Re: Bootstrapping to nanotech

Hagbard Celine (
Fri, 29 Aug 1997 04:03:48 -0400

Hal Finney wrote:


> 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.

My first reaction to the criteria (as I posted) was that they compose
the "final step." I tend to agree that $250,000 is less valuable at that
point than the bragging rights.

> 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.

Foresight is steeped in Drexler -- he's the friggin' Chairman for pete's
sake! Why would they do that?

> 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.

That holds water for me.

> (Personally I think the biotech
> route to a protein assembler makes more sense.)

I don't have the science background to assign a sensibility to either
case, but I do know that Drexler's works are persuasive to a layman. Can
you point me to discussions concerning likely route technologies other
than the Drexlerian biotech route?

> 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.

I agree. I'm considering an approach based upon the biotech and GE
regulatory models. Perhaps a critique of sorts, where they went wrong,
effects, etc. There's been a lot more written on those topics than
nanotech to say the least. One good point made in that article was the
necessity of reasoning by analogy. Theorizing is only possible in
science due to physical law -- there are things that we can do and
things we can't. The only reference point in the legal realm is what we
have as law already. Analogy is the weakest form of argumentation, but
in the case of nanotech regulation predictions, it is the best
predictive tool I can think of.

> 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.

Or Japan, since the Japanese government has been sinking yen into MITI,
ERATO, PERI and a zillion other acronyms for a few years now (look at
Drexler's article in Foresight #9 for some details).

> > 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.

Nor does anyone that I know of. But, I'm optomistic that given
sufficient forethought, societal future shock is avoidable.