Re: NANO: Institutional Safety

Robert J. Bradbury (
Mon, 15 Nov 1999 03:18 EST

Greg wrote:

> The best
> suggestion we could come up with was to try to emulate the process that
> occurred with genetic technology in the 1970s, where a regime of
> self-regulation developed and was slowly adopted into regulatory law.

Actually Greg, I'm not sure this is the case. My recollection of the mid-late-'70s was there was a lot of debate over whether or not these things should be regulated and whether or not there were any dangers. After looking at it for a while the scientists came up with the relative scale of dangers and implemented with the P1-P4 scaling system that is in practice today (P1 is relatively non contained, P3 is for bugs such as HIV and has positive pressure labs and throw away materials and clothing, while P4 is for Ebola and leans strongly towards remote-manipulation). [I've worked in a P3 lab.]

Now, I suspect the "regulatory" penalties for violating these are not particularly severe, but common sense and fear of loss of reputation keep scientists following them.

I imagine that a clever group could review the biotech containment levels and adapt them to nanotechnology fairly easily.

> In short, the group suggested prescriptions of release of freely autonomous
> replicators into the environment and some technical safeguards against
> mutation.

In my mind, you have to divide the problem into wet biotech & hard nanotech. We do now release into the environment autonomous replicators that we have patched in various ways. The interesting thing is that these have precious little in the way of ECC or failsafe mechanisms. What is going to be interesting is that our ability to create highly complex organisms from the ground up is going to advance by leaps and bounds in the near future. It is doubtful whether we can predict all of the consequences of the release of such organisms and so we need to be thinking hard about preventing self-replication, adding ECC and failsafes. [I've got some ideas about this but I can't discuss them.]

Now, with hard nanotech, things are simpler, since there isn't a "huge" incentive to release *mutating* replicators. I've got no problem with releasing self-replicating solar-cell constructors because they only have a solar cell construction "system" and can reliably copy it. You design in ECC and failsafes and you can get reliability out to any desired level. The only "catch" comes in when the programs are *so* complex that they have wierd "glitches" as current software systems do. If our software engineering abilities and program prooving abilities continue to advance, I would hope that these problems can be minimized.

> The group was not optimistic that these measures could completely and
> reliably prevent a nanotech disaster. The best hope was that one could be
> forestalled until defensive technologies caught up with and surpassed
> offensive ones (which the technologists believed would precede effective
> countermeasures - thus creating a "zone of danger"
of indeterminate length).

Designing self-contained highly "intelligent", reliable nanotech offensive weapons that can tolerate macroscale defenses *will NOT* be easy. First they are going to be radiation senstive. A shielded directional radiation emitter makes a good defensive weapon. Second, they have limited current capacities. You put a nanocockroach between the ends of a 120V 20A circuit and it better be a good insulator otherwise its "poof". The same could be said for high intensity micro-torches (exceeds heat capacity of the nanobots) and/or diamond studded gestapo boots (exceeds pressure capacity of the nanocockroaches).

Add this to our ability to starve the nanobots (energy or material-wise) and I think the picture is not so grim. To every "defence" against an "offence" there is a counter-offence, but designing these things *will* take time. As I've said before, it all comes down to designs and unless someone cracks the design problem in a way that is much further along the exponential curve, I would expect defense to balance offense (or accidents) fairly well.