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Glenn Reynolds on new nanotech bill

Foresight director Glenn Reynolds gives his views on the new nanotechnology legislation. " It's a victory for people who favor the responsible development of molecular nanotechnology. But it's a small victory, a nano-victory you might say, in the great scheme of things. He speculates on what was meant by the bill's authorizing a study of "molecular self-assembly".

One Response to “Glenn Reynolds on new nanotech bill”

  1. Morgaine Says:

    The trouble with non-technical planning.

    Glenn's views on the new nanotechnology legislation as well as in the earlier items he cites in his article are well expressed and reasonably analytic for subject matter of this type. Throughout the reading though, an uncomfortable thought kept creeping in …. no, the issue is global but this proposal is national … no, that won't have any effect on MNT in country X …. no, such a plan won't work unless it's adopted by those who are least likely to accept it …. no, this would restrict only the "good guys" …. and so on. It's a generic problem, not particular to any one solution or any one article. The word that kept forming in my mind was unsound. Of course, social and political planning is almost always unsound, but where it seeks to direct engineering there is an extra worry.

    As an engineer, I appreciate good design and the merits of processes that encourage good design. Furthermore, I value possibly even more highly the merits of processes that encourage good requirements specification, without which good design can yield entirely unsatisfactory results. What I'm leading up to here is that people do need to talk to each other, as communication is vital for good engineering of complex systems, and we should never shy away from it. However, implicit in this reasoning is that while good communication is vital for quality engineering, poor or inappropriate communication can have an effect ranging from unfortunate to disastrous.

    Let me be a bit more specific. As practically anyone with many years of accumulated industrial experience will tell you, there is nothing worse in engineering than seemingly arbitrary new directives coming from above made for internal political reasons and not justified by wide understanding in the field nor proven through prior experience or modelling and analysis. Yet, industry is ridden with such events, and even worse, where industry intersects with the secrecy of government or military services, the end result can be quite uncomfortable or even shocking for an engineer trying to do his or her professional best. This is not the type of communication needed for "good" input to the engineering process. Unfortunately, it is only one type of inappropriate communication, and there are many.

    Which brings me to the point of this post and its relevance to the items mentioned. Foresight has spent a lot of time and effort considering the likely impact predicted for these new technologies, as well as talking to people about them. Talking is good, but exactly which machinery of communication is being oiled here? Occasionally the machinery of good engineering specification (for example, discussions concerning broadcast architectures), occasionally the machinery of social responsibility (MNT in the 3rd world, impact on the environment). This could be very useful, but unfortunately most of the effort by far seems to be directed towards oiling the machinery of political control that could one day cause widespread death and destruction either through incompetence or fueled by personal, business or political agendas. I doubt if anyone is looking forward to a police state nor to a world in servitude to the megacorps, yet the current direction seems to promote these visions of the future.

    In a nutshell, I found little to be cheery about in the well-written articles. We are well placed for planning a bright future while safeguarding our lives, homes and planet, and we have the skills and vision to start suggesting possible directions where we might lay our tracks. Instead of doing so though, the focus seems to be on helping others to decide who will drive the train.

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