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Foresight Update 26

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A publication of the Foresight Institute


Foresight Update 26 - Table of Contents | Page1 | Page2 | Page3 | Page4

Challenges of Nanotechnology Misuse Cited in New Book on "Human Extinction"

by Lew Phelps

In his new book, The End of the World: The Science and Ethics of Human Extinction, philosopher John Leslie provides a broader view for those who are worried about nanotechnology-caused accidents. He devotes exactly three of his 310 pages to potential threats arising from nanotechnology. However, in that short space he suggests a Draconian political solution that many people will find unacceptable.

The problem of nanotechnology misuse is almost lost within Leslie's large catalog of possible life-ending natural disasters (volcanic eruption, asteroid hits, nearby supernova, etc.), man-made disasters (unwillingness to rear children, genetic engineering run amok, production of a new Big Bang in the laboratory, etc.), and "risks from philosophy" (threats associated with religion, Schopenhauerian pessimism, ethical relativism, etc.). As farfetched as such problems may seem individually, this is a thoughtful and carefully written book whose conclusions deserve attention.

Leslie's treatise arises from a "doomsday argument" advanced by cosmologist Brandon Carter, summed up as, "We ought to have some reluctance to believe that we are very exceptionally early, for instance in the earliest 0.001 percent, among all humans who will ever have lived." While such logic could equally but wrongly have been applied by Stone Age Man (if he were capable of logical thought), the ascent of technologies and philosophies increases the odds that extinction could overtake humanity relatively soon, Leslie argues. The risks of nuclear war, for example, are obviously larger for those alive today than for all who lived before 1945. So are risks from loss of biodiversity.

Leslie's discussion of the challenges arising from nanotechnology is largely on target. Quoting from Eric Drexler's Engines of Creation, he first outlines the broad concepts of nanotechnology and some of its potential benefits (health, computing, manufacturing). His discussion of the potential threats associated with nanotechnology identifies and--with appropriate swiftness--discards accidental disaster as a real problem. He notes that natural organisms "make heavy use of spontaneous assembly," which relies on random matching of molecular topological features. "Nanodevices, on the other hand, would be more like automobiles. Most of their parts wouldn't work at all unless positioned very accurately," he says.

The real threat of nanotechnology, Leslie says, is from deliberate misuse. He quotes Drexler (from Engines) that trying to suppress the emerging technology is "futile and dangerous," and advances Drexler's alternative of "intelligently targeted delay to postpone threats until we are prepared for them." However, as Drexler has noted, dangerous replicators can be created faster and with less difficulty than counteragents, Leslie says.

Our quarrel with Leslie is with his proposed solution, which seems perilously akin to suppression: "We can but hope that the temptations of war, terrorism and crime will be removed--by a huge international police force, or by firm education of the kind which many kind-hearted folk regard as vicious brainwashing?--before any nanotechnological revolution hits us." (Italics added by Update.)

The challenges of managing the emergence of nanotechnology are daunting, but turning the world into an Orwellian police state hardly seems the best solution within mankind's reach. That is why truly informed discussion is essential. Foresight Institute is pursuing with intensity the creation of solid platforms on which informed discussion can take place. Advanced hypertext holds real promise with its ability for integrating proposals and commentary upon them. Many within the Foresight community are working to make it real. When they do, discussions can proceed on a higher plane than before.

Value systems alone seem inadequate to keep Pandora's Box locked. For example, despite Saddam Hussein's international disrepute and global sanctions to proscribe sale of key technologies to him, arms merchants have struck deals to provide Iraq with essential components of nuclear warheads. Some shipments have been intercepted; others no doubt have not. We must assume that a few people will always be willing to take a profit and run, even if the consequences of their actions leave literally no place to go.

Who best can resolve the challenges nanotechnology will bring? No single person can provide the answers, nor can any single group or intellectual discipline. However, those who know the technology best (those who create it) must ultimately prepare the agenda for broad discussion, and participate fully in creation of relevant policy. In the realm of nanotechnology, public policy and science have become inseparable. Foresight Institute's most essential role has never been more clearly illuminated.

John Leslie is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Guelph, Guelph, Ontario. He has previously written several books on topics at the intersection of cosmology and philosophy. (The End of the World, Routledge, London, 1996. ISBN 0-415-14043-9. US$23.)


Foresight Update 26 - Table of Contents

Revamped Foresight Web Site Eases Exploration of Nanotech Resources

Seasoned denizens of the World Wide Web know too well that the free form allowed by hyperlinks can readily dissolve into chaos. Many Web sites have no discernable architecture, and thus make it very difficult to navigate easily within the site.

Foresight Institute's World Wide Web site (http://www.foresight.org) now stands sharply in contrast. Thanks greatly to the efforts of new Webmaster Jim Lewis, the site presents a crisp look and efficient map for visitors. Members of the Foresight community who haven't visited the site recently should do so. It now includes (among other things):

  • a reorganized presentation of Foresight's debate with Scientific American.
  • links to thoughtful discussions on existing and near-term solutions enabling backlinks--a precursor to what Foresight hopes to achieve through its Web Enhancement Project.
  • links to the full text of Eric Drexler's Engines of Creation.
  • an amusing set of erroneous predictions about science and technology, drawn from a Congressional Research Report and recently converted to HTML.
  • back issues of this newsletter.
  • links to other key nanotechnology sites.

Lewis adds new materials to the site regularly, so frequent visits will repay the time invested. Recently added materials are marked with a "new" symbol for ease of navigation.


Foresight Update 26 - Table of Contents

Law in Technology

Editor's note: In this issue, we are pleased to welcome copyright attorney Roy S. Gordet, who has been working with the Foresight Institute in addressing some recently encountered copyright issues. The following text is provided by Mr. Gordet:

by Roy S. Gordet

As most readers of this publication know, Foresight Institute recently encountered a rough stretch on the information highway in the form of accusations of copyright infringement. Scientific American accused Foresight Institute of infringing SciAm's copyright by "publishing" a SciAm article at Foresight Institute's website. Of course, Foresight Institute included extensive and pointed criticism of the SciAm article, which was highly critical of nanotechnology's position in the scientific community.

Webmaster's note: For details and further links, see the debate overview.

Foresight Institute took the position that Foresight Institute's "use" of the SciAm article was not an infringement because it was a "fair use." This presents a good opportunity to explain for the readership, in a condensed version, the fair use doctrine of copyright law, with particular application to the Internet. This is a formidable task, made even more formidable by the space limitations of this column.

The Copyright Act gives the owner of copyrightable work of authorship the exclusive right to publicly distribute, display, reproduce and perform the work, and to create derivative works based upon the work. However, the Act recognizes that certain exceptions should exist for purposes of criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching, scholarship, or research. According to Section 107 of the Copyright Act, in determining whether the use made of a work in any particular case is a fair use, courts must consider four factors:

  • the purpose and character of the use (e.g., is it for a commercial purpose or an educational purpose?);
  • the nature of the copyrighted work (is it a novel, or a factual scientific report?);
  • the amount and substantiality of the portion used in relation the copyrighted work as a whole;
  • the effect of the use upon the potential market for or value of the copyrighted work.

These four factors have been developed by judges, who have created the fair use "exception" to copyright infringement over the past one hundred years. The fair use doctrine became an explicit part of the copyright statute in 1978. These cases are recognized by judges as being extremely difficult, and judges and appellate courts are in constant disagreement over the application of the doctrine.

With limited exceptions, copyright law is applied the same whether a work is published on television, a newspaper, or on the Internet. The four factors noted above must be applied by the courts, one would hope, consistently. Unfortunately, because the fair use doctrine is so dependent upon the specific facts of each case, it is particularly difficult to predict with certainty how a court will rule in each instance.

In the case of the SciAm article, a significant factor that weighed strongly in favor of a finding of fair use was that Foresight Institute was engaging in scientific/academic debate, arguably in an attempt to maintain its scientific/academic existence. Underlying the fair use doctrine is the First Amendment, and Foresight Institute had certain First Amendment rights to effectively counter the accusations and alleged misstatements of the SciAm article. Foresight Institute presumably did not profit from the publication of the SciAm article on its website, and it was not Foresight Institute's intention to divert readership from the original SciAm article found in the SciAm publication.

SciAm's primary argument may be that the publication of the SciAm article by Foresight Institute is a copyright infringement, because:

  • Foresight Institute published the entire article, which SciAm maintains was more than was necessary for purposes of criticizing or commenting on the work, and
  • potential purchasers of the original SciAm publication will have no further need to purchase the publication because they were able to read the article in its entirety at the Foresight Institute website.

Of course, Foresight Institute may argue that it was necessary to publish at its own website exactly the amount of the SciAm article published to effectively criticize the article and to address each and every issue and concern raised in the article. In view of the fact that the Foresight Institute web site publication likely occurs after the next edition of SciAm hit the news stands, Foresight Institute would argue that the limited publication of just one article out of several articles in the original SciAm publication was merely free publicity and promotion for SciAm, and had absolutely no negative effect on SciAm's profits in connection with the sale of the original edition.

This is the kind of give and take analysis and factual application typical of legal disputes, and in particular with the fact-intensive inquiry required by the fair use doctrine.

(Editor's Note: With the expected arrival on the scene of more advanced hypertext features, such as Paul Haeberli's "transclusions," future critiques will be able to display quoted materials without storing any of the quotee's copyrighted material at the quoter's Web site. For more details, see an essay by Paul Haeberli at [http://reality.sgi.com/grafica/merge/], or the Web site of the Xanadu project at http://xanadu.com.au/xanadu/)

With regard to the copying of an Internet posting, it is necessary to consider whether an author of such a posting would object to the publication of his/her publication on grounds of copyright infringement, and whether such a posting contains works belonging to some other author B who may or may not have given author A permission to use author B's work. For example, if you copy the entire posted article by author A, then you may be liable to author A or author B, or both. The analysis for copyright infringement may be different for each, and the fair use analysis may be slightly different for each. In any case, the courts have made it clear that the "transmission" of postings on the Internet can be considered a copyright infringement, even if none of the infringers has made hard copies of such posted or transmitted publications. Indeed, by transmitting on the Internet or posting at a website, the potential for infringing activity exceeds what is possible by the more traditional publication channels.

Before downloading or retransmitting third party works posted on the Internet, the "downloader" should consider:

  • how much of the original work is being downloaded;
  • how important are the portions that are being posted;
  • whether the original author already protested against these or similar transmissions; and
  • whether the work itself needs to be downloaded to make the necessary point. Although one can be guilty of copyright infringement without having any intent to infringe or knowledge of infringing someone else's copyright, to the extent that the copyright owner can portray the transmitter/distributor as having malicious motives, it may be easier to convince the judge or jury of the infringement, which could result in enhanced penalties, such as an award of attorney's fees.

One set of copyright experts believe that the copyright laws need a major overhaul to address all of the new and difficult issues posed by the explosion in electronic publishing. Others believe that existing copyright law is equipped to deal with the issues and challenges presented by electronic publishing and commerce because the basic principles of the Copyright law are adaptable. The answer is probably somewhere in between. Regardless, the application of the fair use doctrine in any context will unfortunately remain one of the more perplexing and least predictable areas of the law. Think at least twice before you use someone else's copyrightable work of authorship.

Roy S. Gordet is a San Francisco attorney who assisted the Foresight Institute in connection with the Scientific American controversy referred to in the article.


Foresight Update 26 - Table of Contents

Web Watch

by James B. Lewis, Ph.D.

Al Globus's Computational Molecular Nanotechnology at NASA Ames Research Center

The home page for Computational Molecular Nanotechnology at NASA Ames Research Center (http://science.nas.nasa.gov/Groups/Nanotechnology/) provides an easily accessible introduction to their efforts and related work, and some examples of the early fruits of those efforts.

One interesting page in this site shows pictures of a hypothetical family of gears made by chemically derivatizing buckyballs, a conceivable near-term marriage of computational nanotechnology and experimental nanoscale science. (See related story on page 1.)

In addition to authoring the above page on computational nanotechnology, Al Globus has authored a comprehensive site on one application of a mature nanotechnology - space colonization. Most of this site deals with general issues of space settlement, but one page specifically deals with how molecular nanotechnology would make a very difficult and expensive project much more practical.

Another page ("Small is Beautiful") by Al Globus gives a long lists of links to pages on computational nanotechnology, experimental nanotechnology, and related topics. One particularly useful link is to the MathMol Web site (http://cwis.nyu.edu/pages/mathmol/), which includes an excellent and easily understandable basic (K-12) introduction to molecular modeling.

Will Ware's Web Site

Will Ware's Web site contains a freeware "SimCity" approach to designing small molecules as "hypothetical designs for nanotechnological widgets." He provides a general discussion of this approach at http://world.std.com/~wware/freesim.html and a more in depth description of his GNU-licensed CAD program "NanoCAD" at http://world.std.com/~wware/ncad.html. NanoCAD v0.2 is available from this site for Unix/X machines, Microsoft Windows machines, and Macintoshes (although a download link for the Mac version was not yet apparent). At this early stage of development, NanoCAD uses the MM2 force field to compute force vectors and minimum-energy configurations. One feature that makes NanoCAD very interesting is that it is a work in progress, with publicly available source code that can be modified. This may be a great opportunity for those with expertise in chemistry, physics, or programming to get involved in computational nanotechnology.

Ware's philosophy for this work: "I am distributing NanoCAD as free software because I think nanotechnology or something essentially similar will probably arrive in a few decades. People will need to be informed, and will need to make important policy decisions. I hope NanoCAD (in addition to being fun to play with) will help to inform people in the fundamental science underlying nanotechnology, so that policy discussions can be more focussed, and snake oil and other bogosity can be rapidly identified and dismissed."

Nanothinc Web Site

Nanothinc (http://www.nanothinc.com/) presents a large web site on nanotechnology and related topics. Their definition of nanotechnology is very broad and includes a large amount of material not related to molecular nanotechnology (or even to nanoscale science and technology), so that some effort is required to find material focused on molecular nanotechnology. [Note, December 1999: The Nanothinc domain is no longer available] Among those pages most relevant to molecular nanotechnology are:

  • (http://nanothinc.com/NanoWorld/Introduction/Molecules/WorkingMolecules-1.0.html), "Working molecules - progress towards nanotechnology," written by Richard Terra, is an overview of current technologies with promise as pathways to molecular nanotechnology. [December, 1999: another version of this work is currently available at the author's web site: http://home.earthlink.net/~rpterra/nt/WMtext.html]

Thomas McCarthy's Web Site

(http://www-bcf.usc.edu/~tmccarth/main.htm) A web site devoted to the discussion of the political, social, and economics implications of molecular nanotechnology is "Molecular nanotechnology and the world system" by Thomas McCarthy. This document is currently incomplete, but contains interesting discussions of power and conflict, and presents a new viewpoint of what are the real dangers that nanotechnology could bring into the world.

Sherry Miller's Web Site

One indication that the meme of nanotechnology is spreading is the appearance of an occasional page on nanotechnology in a web site devoted to an unrelated topic. An example is "Nanowackology: understanding terrifying science through humor" (http://www.sherryart.com/nano/nanohome.html) at Sherry Miller's web site (http://www.sherryart.com/index.shtml), where the theme is "where art and technology meet and, when they don't, humor is dragged in to do the job." The brief "nanowackology" page focuses on communicating to nontechnically-inclined people what molecular nanotechnology will mean to them (and the rest of us as well).

Web Watch provides brief review of interesting and recently posted nanotechnology related materials on the World Wide Web. Jim Lewis, of James B. Lewis Enterprises in Seattle, WA is Foresight's Webmaster. He can be reached by email at: nanojbl@halcyon.com


Foresight Update 26 - Table of Contents | Page1 | Page2 | Page3 | Page4

From Foresight Update 26, originally published 15 September 1996.

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