14 September 2007

Nanite to Remember

Monday evening B. and I went to the Bath Science Café to hear a talk on nanotechnology given by a real-life nanotechnologist.

The "café" actually meets in a pub -- the very pleasant Raven, which sells its own custom-brewed beer and Pieminister pies -- so the atmosphere and surroundings were convivial. (Rather amusingly, the Raven's website claims that "No-one does vegetarian pies like we do". Well, only every other pub who Pieminister have a contract with, dear.)

I was astonished at how popular the event was -- there must have been 50 or so people crammed into the Raven's upper room. (The chap behind the bar claimed that the science events were more popular than the poetry ones. Quite what that suggests about contemporary British culture, and whether I approve, I'm not sure.) Most of those present seemed, judging by the tenor of the discussion afterwards, to be either professional scientists or enthusiastic amateurs. More on that later.

The speaker was a personable, engaging sort of chap, very knowledgeable and informative about current developments in, and uses of, nanotech. He saw the primary future benefits of the technology as being computational and medical. (He cited a claim by the U.S. National Institute for Health from five or so years ago that nanotech would have eradicated -- not cured, but actually eliminated -- cancer by 2015. They seem to have changed their mind about the timing of this since then, but even so, his point was that this was something nanotech might conceivably one day do.)

It was when he came to the potential dangers of this field of research that his bias became apparent. He suggested that the real threat from nanotech, if any, comes from pollution and potential toxicity, and that these would require further study before any particular instance of nanotech was accepted as safe for general use. He was very dismissive of the so-called "grey goo" scenario -- essentially an epidemic affecting all matter, whereby self-replicating nanobots run out of control and start assimilating everything they encounter.

I'm not an expert, by any means, and I assumed that his basis for dismissing the idea was a sound one, based in his own expertise in the field. But, er no. When challenged, it emerged that his main reasons for rejecting "grey goo" theory were:
  • Prince Charles and Michael Crichton believe in it, so it must be nonsense.
  • It has a silly name.
  • It's part of a general reaction against science on the part of the public which hampers the freedom of government-funded research.
  • Current science is incapable of creating self-replicating machines.
It was that last bit which he seemed to consider his trump card -- and it is, indeed, the only one of those arguments which might be seen to have any bearing on the actual truth of the matter.

Unfortunately, he seemed entirely unwilling to consider that "current science" might be incapable of things which "future science" would do as a matter of routine, despite the fact that the existence of his entire field seemed absurdly visionary a mere 50 years ago.

That utter lack of historical perspective (he admitted that he never read any science fiction) seemed to conspire with a fatal failure of imagination to blind him selectively to any long-term negative implications of his work.

This meant that while, for instance, he was quite capable of using the far-fetched idea of cell-repairing nanites eradicating cancer as propaganda to raise further funding for his field, he utterly rejected the equally fanciful idea that said nanites might be capable of reproducing -- despite the fact that self-replication would surely be the only way of achieving the necessary level of saturation in a human body to achieve that.

Similarly the suggestion that self-replicating nanobots would be capable, like any self-replicating system, of undergoing evolution, and therefore potentially of overcoming their initial programming safeguards, was rejected on the grounds that, er, there's no such thing as a self-replicating nanobot yet. So that's all right then.

(Now, if there's some theoretical reason why all complex systems must be incapable of self-replication, or why such a system would be incapable of spontaneously mutating and evolving so as to grow exponentially in size and influence until eventually it transformed the entire nature of the planetary surface, then I'd have been very interested to be told about it. But I don't honestly think there can be, because after all, it's already happened once.)

I didn't ask him where he stood on the idea of using nanites to dismantle all the non-stellar matter in the solar system and turn it into concentric dyson spheres of computronium, running the uploaded descendants of the human species at oct- or nonillions of times our current joint processing capacity. I guessed his answer would probably be, "Oh no, we couldn't possibly do anything like that at the moment."

Instead I tried to fool him by using a Good Nanotech Prediction -- that medical nanotech might eradicate not only cancer, but all forms of cellular damage including old age -- as the predicate for a Bad Nanotech Prediction -- that said technology would immediately become the preserve of the rich, giving rise to an immortal cast of geronto-plutocrats.

He said, er, no, he didn't think so, not as long as nanotech was funded by the government, because that meant all that stuff would be public property and would go straight onto the N.H.S.


In fact, his main thesis appeared to be that government funding for nanotech was an absolute essential, and that anyone who opposed it -- indeed, anyone who felt the public should have any say whatsoever in how scientists spent their money -- was "anti-science". (He didn't actually use those words, but he did repeatedly call those holding the opposite point of view "pro-science", so I think I'm justified in assuming it.)

Now, I consider myself to be "pro-science". I even consider myself to be "pro-nanotech", in the sense that I think it's really cool and freaky and could achieve some startlingly awesome things. (Admittedly that may not be a very sophisticated "pro-science" position, but just look at the competition.)

However, I do think people are justified in being cautious when events which may be statistically very improbable nonetheless carry enormous penalties if that unlikely roll of the dice comes up. It may, for instance, be very unlikely indeed that C.E.R.N.'s Large Hadron Collider will produce a black hole which will fall to the centre of the Earth and orbit it rapidly, sucking in everything it encounters and causing the extinction of the human race, our culture (including its science) and our entire ecosystem within a matter of hours... but dude, it only needs to happen once.

The speaker (whose blushes I've spared by not naming him, although it shouldn't be difficult to find out his name if you're interested, even if you're coming to this post after the information changes on that first page I linked to) seemed baffled -- hurt even -- that the public have such mistrust for scientists that they'll accuse harmless researchers like himself of possibly destroying the world.

As I say, he was a likeable chap, and it was difficult not to feel for him. But frankly, he -- in his deliberate use of propaganda, his amused rejection of the opinion of non-experts and above all his utter refusal to consider the potential long-term negative effects of his field on an equal footing with the potential positives -- provided a prime example of exactly what it is about scientists which the public finds so difficult to trust.

"We're people, just like them," he said. "We're human beings, too." Because obviously no human being in history has ever been known to do anything whatsoever which might be construed as stupid or unethical. For Christ's sake get a bloody grip, man.

In summary: never trust a scientist who doesn't read S.F. They'll create armies of giant robots which break out from their underground laboratories and destroy your city, then whine that no-one ever warned them that might happen.

Despite the above character assassination, though, I really enjoyed the event. It was refreshing to be part of a crowd who seemed to be actively thinking about important issues, even if most of them did appear to be cheerleading for a clueless loon. Ironically -- or at least, I'm sure many of those present would have found it ironic -- it was the same feeling of communal intellectual engagement I get from the seminars at Greenbelt. I'm going to try to go to more of them.

Indeed, there's also a Bristol Science Café which, it seems, meets just up the road from us. In one of our favourite pubs, in fact. I can't think why we haven't been before.

Expect more of these reports in future.

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