Re: NANO: Institutional Safety
Sun, 14 Nov 1999 19:57:41 EST

In a message dated 99-11-14 18:20:30 EST, (Robert J. Bradbury) wrote:

> 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.

Actually, we looked into the history of the P1-4 containment regime pretty closely before our meeting - both how the original Asilomar Conference came to be and its aftermath. The P 1-4 regime is a matter of regulatory law in that it is now known as the "NIH Guidelines" and have been adopted by the US military and the equivalent agencies of a number of other countries. However, you're right that reputation tends to be the strongest factor in spreading and maintaining the bio-containment guidelines' force and effect.

We're hoping that a similar process can be recapitulated with nanowork.

> > 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
> 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.]

I suggest you talk with Ralph Merkle about this - he's thought about it a lot in terms of "hard" nano and some of the approaches he's thought of seem to be applicable to biostuff, as well.

> > The group was not optimistic that these measures could completely and
> > reliably prevent a nanotech disaster. The best hope was that one could
> > 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
> Designing self-contained highly "intelligent", reliable nanotech offensive
> weapons that can tolerate macroscale defenses *will NOT* be easy.

Actually, I've been convinced that weapons far short of smart Grey Goo can be made with first-generation assemblers. In fact, the "smart dust" that's being played with now that has minimal MEMS capabilities may be able to do some of the nasty things I've seen explained. I'll give you a hint: All it has to do is be made (or replicate) in VERY large numbers, be light enough to be airborne and CHANGE COLORS.

BTW -- when will you be back in the States?

     Greg Burch     <>----<>
      Attorney  :::  Vice President, Extropy Institute  :::  Wilderness Guide   -or-
                         "Civilization is protest against nature; 
                  progress requires us to take control of evolution."
                                           Thomas Huxley