Our December 2007 newsletter included a promise that in the next issue we would offer an assessment of CRN's first five years and present an overview of our accomplishments, our disappointments, and our plans for the future.
In approaching this task, we chose to go back and review what we believed and what we said when we started CRN, and to ponder and report on what we have learned since then.
Early in 2003, we published the following foundational statements that summarized CRN's basic positions:
- Effective use of nanotechnology can benefit everyone.
- Unwise use of nanotechnology can be very dangerous.
- Nanofactory technology can be used safely.
- Preventing nanotechnology is impossible; careful study will be necessary for wise use.
- Effective use of nanotechnology will require intelligent and prudent policy-making.
- The situation is urgent; nanofactories may be developed within a decade.
Let's take those points one at a time and see if they still apply today, in early 2008...
Effective use of nanotechnology can benefit everyone. — What's suggested here is that the benefits of molecular manufacturing might not be distributed equitably unless we make certain choices. We still believe this, and although we have offered arguments to support our position and engaged others in discussion, the issue is still open and may not be decided for quite some time. It's really an old, classic debate about how much the state should intervene in markets, but we think the unprecedented potential productivity of advanced nanotechnology makes it more relevant than ever. We will continue to emphasize this aspect of our message.
Unwise use of nanotechnology can be very dangerous. — Over the years, perhaps not surprisingly, this point has brought more attention to CRN than any other. We have raised concerns about the potential for a new arms race, about environmental implications, about job loss and economic disruption, about ubiquitous intrusive surveillance, and many other dangers. We're gratified that the public at large seems to have caught on to the seriousness of the risks we've raised and placed them in proper perspective versus the still important but less critical worries about things like nanoparticle toxicity. Of course, there is nothing close to agreement on CRN's assertion that "some restrictions, implemented worldwide, will probably be necessary for sufficient control of the use of molecular manufacturing." That's one of our most controversial positions, but we have not yet seen a reason to change it.
Nanofactory technology can be used safely. — We're proud to have taken the lead in proposing extensive plans for safe use of personal nanofactories. Our suggested approach of wide distribution combined with built-in technical restrictions almost always garners positive response. Granted, it will be anything but easy to design and implement such a system, but the basic concepts seem to be sound.
Preventing nanotechnology is impossible; careful study will be necessary for wise use. — This point was made against a backdrop of some individuals and groups calling for a moratorium on nanotechnology research and development or even outright relinquishment of the technology. Fortunately, such cries have found little sympathy. CRN's position that advanced nanotechnology should be developed as fast as it can be done safely and responsibly appears to be the mainstream consensus, and with good reason. The potential benefits are far too great to be relinquished, and the best way to head off risks is to carefully study and understand the technology, and then to develop it under sensible guidelines.
Effective use of nanotechnology will require intelligent and prudent policy-making. — There are three key points in this position: first, that the issues involved are complex and overlapping, meaning that no simple solution will work; second, that a laissez faire approach could be very dicey because the dangers are too great to allow for unregulated dissemination of nanofactory technology; and, third, that policy choices must be made and administrative systems put in place before the technology is complete. The first point seems self-evident and has largely been accepted, although we suspect that the enormous implications of this overwhelming complexity are not yet fully appreciated. The second point is controversial, of course, and this is an area where CRN is open to considering that we might be wrong. Good arguments can be made for the effectiveness — indeed, perhaps even the necessity — of supporting emergent networked solutions instead of top-down imposed solutions. That's an ongoing discussion. The third point is equally controversial, and arguably unachievable, but because it focuses attention on how molecular manufacturing is potentially so disruptive, we think it is worth bringing up again and again.
The situation is urgent; nanofactories may be developed within a decade. — Now, we get to the heart of the matter. Unless CRN can establish the urgency factor suggested by this final point, then all of the other positions stated above may be considered only of academic interest and not necessary for critical debate, or at least not for a long time. So, where are we today?
Since CRN was founded in December 2002, we've seen remarkable progress in the development of technologies that may contribute to the eventual achievement of exponential general-purpose molecular manufacturing. We won't go down the whole list, because it is too long (see this Enabling Nanotech Update for some examples), but it now seems obvious to us and to many scientists and other observers that the feasibility question is well on its way to being settled. The contention that building productive nanoscale machinery is impossible for this reason or that reason has faded into the background. On the point of whether or not molecular manufacturing is feasible, CRN and our allies apparently have won the argument.
A larger question exists, however, about urgency. Feasibility is only one factor; the other is imminence. There is a huge difference between saying that nanofactories will be developed someday and saying that they will be developed soon. We have based our appeals to policy makers and to the public on the idea that immediate action was needed. Originally, we claimed that the technology "might become a reality by 2010, likely will by 2015, and almost certainly will by 2020." Recently we revised that projection to say "might become a reality by 2010 to 2015, more plausibly will by 2015 to 2020, and almost certainly will by 2020 to 2025."
It's interesting to note that while CRN's time frame for the expected development of molecular manufacturing has shifted back by approximately five years, the mainstream scientific community's position has been moving forward, from a point of ‘never', to ‘maybe by the end of the century', to ‘not until at least 2050', and now to ‘perhaps around 2030 or so'. These projections might not yet match up exactly with CRN's, but the gap is steadily shrinking.
So, we're seeing agreement about feasibility, and a convergence around the likely time frame. These are both positive developments, as uncertainty is being removed.
And that's where we stand today. The Center for Responsible Nanotechnology has accomplished a great deal in five years, clarifying and sharpening the discussion, forcing our concerns onto the agenda, and moving the mainstream closer to our positions. Our challenge now is to take a step back and see what we most want to achieve during the next five years.
Mike Treder, Executive Director
Center for Responsible Nanotechnology