Last week, I participated in an nanotech conference [PDF] in Zurich, Switzerland, sponsored by the International Risk Governance Council (IRGC). We reviewed a white paper [PDF] on risk governance of nanotechnology, deliberated in breakout groups, and heard some excellent speakers.
Following are some comments on notes I took during the two-day conference.
Mike Roco, one of the principal authors of the white paper, urged everyone to adopt this new definition of nanotechnology: "the control and restructuring of matter at 1-100 nm to create materials, devices, and structures..." [his emphasis]
That's a subtle but significant improvement over this definition -- "the understanding and control of matter at dimensions of roughly 1 to 100 nanometers, where unique phenomena enable novel applications" -- posted at the website of the U.S. National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI), which Roco heads.
Emphasizing the control and restructuring of matter to create devices and structures gets quite a bit closer to CRN's preferred definition of nanotechnology: "the engineering of functional systems at the molecular scale."
In his presentation, Roco put up a slide showing how emerging major technologies have progressed:
Note that the gap between initial R&D and broad use is shrinking steadily. This is in line with observed trends of accelerating technology.
During one of the breakout sessions, some people complained about an overemphasis on human enhancement issues in the white paper, especially when compared with the scant references to the risk of a nanotechnology arms race and possible warfare. I made the point that a nano-enabled arms race is almost certain to be less stable than the nuclear arms race, and therefore more likely to result in devastating war. I also proposed, on behalf of CRN, the need for an International NanoTechnology Arms Control Treaty, or INTACT.
CRN was not the only NGO (non-governmental organization) among the 100 or so conference attendees. Representatives from Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth, Practical Action, the Meridian Institute, the Woodrow Wilson Center, Demos, the Foresight Nanotech Institute and others were there.
Although we had a wide range of concerns and points of view, there was strong consensus between NGOs on the need for a longer-range outlook and more serious consideration of the potentially transformative impacts of molecular manufacturing. (On the subject of MM, by the way, Christine Peterson from Foresight and I basically spoke with one voice.)
An important point made by one of the NGO speakers was that "technical solutions cannot solve social problems," with the example that "there is enough food in the world for everyone; it's a distribution problem." This is quite true, but it's also true, of course, that improved technology could make a big difference.
Still, we're loathe to be considered technological determinists, since the main purpose of CRN's existence is to stimulate effective and responsible human and humane management of nanotechnology.