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Biologist expresses concerns about nanobiotech

Biologist Alan Goldstein has a long essay titled I, Nanobot at Salon.com which expresses concern regarding potential dangers of nanobiotechnology, specifically, the creation of non-biological life forms.

Most of the stated concerns are abstract, e.g.: “Chemical intelligence can manifest as the ability to catalyze a single chemical reaction. It is a dangerous, and possibly terminal, error for the children of carbon to dismiss the power of pure electron fire.” Some readers may be put off by the use of terms such as “deconstruct” and “postmodern.”

Dr. Goldstein goes to some lengths to try to distance his concerns from those connected with non-biological nanotechnology. He believes that nanomedical and nanoenvironmental devices must be “hybrid molecular devices composed of both synthetic and biological components,” rather than fully synthetic, because they “will be required to ‘speak’ the language of biochemistry”. This is unpersuasive, however: it is unclear why only biological components can sense and interact at the molecular level with biological systems, though it makes sense that it may be — should be — easier to build such systems if one can include biological tools. In any case, the two authorities he cites were arguing a different point, debated here and here.

Embedded in the piece are a small number of specific scenarios in which future nanobiomedical devices are envisioned to cause problems. If these are indeed concerns — and they may be — it is not readers of Salon who will be causing the problems. One plausible course of action would be for Dr. Goldstein to gather a group of concerned individuals, head to Asilomar, and draft a clear document explaining the issues and specific suggested research safeguards. This has been done previously by genetic engineers and by early nanotech theorists, and should be a more effective way to move forward than by trying to explain these issues repeatedly in Salon.

If this is done, I suspect that the group’s recommendations might include a reduction of biological components to a bare minimum, which would bring nanobiobots much closer to non-biological nanobots.

Warning: in order to view the article, I had to watch an ad for The Sopranos that was quite loud. The Foresight staff is tolerant of these things, but your boss may not be. —Christine

Addendum: Hear Dr. Goldstein debate Ron Bailey of Reason at Foresight’s 2005 Vision Weekend. [Audio as 75.6 MB MP3]

2 Responses to “Biologist expresses concerns about nanobiotech”

  1. John Novak Says:

    I admit to being not too impressed– and it goes beyond the over-wrought prose.

    By the second page, I’m seeing discussions of nanobots where he implies that glucose-powered nanobots must necesarily be assumed to be active in the body as long as the host is alive. This is a rather extraordinary and alarmist claim. Not only does it assume that the devices never break down (and I certainly wish I could design something that never breaks down) it assumes the designers are too short-sighted to have designed a time-limit to their activity, or a de-activation signal.

    It’s the stuff of bad science fiction.

    He also plays very fast and loose with error rates. The phrase “one in a million” is a figure of speech, not (usually) a literal statement of probabilities. So, when he’s worrying about cancer-targetting bots somehow mutating into sperm-targetting bots, his claim that billions of nanobots would make the one-in-a-million event common is… unpersuasive.

    He’s conflating biological mutation rates of viruses or bacteria with ostensibly non-replicative nanobots. Worse, he’s conflating all sorts of biological properties, as he talks about varoius strains of nanobots mingling in the bloodstream and exchanging abilities. This is about as likely as my toaster learning to cook soup because I put it in a box with my crock pot.

    Etc.

  2. Bob Kelly Says:

    Awesome review of Salon’s article.

    Salon’s interest is not an act of rational argument, but one of incitement. While years have gone by for leaders of the field(s) to discuss rationally, and theorize scenarios to develop safeguards, we have reached the time that “nanotechnology” is in the minds of pop culturists and culture industry.

    So now as lesser informed individuals jump on the nanotech knowledge curve, the rise of bombast will occur just because a little bit of knowledge is a dangerous thing.

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