Re: Bootstrapping to nanotech

Hal Finney (
Thu, 28 Aug 1997 19:55:17 -0700

Hagbard Celine writes:
> Do you know why Foresight has chosen these criteria (including the
> nanoscale computational device) as the realization of Feynman's vision?
> Is it that these criteria represent the "final step" so-to-speak?

I don't know what the motivation was for choosing devices with this
particular level of sophistication and difficulty. Obviously there
would be a wide range of alternative choices. I asked/complained a bit
on sci.nanotech about it, but I didn't get much response. My view was
that the devices were too difficult, that you'd have to have a fully
mature nanotech to produce such devices, and that the prize would be
more useful if it rewarded a stepping stone on the path to nanotech,
rather than adding (infinitesimally) to the reward at the end.

I suspect that there is an implicit assumption of a particular path
towards nanotech where these devices would in fact represent an inter-
mediate point. The fact that 32 copies are needed presents a hint.
Specifically, an atomic force microscope enhanced with interchangeable
tips which can catalyze certain bonds might work. You'd probably only
be able to build one or a few copies of the nano device, so 32 would
perhaps be within reach.

Even if this is the explanation, I would still complain that the FI ought
not to be endorsing one particular path and designing a prize which only
makes sense if that path is followed. (Personally I think the biotech
route to a protein assembler makes more sense.)

> My observation in all this is that given the typically reactionary
> nature of law and legal thought (i.e., "lack of vision"), the regulatory
> schema as it exists today will not be able to cope with the technology
> and its many varied implications (which are, for all practical and
> historical purposes, just around the corner). Without assigning a
> normative value to the demise of regulation in our society, it is a
> topic that I want to explore in some depth.

I read that law review article you posted, but I felt that they missed
the point. The authors seemed to think that the difficulty would arise
in trying to fit nanotech into the current regulatory framework. They
went into a lot of detail about how it would be hard to decide whether
an in situ nanotech cell repair system was a drug or a medical device.

My feeling is that it is more likely that nanotech will provoke the
same over-reaction as biotech, namely that research on it will be
heavily restricted. There will be different levels of containment
necessary, only certain kinds of designs will be allowed, working with
biological specimens will be restricted, certain applications will be
"born classified" as is the case with nuclear research, ethical review
committees will have to sign off on any new direction for research, etc.

All this regulation is likely to hinder the rate of progress in nanotech
development, and may even limit it so much that only the military is in
a position to develop advanced nano.

> Nanotech will be regulated, I am certain. My hope is that the
> regulations will correctly balance the risk-return equation.

Who can know what the right answers are? We all know that both the
risks and return are almost incalculably high. I certainly don't claim
to know what the right path is to steer around the dangers.