December 24, 2005

Nanotechnology -- Corporate Wet Dream II

My last blog entry resulted in a comment from Mr. Alan B. Shalleck taking me to task for not having done my "homework." He implores me to consider all of the concerned and responsible heads of companies who are in the nanotech business. He says that the industry recognizes the "risks that you over play." He advises: "Let's not blow off steam and scare the world about nanotechnology without understanding how responsible the industry itself is being."

The definition of nanotechnology, as provided by the Center for Responsible Nanotechnology (CRN), is as follows:

Nanotechnology is the engineering of tiny machines—the projected ability to build things from the bottom up, using techniques and tools being developed today to make complete, highly advanced products. Shortly after this envisioned molecular machinery is created, it will result in a manufacturing revolution, probably causing severe disruption. It also has serious economic, social, environmental, and military implications.

Here is what CRN has to say about the dangers of nanotechnology:

Molecular nanotechnology (MNT) will be a significant breakthrough, comparable perhaps to the Industrial Revolution—but compressed into a few years. This has the potential to disrupt many aspects of society and politics. The power of the technology may cause two competing nations to enter a disruptive and unstable arms race. Weapons and surveillance devices could be made small, cheap, powerful, and very numerous. Cheap manufacturing and duplication of designs could lead to economic upheaval. Overuse of inexpensive products could cause widespread environmental damage. Attempts to control these and other risks may lead to abusive restrictions, or create demand for a black market that would be very risky and almost impossible to stop; small nanofactories will be very easy to smuggle, and fully dangerous. There are numerous severe risks—including several different kinds of risk—that cannot all be prevented with the same approach. Simple, one-track solutions cannot work. The right answer is unlikely to evolve without careful planning.

The very next sentence sums it up: The potential benefits of molecular manufacturing are immense, but so are the dangers.

Is the CRN overplaying the dangers? Let's take a look.

I am reassured, but only barely, by the fact that there is such an organization as the Center for Responsible Nanotechnology, and that it has begun the process of indentifying and worrying about all the risks inherent in this technological wave of the future. Here is what the organization calls an "incomplete" list of the dangers:

Economic disruption from an abundance of cheap products
Economic oppression from artificially inflated prices
Personal risk from criminal or terrorist use
Personal or social risk from abusive restrictions
Social disruption from new products/lifestyles
Unstable arms race
Collective environmental damage from unregulated products
Free-range self-replicators (gray goo) — downgraded as a risk factor
Black market in nanotech (increases other risks)
Competing nanotech programs (increases other risks)
Attempted relinquishment (increases other risks)


And Mr. Shalleck contends that I have overplayed the risks?

You can read here full detailed discussions of the dangers of nanotechnology in the words of the "responsible" part of this industry, the CRN.

By way of disclosure, it should be noted that Mr. Shalleck operates a website, called Nanoclarity, dedicated to the science of nanotechnology, explaining it, providing what he calls "EXTRAORDINARY NANOCOMPANY OPPORTUNITIES," and directly recommending companies to invest in. Mr. Shalleck offers subscriptions to a newsletter this way: Stay ahead. Be savvy. Minimize your nanoinvestment risk...understand nanotech from an expert every month. Here is a press release announcing a milestone of 1000 subscribers for his newsletter. Nowhere in the release are any dangers or risks mentioned.

While I was perusing the Nanoclarity website today, I searched in vain for any mention of the "immense dangers" that the Center for Responsible Nanotechnology enumerates at great length. All I really found was language about the wonderful opportunities of investing in nanotechnology, why interested parties should subscribe to his newsletter, and his promises that he and his family would not invest in companies that he recommends to his subscribers until 90 days after he recommends them.

I also tried all the links he has on his front page, and I tried to go to the subscribe page (so I could find out how much a subscription costs), but the links all failed. Eventually, I was not even able to link to www.nanoclarity.com itself. Perhaps it was only a momentary failure.

Mr. Shalleck is teaching an MBA course about nanotechnology and investment in it at Rutgers University. In promoting his course at Rutgers on the website of Foresight Nanotech Institute (whose subtitle is Advancing Beneficial Nanotechnology) Shalleck says:

... look at my NanoClarity issue #4 in which I describe a series of business models for nanocompanies…and rate them as to their probability of reaching “sustainable profitability.” I will teach these in my “managing Technology” MBA course next fall at the Rutgers Business School.

Sustainable profitability, indeed.

As a lifelong scientist and teacher, I have no reason to doubt Mr. Shalleck's personal commitment to the beneficial exploitation of nanotechnology. I do worry, however, that his personal self-interest might cause him, unconsciously even, to pay only lip-service to the dangers, in favor of the benefits. The fact that he protests to me "how responsible the industry itself is being" while in all his public statements about nanotechnology does not once mention the "immense" dangers is reason for caution.

I find it revealing that Foresight Nanotech Institute feels the need to describe itself as "advancing beneficial nanotechnology." I assume it is because they want to distinguish themselves from all the others around the world who may not be advancing beneficial nanotechnology. I also find it interesting that, after perusing the Foresight website, I could not find any mention of risks or dangers. And I certainly was not reassured to find that among the speakers at the 2005 Foresight conference were representatives from Lockheed Martin (one of the nation's largest military contractors) and the Naval Surface Warfare Center.

In his comment on my blog, Mr. Shalleck seeks to reassure me that the "responsible" nanotech industry is having conversations with Congress, the FDA and other agencies. That Congress, the FDA, and other agencies, pretty much all bought and paid for by corporate money these days, are making decisions about nanotechnology is far from reassuring. I am, however, certain of one thing. For those who are investing in and developing nanotechnology, having the Congress, FDA and other federal agencies as a party (and thus, cover) to the process must certainly be reassuring to the nanotech industry.


Finally, I am interested in knowing what conversations the nanotechnology industry and nanotech scientists are having with the US Department of Defense and the American military-industrial establishment. I am interested in what the Pentagon is saying and doing about nanotech, and what worries they and our intelligence community might have about what the Russians, Indians, Chinese, and other countries with potential nanotech military interests are saying and doing.

I would like to know what percentage of multinational corporate enterprises, small and large, working on nanotechnology are not a part of Mr. Shalleck's "responsible" category. Who is not in the "beneficial" camp?


To be sure, the potential benefits of nanotechnology are revolutionary. You can
read here all the purported potential benefits. If used exclusively for good, they may bring the rewards that Mr. Shalleck heralds. Nevertheless, this discussion about nanotechnology cannot be left to the Congress, the FDA, the White House, scientists, the military, industry and investors. There must be full disclosure and openness. Because this technology can either destroy us all, or benefit us all (at the very least, change our entire futures), the American people and the American media must be a major part of this discussion.

In an era of worldwide domination by corporate power, by the rule of oligopolies, and by authoritarian and dictatorial governments, I am not reassured, at all, by Mr. Shalleck's pats on the head.





2 comments:

jmcmaster said...

You ask important questions, nanotech. will change the world as much if not more than the industrial revolution.

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