Nanotechnology: Six Lessons from Sept. 11

December 13, 2001 by K. Eric Drexler

The Sept. 11 attacks confirmed the ongoing terrorist threat and the importance of proactive development of methods to prevent nanotech abuse, K. Eric Drexler, Chairman of the Foresight Institute said in a statement sent to institute members. The “nanotechnology boom” is beginning, he said, urging members to use their brains and their wallets to “ensure that the field of nanotechnology never has its own Sept. 11.”

Originally published December 2001 at the Foresight Institute as an appeal to the Foresight community. Published on December 13, 2001.

Dear friend:

As a member of the Foresight community, you’re extremely unusual — highly informed, technically savvy, able and willing to think about the long term. You’re one of the tiny minority able to understand the opportunity we face, and take action.

There’s much good news for nanotechnology and Foresight. Events are moving swiftly, and we’re at a critical point demanding action. Let me sketch the situation — including how Sept. 11 has changed it — and then ask for your help.

The Good News for Nanotech

Venture capital has noticed nanotechnology, and the “nanotechnology boom” is beginning — already private investment in nanotech outstrips that from government, and we should expect to see billions pour in soon. Much of this spending is directly on the pathway to full molecular manufacturing, with its mind-boggling benefits for medicine, the economy, and the environment.

That’s great. We at Foresight work to “spread the benefits and reduce the downsides” of nanotechnology, and there’s nothing like the free market for bringing costs down, enabling broad participation in technology’s benefits.

We’re here to handle what venture capital doesn’t. “Spreading nanotech benefits” means efforts on two fronts: (1) speeding R&D through technical education, and (2) working to reform intellectual property rules, so that publicly-funded research isn’t diverted into private monopolies, as now happens with gene research. Both these efforts are going well — Foresight hosts the premier conference on molecular nanotechnology, and we’ve been asked to help train U.S. nanotech patent examiners.

Lessons #1-3 from Sept. 11

#1 Foresight’s concern for the long-term potential abuse of nanotechnology has been confirmed and strengthened. Those who abuse technology — from airliners to anthrax — for destructive ends do exist and are unlikely to stop before full nanotech arrives, with all its power for both good and ill.

#2 Foresight’s position favoring speedy development of advanced nanotech has also been strengthened. The longer we wait, the better the infrastructure worldwide, the smaller the budget and project needed — and the easier to hide the work. Let’s do it fast, while it’s more difficult, expensive, and harder to conceal.

#3 Our advocacy of openness as the safest strategy has been validated. In under two hours, the problem of airliners hitting buildings was solved — by passengers in the fourth plane to be highjacked. They did it “open source style”: shared information on the need, collaborative design, and unpaid group implementation. (With earlier information, they might have been able to save their own lives, as well as those in the building their plane was meant to hit.) Their example can inspire us as we work to find a “bottom-up,” distributed, networked, immune-system-style defense against the abuse of nanotechnology.

Nanotech & Foresight’s Higher Profile, Post-Sept. 11

The attacks led to a flurry of media interest in terrorism, including the potential use and abuse of nanotech. Perhaps surprisingly, this coverage turned out to be calm and even-handed. In the Washington Post, Prof. Henry Petroski pointed out that buildings made using nanotech would be better able to withstand attack. In the New York Times, Gina Kolata accurately presented Foresight’s perspective on potential abuse of nanotech.

And when the AAAS organized its “War on Terrorism: What Does it Mean for Science?” event, they invited me to address the issue from the nanotech perspective. I’m told it was our work on the Foresight Guidelines, recommending safety rules for nanotech, that got their attention.

Lessons #4-6 from Sept. 11

#4 There are no good excuses for lack of foresight. We’ve got to be pro-active, not just reactive. Environmentalist-architect William McDonough wrote the following about environmental disasters, but it applies just as well to Sept. 11 or a future abuse of nanotech: “You can’t say it’s not part of your plan that these things happened, because it’s part of your de facto plan. It’s the thing that’s happening because you have no plan…We own these tragedies. We might as well have intended for them to occur.”

#5 It would be easy to say, “let government or industry figure out how to prevent nanotech misuse,” but the events of Sept. 11 and afterwards show this to be naive. (The current attempt to make airliners safer by keeping all sharp objects off the plane is laughable — a pair of glass eyeglasses is easily broken and used instead. The authorities dealing with the anthrax attacks expressed surprise that anthrax could leak from “sealed” envelopes — when anyone who’s ever licked one can see that the adhesive doesn’t extend to the flap’s edges.) Outside perhaps the military, government doesn’t do too well at anticipating emergencies and planning policies for them — their incentives are too political, and their time horizons are too short. At best, they can deploy policies developed in advance, by others who have the ability and willingness to do the brain work.

#6 It’s up to us — the Foresight community — to figure this out and take action. Advanced nanotech is still years off, but it’s going to take years, even decades, to evolve methods to prevent nanotech abuse and help those plans become official policy. The work needs to ramp up now, and we’re the ones with the knowledge and commitment to do it. Our Foresight Guidelines are an excellent start, but they primarily address accidents — it’s time to make a serious start on the harder problem of blocking deliberate abuse. It looks like we’re elected.

What to Do, and When to Do It

  • Donate your brainpower. This can range from kibbitzing on, to asking tough questions at our Senior Associates Gatherings and technical conferences, to writing policy papers such as Senior Associate Bryan Bruns’ groundbreaking study on the benefits and dangers of open source development of nanotechnology.
  • Donate your contacts. If you know specific individuals who can help, bring them into the Foresight community.
  • Most urgent: Donate cash or stock. Volunteers are great, but it takes full-time work to move this effort along as fast as it needs to go. Very few of us can afford to work full-time for free — Foresight needs to expand its full-time effort, and this requires funding.

Thanks to a modest Senior Associate who prefers not to be named here, we have a $35,000 Challenge Grant running through January 2002 — this means that every new dollar we donate up to this total will be doubled.

No Sept. 11 for Nanotech

The U.S. has been called a nation of volunteers, and Foresight members internationally share this spirit. We’re the lucky ones — we’re not being asked to risk our lives for freedom, just to use our brains and our wallets. I invite you to join me in working to ensure that the field of nanotechnology never has its own Sept. 11.

Yours sincerely,

K. Eric Drexler, Chairman, Foresight Institute