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Home > How we came to be speaking about Nanotechnology

How we came to be speaking about Nanotechnology

by Redazione FGB [1], 30 April 2008

I have been meaning for some time now to take another look at the comments made by Bill Joy [1], which caused a real media uproar in 2000 [2]. The article he wrote at that time for Wired, the top magazine for futurologists, could not be taken as merely the nth science fiction broadside on the future annihilation of mankind as a result of the lust for techno-economic power, because the person writing was one of the best and most lucidly visionary IT minds of the last 20 years.

We announced the article in this site when it first came out in 2000 and since then it has been taken up, on an entirely sporadic basis, any time Joy has been mentioned in these pages. As far as I am aware, since that time he has done no more than restate the position he set forth in 2000. However. four years have gone by, and that's a long time in the Web era. So, is Joy's position an extremist one that has become fossilised with time? Does even just taking it into consideration again imply a "rehashing" of old ideas? I don't think so. And the reason I don't think so is that the developments we are seeing now, and the fact that the subjects addressed four years ago by Joy are increasingly being served up to today's entertainment media, all tend to make me think that, all things considered, a re-reading of Joy and the debate he stirred up [3] at the time might serve some purpose (quite apart from being enjoyable reading in itself/ quite apart from the fact that it makes for enjoyable reading in itself). It might serve as a touchstone, given that today, when we talk about the convergence between Genetics, Nanotechnology and Robotics (the "GNR" technologies), it is referred to frequently, albeit mainly in a (negative) critical vein.

A closer look at the five articles in which the editorial office ?? of this site has covered GNR issues [4], with contributions from our readers, shows that the emphasis has gradually shifted towards a type of reflection that takes Joy merely as a starting point. Indeed, the fifth article ends with the following question:

"how can we ensure that the decisions we take on our future - against the background of technological innovation that is advancing at a faster and faster pace (the scope of which therefore eludes us) - are the expression of a democratic policy and, therefore, consensus-based?"

Besides, the very title of the article: "Al di là della mancanza di consenso sui valori", serves as a taster to the issue for debate. A debate in which, in addition to Joy, Raymond Kurzweil [5] and Michael Dertouzos [6] are other key figures.

So: in all of this, where and how did we come to be talking about nanotechnology?

First of all, in the vein in which Joy spoke of it, for the reason mentioned above: as a result of scientific research within the scope of which the fears aroused by his hypothesis of the uncontrolled self-replication of biotechnological and nanotechnological organisms would actually come to pass.

Secondly, and more specifically, Omar Ganz helped us to significantly shift the direction of the debate with respect to this "paradigm". Dr. Ganz is a reader working in the new materials sector who showed us in his contribution that in the United States public opinion is already aware of the issue, given that the financial interests at stake are.Well, in this case they are truly "fantastic", in the sense of "stratospheric" [7]. To the extent that the financial analysts are already speaking about Nanotech being the most promising sector for the next few years and making the point that this is the best time to invest, and that it is important to do so as soon as possible, since the numbers taking part in this "race" are high indeed and all of the potential players are - we might say - economically well-equipped and "armour-plated".

And this brings us to the crux of the matter: the mingling of business and technoscience has caused a certain amount of alarm in those whose economic activity is driven by risk management: insurance companies (but at the investment levels we are talking about in the case of nanotechnology, the key actors are the re-insurance companies).

Swiss Re [8] seems to have left everyone standing at the starting line in a meeting with the media in London last May. The reports [9] drawn up by two of its risk analysts, Annabelle Hett and Bruno Porro, are required reading for anyone with an interest in the subject: not just in view of the precision with which they set out their points, but also because they can help us to gain a better understanding of the way in which policy, understood as governance [10], will tend to address, in a future that really is just around the corner, similar questions to those raised by Genetically Modified Organisms (and others besides) [11].

[1]
Bill Joy spent 21 years as chief scientist at Sun, a company that he helped found and which he provided with creative skills that proved to be essential to its success. The mind behind the SPARC architecture, the Solaris operating system, Java and much more, and a visionary of the technological future, Joy left Sun in 2003, saying only that he wanted to "pursue other interests"; a Sun communiqué reads: "he has decided it is time for 'different challenges' ".

[2]
The article was called "Why the future doesn't need us", here in the English version [2] (in the Wired site); here in the Italian translation [3] (edited by Anna Tagliavini, published in the book "Ripartiamo dal netWork" issued with the magazine Reset).

[3]
The debate was fuelled by distinguished names: we need only check out the seminar that took place at Stanford and was mentioned in this site in the first [4] of a series of five articles on this subject.

[4]
"Danger", "The Ultimate Danger: apocalittici e integrati", "La questione della responsabilità secondo Joy e secondo Kurzweil", "L'inevitabile e il desiderabile", "Al di là della mancanza di consenso sui valori". All can be reached from here [5].

[5]
Raymond Kurzweil is mentioned in the third [6] and fifth [7] articles in particular, of the five addressing this subject. The fifth article also provides a biographical note.

[6]
Michael Dertouzos is mentioned in the fifth [8] article of the five addressing this subject; the article also provides a biographical note.

[7]
Omar Ganz told us [9] about the first survey on this subject. This was conducted by Michael Cobb, a researcher at North Carolina State University and lecturer in Politics, who was responsible for the structure of the survey and the data analysis, and by Patrick Hamlett (associate professor in Science, Technology and Society) and Jane Macoubrie (lecturer in communication sciences).
"Recently the view has been gaining ground in the States that concerns over the self-replication capacity of nanobots (which, to tell the truth, at the moment are just science fiction), have diverted attention from the real risks." (Omar Ganz).

[8]
Swiss Reinsurance Company [10] (Swiss Re) is one of the world's leading reinsurers and the world's largest life and health reinsurer. The company operates through more than 70 offices in over 30 countries. Swiss Re has been in the reinsurance business since its foundation in Zurich, Switzerland, in 1863.

[9]
See Paola Parmendola's article [11] of 22 October.

[10]
In an interview on Radio 24's science programme (here in the transcription [12] made by Paola Parmendola), Paolo Milani (Physics Department at the University of Milan) spoke of a governance-based approach:
"[Radio 24]: 'Although for the time being the damage connected with nanotechnology has not yet occurred, and it is more than likely that it never will, the attitude has prevailed whereby that we should already be starting to talk about possible problems, to the extent, for example, that environmental organisations such as Greenpeace are sitting at the same discussion tables where the limits for action are being defined. An approach based, you might say, on governance'.

[Milani]: 'That's a very healthy approach. An approach that the Anglo-Saxon countries are promoting, especially the United States and the United Kingdom. In the US in particular there are academic and industrial groupings that are more advanced in this type of study. It is clear that they have been the first to pose the question, and in a way that sees the involvement of social, political and environmentalist actors so as to develop an approach that takes into account the needs of society as a whole and not just of certain sectors of industry or academe and is therefore able to provide constant feedback and stimuli for those carrying out research or applied research with a view to finding solutions that are acceptable to all of society'."

[11]
See, for example, the "Public Participation and Governance of Innovation" project promoted by Lombardy Region with the cooperation of the Bassetti Foundation and Observa, which Observa's Giuseppe Pellegrini discussed recently [13] in this site. A year ago, Pellegrini conducted a Call for Comments [14] for the Foundation on the subject covered by this project and was responsible for the Presentation [15] of the same.

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  1. 1] /schedabiografica/Redazione FGB
  2. 2] http://www.wired.com/wired/archive/8.04/joy.html
  3. 3] /it/itframeset.php?content=http://www.fondazionebassetti.org/06/docs/joy.htm
  4. 4] /it/itframeset.php?content=http://www.fondazionebassetti.org/06/collaborate/000261.htm
  5. 5] /it/itframeset.php?content=http://www.fondazionebassetti.org/06/collaborate/archives.htm
  6. 6] /it/itframeset.php?content=http://www.fondazionebassetti.org/06/collaborate/000289.htm
  7. 7] /it/itframeset.php?content=http://www.fondazionebassetti.org/06/collaborate/000309.htm
  8. 8] /it/itframeset.php?content=http://www.fondazionebassetti.org/06/collaborate/000309.htm
  9. 9] /it/itframeset.php?content=http://www.fondazionebassetti.org/06/collaborate/000261.htm#180
  10. 10] http://www.swissre.com/
  11. 11] /it/pagine/2008/04/su_che_cosa_stiamo_lavorando_n_1.html
  12. 12] /it/segnalazioni/2004/09/nanoetica_cercasi.html
  13. 13] /it/itframeset.php?content=http://www.fondazionebassetti.org/06/argomenti/2004_07.htm#000286
  14. 14] /it/itframeset.php?content=http://www.fondazionebassetti.org/06/cfc/index.htm
  15. 15] /it/itframeset.php?content=http://www.fondazionebassetti.org/06/cfc/000147.htm
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