to reflect sunlight and directly cool the Earth. That would be far cheaper than the space mirror proposed by others, and the mirrors could be controlled in flocks for weather control. Another idea that Greens would be right to be very concerned about.

Setting aside the likelihood of accidental environmental damage due to a well-intentioned program (remember the forest fire control program?), there's weather as a weapon of mass destruction, and sapping the energy of an enemy dependent on solar power prior to attacking them. It's a weapon that can scale from one house up to continents.

Chris Phoenix, CRN

Jamais, I like what you wrote.

My impression is that we're facing several non-sustainable and rapidly worsening global environmental problems today. CO2, oil scarcity, ocean overuse, groundwater.

A major system collapse threatens to throw us into an Easter Island spiral, where our collective death throes strip entire ecologies on our continent-sized islands. The damage we could do in such a spiral might be far worse than the damage we've already done, or the damage we're likely to do with mere overconsumption. So I'd think the first goal for greens is to avoid an Easter Island spiral. MM can accomplish that.

Many of the problems you mentioned will actually be mitigated by MM compared with other technologies.

Tom, yes I misread you. But fossil fuel is not sustainable long-term, and solar collection will be able to produce more energy than fossil mining possibly could.

Also, there could be unexpected energy sources, such as turning the Yellowstone caldera into a giant geothermal project in order to defuse it. I hesitate to suggest it, as it would be quite difficult even with MM, and presumably dangerous. But the consequences of the caldera blowing would be unthinkable even with MM. As far as I know, we're overdue for an eruption and the region is active. We just might discover that we have no choice but to try.

The energy to extract CO2 from the atmosphere is approximately the energy required to compress it, which is a fraction of its weight in gasoline. There's about 3E12 tons of CO2 in the atmosphere; gasoline is 13 MWh per ton; total compression energy is therefore considerably less than 4E19 Wh. Your birdbots collect 5.6E20 Wh.


Tom Craver

I'll certainly grant that my "1cc/sec" processing rate was a guestimate, but I think it's closer than the ~1000cc/sec that your estimate would seem to require a 10 watt birdbot to compress (since your energy estimate appears to come in at around 3 orders of magnitude lower than mine.)

Does your estimate take into account the fact that you'd need to compress all the air in a volume, in order to extract the CO2? CO2 is about 0.0365% by volume. Using that as a rough estimate of mass, you'll have to process over 2700 tons of air to get 1 ton of CO2. That'd change your energy estimate to "considerably less than 1e23 Wh", which seems to be in pretty good accord with my estimate (which I think was actually about 1e21 Wh, btw).

You should be able to extract some of the energy used - heat and air pressure - as you allow the compressed air to expand after extracting the CO2. Maybe that could give you as much as a 10x improvement over my estimates - effectively allowing the birdbot to process 10cc/sec.

Now maybe there's some trick - say a molecular filter that allows N2 and O2 and argon through, but stops CO2 - that could substantially lower energy requirements - but I doubt it could get more than about 1000x better than my estimate, and I'm unconvinced that even a 1000x reduction in size of the program would make it acceptable for Greens.

Chris Phoenix, CRN

Tom, I certainly was not assuming you'd have to compress all the air to get the CO2 out. CO2-binding sorting rotors should work just fine.


Jamais Cascio

Chris, I agree that the ecological benefits of MM, wisely introduced, should be far greater than possible problems.

Tom, as someone who is immersed daily in these issues, I'm pleased at the degree of attention you're paying to the concerns of self-described Greens. My only wish is that there were more people like you...

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