Friday, November 20, 2009

The Great Debate

It appeared in my e-mail in-box innocuously enough.  In the daily media update from the American Chemical Society, there was a notice that the award-winning high school chemistry magazine ChemMatters had created its first video podcast.  This video appears as part of the Bytesize Science programs and is titled "Nanotechnology's Big Impact".  I watched the 7 minute video and was surprised that the applications of nanotechnology highlighted early on were about the creation of autonomous nanobots for medical uses to combat microbial infections from a sore throat to a cut on your toe.  This was followed by a description of "self-assembly" that veered from the typical molecular description of interaction driven monolayer formation to a more sci-fi version (straight out of Michael Crichton's novel "Prey") of self-reproducing "nanomachines".

This concept brought to mind something I have been thinking about recently -- the 2003 "debate" between Eric Drexler, formerly of the Foresight Institute, and the late Rick Smalley, 1996 Nobel Laureate in chemistry and professor at Rice University.  In the "Point-Counterpoint" originally published in Chemical and Engineering News (Dec. 1, 2003), these two great thinkers sparred over the future of nanotechnology and how best to inspire the public as to its benefits, while not overly hyping both the promises and the uncertainties.  Drexler is convinced that molecular assemblers will be able to create an infinite variety of nanomachines by controlled placement of atoms using specific chemical reactions.  At the same time, Drexler is the author of the influential nanotechnology text "Engines of Creation" (1986) which postulates that such machines have the potential to drastically alter the earth and life on it, and in fact coined the term “gray goo”.  Smalley counters with chemical logic that argues against such assembly, and ends the debate by relating the already developing apprehension among middle and high school students that nanobots are a realistic threat and that fear-mongering of this sort is an impediment to progress.  As impassioned as the argument was in writing, I don't think either man was convinced by the words of his opponent.

The fear of run-away nanobots, while extreme, is just one of the reasons why so much attention has been paid to creating a nano-literate public (see many of my earlier posts), proceeding with openness about research results, and addressing the societal and ethical impacts (SEI) of a nano-enabled world.  Many have expressed the notion that there would be a considerable loss to science and society if nanotechnology becomes the next genetically modified organisms (GMO), referring to the technology that has been stifled due to public misunderstanding and fear.  On the other hand, a recent editorial in Nature Nanotechnology ("Keeping the public under the microscope", Vol. 4, No. 11, November 2009) relates that while only 31% of survey respondents have heard about nanotechnology (about the same as 5 years earlier), there is little anxiety among the uninformed and that "twice as many people think that the benefits will outweigh the risks" and “public attitudes…remain open to the guidance of sound science.”

Perhaps Rick Smalley won that debate after all.