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,"
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,
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.)
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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.
Al Globus's Computational Molecular Nanotechnology at NASA Ames Research
The home page for Computational Molecular Nanotechnology at NASA Ames Research
provides an easily accessible introduction to their efforts and related
work, and some examples of the early fruits of those efforts.
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"
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
Nanothinc Web Site
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. Among those pages most relevant to molecular nanotechnology
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: firstname.lastname@example.org