The Director's Blog

 

The Problem with Nostradamus

 

7 December.

A lot of what nanotechnology is, as of yet is not.  Like anything growing on an exponential curve, for nano the future will bring orders of magnitude more than the present sees and the past has lived.  Appropriately, then, discussions of nanotechnology have been populated as much by futurists and forecasters as by experimentalists and technologists.  And there have also been those chosen few hailed as “prophets.”

 

If you google “nanotechnology prophet,” you come up with some software, Eric Drexler, Richard Feynman, and a video game with Bruce Willis.  I’m not interested here in the software or Bruce Willis.  But neither do I want to discuss the usual business about Drexler’s Engines of Creation or debates with the late great Richard Smalley, or Feynman’s unique combination of insight and chutzpah that led to “Plenty of Room at the Bottom” and his wager on reducing the contents of a book to the point of a pin.  What I want to focus on is the concept of prophesy, why it is applied to such figures, and what is missing in this application.

 

Prophecy these days seems to be narrowed in meaning to the act of foretelling the future as a matter of empirical fact.  It is popularly the realm of Nostradamus, whose vague, mystical and usually apocalyptic forecasts have inspired a new, post 9-11 generation of tabloid journalism.  It is also this realm of Engines of Creation and “Plenty of Room at the Bottom” where scientists allowed their minds to take flight and speak of what might be seen over the horizon – of the realm of what might be done scientifically and technologically in the future.  Drexler and Feynman have been heralded as prophets for their visions of what, in their view of technological possibilities, will be.

 

We may need to wait a few hundred years to be able to judge the relative merits of Nostradamus, Drexler, and Feynman as forecasters.  But the problem with this “will it happen?” school of prophesy is that it often misses the “should it happen?” questions in a big way.

 

A second, generally recognized facet of prophesy is communication or interlocution with a deity, as for example Moses or Mohammed is often called a prophet.  This sense of prophesy tacks too far in other direction, as what I’m after is not about, or at least not necessarily about, connection to the divine. 

 

Rather, the sense of prophesy that I’m after is the sense of moral vision and purpose that (in just a particular but not exclusive way) the Old Testament prophets offered.  These prophesies took several forms, including scolds and harangues and threats (and rationalizations) of divine retribution for transgressions.  But they also included constructive moral visions about the purpose of action.  I have in mind here particularly the parts of Isaiah, where he reminds the people of Israel that the rituals of observance are of little value if the spirit of their sacrifice is not manifest in deeds (Isaiah 58:3-7).

 

There are, of course, ritual incantations of the promise of nanotechnology, and perhaps more than in the past (and conditioned by previous failures) these incantations include reference not just to material prosperity for those who invest early and often, but also to clear and important purposes like environment, development, and the like.  But to partake in the ritual without manifesting it in deed is empty or, worse, deceptive.

 

In order for our ability to govern – that is, make social judgments about – emerging technologies like nanotechnology to improve, we must heed voices that describe plausible technological futures, to be sure.  But we also need to develop the more prescriptive prophetic voice that helps us understand and commit to why any particular technological future deserves to come about.



Curious Georges

 

17 November.

Over the last two days, I’ve heard two of the nation’s top NSE researchers speak on their views about the technical and societal potential of nanotechnologies:  George Poste, director of The Biodesign Institute and co-PI on the Center for Nanotechnology in Society at ASU; and George Whitesides, Professor of Chemistry and Chemical Biology at Harvard.

 

Poste talked to a small group of faculty at a regular lunch organized by the International Institute for Sustainability on “Synthetic Biology,” a domain at least in part overlapping with nano-biotechnology that includes such investigations as artificial genomes and directed evolution.  Using techniques that treat nature as a proof of concept but not a limiting example, Poste believes that synthetic biology may soon acquire the ability to explore the vast majority of biospace that nature has not yet explored through 4.5 billion years of evolution on earth.  That is, we may gain such control over the nanoscale machinery of biology that we can design and create living beings – not just adding a gene here or there to create phosphorescent bunnies, nor even resurrecting the bizarre sea creatures from the Cambrian explosion, but creating utterly new combinations, structures, and functions the likes of which nature has yet to imagine.

 

Whitesides spoke to the conference that launched the Nanoscale Informal Science Education Network (NISE Net), a group led by the Museum of Science in Boston and the Exploratorium in San Francisco and funded by NSF to engage the general public in nanotechnology.  Whitesides provided a more basic primer on a variety of nanotechnologies, more appropriate to his audience, but he did engage some of the fantastic possibilities of nano-bio, particularly the attempts to understand and recreate the cellular mechanism for that create adenosine triphosphate, (ATP), the energy source of all living cells.  The capacity to replicate such cellular machinery would not, for example, mean that we would be able to build Drexlerian assemblers, but it would enhance the possibility of the designing and controlling cells for specific human purposes.

 

So far, typical stuff from high profile scientists.  But what makes these Georges curious is that they are both willing to talk openly about two things that most scientists – particularly leading ones – are not willing to talk about: identifying some research as irresponsible, and acknowledging the potential wisdom of lay-citizens.  Poste’s talk, informed by his role on the US Defense Science Board and his reasoned apprehension of bioterrorism, identified several recent experiments that Poste believes would have been better left undone (the total synthesis of the polio virus) or unpublicized (the sequences of the 1918 pandemic influenza virus).  Whitesides, informed by experiences as a public scientist and a tradition in Cambridge, MA that goes back to that community’s public hearings on recombinant DNA, described his belief that lay-citizens could be both competently informed about technical issues and exhibit the common sense and wisdom to make the right choices.

 

I did not find myself agreeing with Poste and Whitesides in all matters when they tread on my turf of societal implications – both, for example, have what I take to be a crudely rationalistic approach to issues of risk – but I applaud them for their willingness to acknowledge the responsibilities of scientific leadership in identifying irresponsible work in their midst and acknowledging not just the legitimate role of lay-citizens but their actual governing capacity. 

 

We would all be better off if such Georges were not such curiosities among the scientific elite.

 

 

 


 

 




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