Revolution in a Box: An Interview with the Center for Responsible Nanotechnology

March 22, 2006 by Mike Treder, Chris Phoenix, Jamais Cascio

The Center for Responsible Nanotechnology has a modest goal: to ensure that the planet navigates the emerging nanotech era safely. CRN’s founders discuss the promises and perils of nanotechnology, as well as the need for a middle ground between resignation and relinquishment.

Originally published on WorldChanging February 6, 2006. Reprinted on March 23, 2006.

Founded in December 2002, the Center for Responsible Nanotechnology has a modest goal: to ensure that the planet navigates the emerging nanotech era safely. That’s a lot for a couple of volunteers to shoulder, but Mike Treder and Chris Phoenix have carried their burden well, and done much to raise awareness of the potential risks and benefits of molecular manufacturing, including a major presentation at the US Environmental Protection Agency on the impacts of nanotechnology….

[WorldChanging] conducted this interview as a series of email exchanges over the last few months. This post captures (and organizes) the highlights of that conversation. Mike, Chris—thank you. Your work is one of the reasons we have optimism for the future. — Jamais Cascio

WorldChanging: So, to start—what is the Center for Responsible Nanotechnology hoping to make happen?

Center for Responsible Nanotechnology: We want to help create a world in which advanced nanotechnology—molecular manufacturing—is widely used for beneficial purposes, and in which the risks are responsibly managed. The ability to manufacture highly advanced nanotech products at an exponentially accelerating pace will have profound and perilous implications for all of society, and our goal is to lay a foundation for handling them wisely.

WC: So you set up a non-profit. How is that going?

CRN: CRN is a volunteer organization. We have no paid positions. Our co-founders have dedicated time to this cause in lieu of professional paying careers. But the thing is, technical progress toward nanotechnology is really accelerating, and it’s become more urgent than ever for us to examine the global implications of this technology and begin designing wise and effective solutions.

It won’t be easy. CRN needs to grow, quickly, to meet the expanding challenge. We’re asking people who share the belief that our research must keep moving ahead to support us with small or large donations.

WC: One of the unusual aspects of CRN is that you’re neither a nanotech advocacy group nor unmoving nanotech critics. Your focus is on the responsible development and deployment of next-generation nanotechnologies. Tell me a bit about what "responsible nanotechnology" looks like.

CRN: You’re right that we have tried hard to stay in a "middle" place. We sometimes refer to it as between resignation (forsaking attempts to manage the technology) and relinquishment (forsaking the technology altogether). Our view is that advanced nanotechnology—molecular manufacturing—should be developed as fast as it can be done safely and responsibly. We’re promoting responsible rapid development of the technology—not because we believe it is safe, but because we believe it is risky—and because the only realistic alternative to responsible development is irresponsible development.

CRN: So, what does ‘responsible’ mean? First, that we take effective precautions to forestall a new arms race. Second, that we do what is necessary to prevent a monopoly on the technology by one nation, one bloc of nations, or one multinational corporation. Third, that we seek appropriate ways to share the tremendous benefits of the technology as widely as possible; we should not allow a ‘nano-divide.’ Fourth, that we recognize the possibilities for both positive and negative impacts on the environment from molecular manufacturing, and that we adopt sensible global regulations on its use. And fifth, that we understand and take precautions to avert the risk of severe economic disruption, social chaos, and consequent human suffering.

WC: How does the "responsible" approach differ from something like the "Precautionary Principle?" What’s your take on the concept of "precaution" applied to emerging technologies?

CRN: One of our earliest published papers was on that very topic. It’s called "Applying the Precautionary Principle to Nanotechnology." CRN’s analysis shows that there are actually two different forms of the Precautionary Principle, something that many people don’t realize. We call them the ‘strict form’ and the ‘active form.’

The strict form of the Precautionary Principle requires inaction when action might pose a risk. In contrast, the active form calls for choosing less risky alternatives when they are available, and for taking responsibility for potential risks. Because the strict form of the Precautionary Principle does not allow consideration of the risks of inaction, CRN believes that it is not appropriate as a test of molecular manufacturing policy.

The active form of the Precautionary Principle, however, seems quite appropriate as a guide for developing molecular manufacturing policy. Given the extreme risks presented by misuse of nanotechnology, it appears imperative to find and implement the least risky plan that is realistically feasible. Although we cannot agree with the strict form of the Precautionary Principle, we do support the active form.

WC: What is the CRN Task Force, and what do you hope to have it accomplish? [Disclaimer: I am a member of the CRN Task Force.]

CRN: Without mutual understanding and cooperation on a global level, the hazardous potentials of advanced nanotechnology could spiral out of control and deny any hope of realizing the benefits to society. We’re not willing to leave the outcome to chance.

So, last August we announced the formation of a new Task Force, convened to study the societal implications of this rapidly emerging technology. We’ve brought together a diverse group of more than 60 world-class experts from multiple disciplines to assist us in developing comprehensive recommendations for the safe and responsible use of nanotechnology.

Our first project is just nearing completion. Members of the task force have written a series of essays describing their greatest concerns about the potential impacts of molecular manufacturing. We have completed editing approximately 20 excellent articles that range from discussion of economic issues and security issues, to the implications of human enhancement and artificial intelligence. They will be published in the March 2006 issue of Nanotechnology Perceptions, an academic journal maintained by a couple of European universities. We will simultaneously publish the essays at the website, where anyone can read and comment on them.

• • •

WC: We’ve discussed the different kinds of nanotechnology on WorldChanging, and you folks posted a very useful follow-up to one of our pieces on that subject. To be clear, when we talk about "nanotechnology" in this context, we’re talking about "nanofactories." So let’s drill down a bit on that particular subject. What kinds of things could an early version of a nanofactory make? Are we just talking desktop printing of simple physical objects (like a cup), items embedding diverse materials & electronics (like a laptop), or organic and biochemical materials (like medicines or food)?

CRN: The first, tiny nanofactory will be built by intricate laboratory techniques; then that nanofactory will have to build a bigger one, and so on, many times over. This means that even the earliest usable nanofactory will necessarily work extremely fast and be capable of making highly functional products with moving parts. So, in addition to laptops and phones, an early nanofactory should be able to make cars, home appliances, and a wide array of other products.

Medicines and food will not be early products. A large number of reactions will be required to make the vast variety of organic molecules. Some molecules will be synthesized more easily than others. It may work better first to build (using a nanofactory) an advanced fluidic system that can do traditional chemistry.

Food will be especially difficult because it contains water. Water is a small molecule that would float around and gum up the factory. Also, food contains a number of large and intricate molecules for taste and smell; furthermore, nourishing food requires mineral elements that would require extra research to handle with nanofactory-type processes.

WC: It seems to me that manufacturing via nanofactories will require some different concepts of the manufacturing process than the automated assembly-line model most of us probably have in mind when we think of "factories." Parallel to early design work on the hardware end, has there been much work done on the software/design end of how nanofactories would work?

CRN: We have thought about how nanofactories would be controlled, and it seems probable that it’s just not a very difficult problem, at least for the kind of nanofactory that can include lots of integrated computers. (This should include almost any diamond-building nanofactory, and a lot of nanofactories based on other technologies as well.)

Until automated design capabilities are developed, products will be limited largely by our product design skills. A simple product-description language, roughly analogous to PostScript, would be able to build an enormous range of products, but would not even require fancy networking in the nanofactory. (Drexler discusses product-description languages in section 14.6 of Nanosystems.)

WC: What makes nanofactories so different from traditional production methods?

CRN: It’s important to understand that molecular manufacturing implies exponential manufacturing—the ability to rapidly build as many desktop nanofactories (sometimes called personal fabricators) as you have the resources for. Starting with one nanofactory, someone could build thousands of additional nanofactories in a day or less, at very low cost. This means that projects of almost any size can be accomplished quickly.

Those who have access to the technology could use it to build a surveillance system to track six billion people, weapons systems far more powerful than the world’s combined conventional forces, construction on a planetary scale, or spaceflight as easy as airplane flight is today.

Massive construction isn’t always bad. Rapid construction could allow us to build environmental remediation technologies on a huge scale. Researchers at Los Alamos National Laboratory are suggesting that equipment could be built to remove significant quantities of carbon dioxide directly from the atmosphere. With molecular manufacturing, this could be done far more quickly, easily, and inexpensively.

In addition to being powerful, the technology will also be deft and exquisite. Medical research and treatment will advance rapidly, given access to nearly unlimited numbers of medical robots and sensors that are smaller than a cell.

This only scratches the surface of the implications. Molecular manufacturing has as many implications as electricity, computers, and gasoline engines.

WC: In other words, nanotechnology is both an engineering process and (for lack of a less jargony phrase) an "enabling paradigm"—it doesn’t just make it possible to do what we now do, but better/faster/ cheaper, it also makes it possible (in time) to do some things that we can’t now do.

CRN: Yes, exactly. Another good way to look at it is as a general-purpose technology: enhancing and enabling a wide range of applications. It will be similar in effect to, say, electricity or computers.

WC: Back up a sec. The complexities of surveillance systems, planetary engineering, and cheap & easy space flight come from much more than not being able to make enough or sufficiently-precise gear. There are also questions of design, of power, of scale, and so forth. These seem likely to take substantial effort and time.

CRN: The speed of development will differ for each project. But by today’s standards, almost any project could be done quite quickly. A lot of hardware development time today is spent in compensating for the high cost and large delay associated with building each prototype. If you could build a prototype in a few hours at low cost, a lot of engineering could be bypassed. Of course, this is less true for safety-critical systems. But imagine how quickly space flight could be developed if Elon Musk (SpaceX), John Carmack (Armadillo), and Burt Rutan could each build and fly a new (unmanned) spacecraft every day instead of waiting three months or more.

Power will of course have to be supplied to any project. But one of the first projects may be a massive solar-gathering array that could supply power for planet-scale engineering. A nanofactory-built solar array should be able to repay the energy cost of its construction in just a few days, so scaling up the solar array itself would not take too long.

A comparable advantage can be seen today in computer chip design. FPGA’s and ASIC’s are two similar kinds of configurable computer chips. They differ in that ASIC’s are designed before they are built, and FPGA’s can have new designs downloaded to them in seconds, even after they are integrated into a circuit. An FPGA can be designed by a person in a week or two. An ASIC requires a team of people working for several months—largely to make absolutely sure that they have not made even a single mistake, which could cost the company millions of dollars and months of delay. The difference between today’s development cycle and nanofactory-enabled product R&D is the difference between ASIC’s and FPGA’s.

• • •

WC: The degree to which research is largely corporate, academic or governmental will obviously vary from country to country. Who are some of the organizations doing innovative work in nanotech?

CRN: There are only a few companies that are explicitly working on molecular manufacturing. Many more are doing work that is relevant, but not aiming at that goal—or at least not admitting to it.

Zyvex LLC is working on enabling technologies, with the stated goal of providing "tools, products, and services that enable adaptable, affordable, and molecularly precise manufacturing."

In Japan, individual silicon atoms have been moved and bonded into place since 1994, first by the Aono group and then by Oyabu. Because this used a much larger scanning probe microscope to move the atoms, it is not a large-scale manufacturing technique.

Researchers at Rice University have developed a "nano-car" with single-molecule wheels that roll on molecular bearings, and reportedly are aiming toward "nano-trucks" that could transport molecules in miniature factories.

WC: To what degree is nanotechnology research a province of the big industrial countries, and to what degree is it accessible to forward-looking developing countries (what we term on WorldChanging the "leapfrog nations")?

CRN: In the broad sense of nanoscale technologies, some kinds of nanotech research are quite accessible to leapfrog nations. Molecular manufacturing research may be accessible as well. Atom-level simulations can now be run on desktop PC’s. Some of the development pathways, such as biopolymer approaches, require only a small lab’s worth of equipment.

We don’t yet know exactly how difficult it will be to develop a nanofactory. Several approaches are on the table, but there could be a much easier approach waiting to be discovered. It’s probably safe to say that any nation that can support a space program could also engage in substantial research toward molecular manufacturing. Note that several individuals are now supporting space programs, including Elon Musk of SpaceX and Paul Allen who funded SpaceShipOne.

WC: Do you expect home "hobbyist" designers—perhaps using home-made nanotools—to have any role in the nanotechnology revolution, as "garage hackers" did in the early days of personal computing?

CRN: We have been aware of some of the scanning probe microscope efforts. If advanced molecular manufacturing requires a vacuum scanning-probe system cooled by liquid helium, it’s doubtful you could do that in your garage. On the other hand, if all it requires is an inert-gas environment at liquid nitrogen temperatures, then some work might be doable by a very competent hobbyist.

Design of nanomachines (as opposed to construction) is already accessible to hobbyists. Without the ability to test their designs in the lab, many of the designs will have bugs, of course. However, at least in the early stages, the development of new design approaches and the demonstration that we’ve learned even approximately how to implement mechanisms will be important contributions.

• • •

WC: A big concern in a world of easy fabrication is what to do with broken or obsolete stuff. In what ways could a nanofactory-type system use "waste" materials, with an eye towards the "cradle-to-cradle" concept?

CRN: If the stuff is made of light atoms, such as carbon and nitrogen, it should be straightforward to burn it in an enclosed system. The resulting gases could be cooled and then sorted at a molecular level, and the molecules could be stored for re-use.

It seems likely that products will be designed and built using modules that would be somewhat smaller than a human cell. If these modules are standardized and re-usable, then it might be possible to pull apart a product and rearrange the modules into a different product. However, there are practical problems: the modules themselves may be obsolete, and they would need to be carefully cleaned before they could be reassembled. It would probably be easier to reduce them to atoms and start over, since every atom could be contained and re-used.

WC: That seems likely to take a serious amount of energy to accomplish thoroughly, am I right? That is, if I toss my cell phone into an incinerator, different parts will cook at different temperatures, and there are some components that would require some fairly high temps to break down. In addition, the nano-incinerator will need to be able to sort out the various atoms that are emitted by the burning object. Sounds complex.

This becomes an important issue, because a world where it’s really easy to make stuff but much harder to get rid of it starts to accelerate some already-serious problems around garbage, especially hazardous wastes.

CRN: Breaking down a carbon-based product just requires heating it a bit, then exposing it to oxygen or hydrogen—something that can combine with the carbon to produce small gas molecules. This process will likely be exothermic—in other words, being high in carbon, nano-built products would burn very nicely when you wanted them to. (Adding small integrated water tanks that were drained before recycling would prevent premature combustion.)

Constructing a nano-built product requires not only rearranging a lot of molecular bonds, but computing how to do that, and moving around a lot of nanoscale machinery. A nanofactory might require several times the bond energy to accomplish all that. The energy required to break down a nano-built product should be less than the energy it took to make it in the first place. And in terms of product strength per energy invested, nano-built diamond would probably be many times better than aluminum—a cheap, energy-intensive commodity.

• • •

WC: We’ve occasionally written on WC about the increasing "digitization" of physical objects, whether through embedded computer chips and sensors or even the introduction of DRM-style use controls. On the flip side, futurists have for a few years talked about the possibility of "napster fabbing"—swapping design files, legally or otherwise, and/or the development of an open source culture around next-generation fabrication tools like nanofactories.

What do you see as the key intellectual property issues emerging from the rise of nanomanufacturing?

CRN: Because molecular manufacturing will be a general-purpose technology, we can expect that it will raise many of the issues that exist today in many different domains. Many issues will be the same as for software and entertainment, but the stakes will be far higher. The issues we see in medicine, with controversies over whether affordable pharmaceuticals should be provided to developing nations, will also apply to humanitarian applications of nanofactory products.

WC:To tease that point out for a minute, you’re suggesting that the issue won’t be with the difficulty or expense of making the materials, but the expense of the time necessary to come up with the design in the first place. Big pharma argues that the majority of their work is actually in dead ends, and that the high fees they charge for the drugs that do work are to make up for the time they take with the stuff that doesn’t work. Would the nanofactory world—at least the early days of it—parallel this?

CRN: It’s not an exact parallel. Some percentage of pharmaceutical development costs go to preliminary testing, another percentage to clinical trials—which are hugely expensive due to regulation and liability—and a third percentage to advertising and incentives for doctors to prescribe the new medicine. Of these three, probably only the first will apply to early nanofactory products.

We do expect design time to be a large component of the cost of a product. But the Open Source software movement shows that significant design time can be contributed without adding to product price.

WC: So you see Open Source as an aspect of the nanofactory future?

CRN: Whether or not open source approaches will be allowed to develop nanofactory products is the single biggest intellectual property question. Open source software has been astonishingly creative and innovative, and open source products could be a rich source of innovation as well as humanitarian designs. Even businesses could benefit, since open source usually doesn’t put a final polish on its products, so commercial interests can repackage them and sell at a good profit.

However, the business interests that will want a monopoly, and the security institutions that will be uncomfortable with unrestricted fabbing, will probably oppose open source products. It would be easy to criminalize unrestricted fabbing, though far more difficult to prevent it. Prevention of private innovation, through simply not allowing private ownership of nanofactories, would have to be rigorously enforced worldwide—likely impossible, and certainly oppressive. Criminalization without prevention would almost certainly be bad policy, but it will probably be tried.

WC: We see early parallels to this in the issue of open source and "digital rights management" routines. The idea of outlawing Open Source (because it can’t be locked down) even gets kicked around from time to time. It seems likely that an open source that could result in new weapons might be even more likely to trigger this kind of response.

CRN: Historically, Open Source has been a huge source of innovation. Open source applied to molecular manufacturing could result in new weapons, but also in new defenses. Shutting down Open Source might not reduce the weapons much, but it probably would reduce the development of defenses. We should think very carefully before we reduced our capacity to design new defenses. That said, you may well be right that a combination of government and corporate interests would work together to successfully eliminate Open Source-type development.

• • •

WC: What would you say are your top concerns about how nanofactory technology might develop?

CRN: Our biggest concern is that molecular manufacturing will be a source of immense military power. A medium-sized or larger nation that was the sole possessor of the technology would be a superpower, with a strong likelihood of becoming the superpower if they were sufficiently ruthless. This implies geopolitical instability in the form of accelerating arms races and preemptive strikes. For several reasons, a nanofactory-based arms race looks less stable than the nuclear arms race was.

Related to the military concern is a tangle of security concerns. If molecular manufacturing proliferates, it will become relatively easy to build a wide range of high-tech automated weaponry. Accountability may decrease even as destructive power increases. The Internet, with its viruses, spam, spyware, and phishing, provides a partial preview of what we might expect. It could be very difficult to police such a society without substantial weakening of civil rights and even human rights.

Economic disruption is a likely consequence of widespread use of molecular manufacturing. On the one hand, we would have an abundance of production capacity able to build high-performance products at minimal expense. On the other hand, this could threaten a lot of today’s jobs, from manufacturing to transportation to mineral extraction.

Environmental damage could result from widespread use of inexpensive products. Although products filling today’s purposes could be made more efficient with molecular manufacturing, future applications such as supersonic and ballistic transport may demand far more energy than we use today.

Another major risk associated with molecular manufacturing comes from not using it for positive purposes. Artificial scarcities—legal restrictions—have been applied to lifesaving medicines. Similar restrictions on molecular manufacturing, whether in the form of military classification, unnecessary safety regulations, or explicit intellectual property regulation, could allow millions of people to die unnecessarily.

WC: We know from the digital restrictions/"piracy" debate that technical limitations on copying, etc., do an adequate job of preventing regular folks from duplicating movies, software and such, whether for illicit reasons (passing a copy to a friend) or otherwise (making a backup or other "fair use"), while doing little to prevent real IP pirates from duping off thousands of copies to sell on the street in Shanghai or the like.

In short, there’s every reason to believe that top-down efforts to stymie the illegal/illicit/irresponsible use of nanofactories will be only marginally-effective, at best, while driving the worst stuff deep underground and preventing regular citizens from using their nanofactories in ways that would be beneficial and not significantly harmful.

CRN: It would be premature to dismiss all top-down regulation as ineffective. At the same time, the reduction in humanitarian and other benefits from excessive regulation is one of CRN’s primary concerns. It is certainly true that regulation will impose a significant cost in lost opportunities. However, because there are so many different types of harm that could be done with a nanofactory, we are not ready to say that all regulation would be undesirable.

It will be difficult to apply "fine-grained relinquishment" (Kurzweil’s term) to a general-purpose technology like nanofactories. However, we will probably have to achieve this, because both blanket permissiveness and blanket restrictions will impose extremely high costs and risks.

As we have said before, there will be no simple solutions. We will need a combination of both top-down and emergent approaches.

WC: I’ve been a pretty vocal advocate of openness as a tool for countering dangerous uses. It’s a bit counter-intuitive, I admit, but there’s real precedent for its value. Most experts see free/open source software, for example, as being more secure than closed, proprietary code. And the treatment for SARS (to cite a non-computer example) emerged directly from open global access to the virus genome.

In both cases, the key is the widespread availability of the underlying "code" to both professional and interested amateurs. The potential increase in possible harmful use of that knowledge is, at least so far, demonstrably outweighed by the preventative use.

What do you think of an open approach to nanotechnology as a means of heading off disasters?

CRN: In a false dichotomy between totally closed and totally open, the open approach would seem to increase the dangers posed by hobbyists and criminals. A totally closed approach, assuming no one in power was insanely stupid, probably would not lead to certain kinds of danger such as hobbyist-built free-range self-replicators, the so-called grey goo.

I don’t think we can count on no one in power being insanely stupid, however. Realistically, even a totally closed, locked-down, planet-wide dictator approach would not be safe.

A partially closed approach, where Open Source was criminalized but bootleg or independent nanofactories were available, would be prone to danger from criminals and rebellious hobbyists—and by the way, the world still needs a lot more research to determine just how extreme that danger is. An open approach probably would not increase the danger much versus a partially closed approach, and would certainly increase our ability to deal with the danger.

Remember Ben Franklin’s adage: Three can keep a secret, if two are dead. There would be a substantial danger of disastrous abuse even with a mere one thousand people or groups having access to the technology (and the rest of the six billion at their mercy). It’s not certain that the danger would be very much worse with a million or even a billion people empowered.

• • •

WC: Closing on a more positive note, what would you say are your biggest hopes about how this kind of technology might be applied? In other words, what does a world of responsible nanotechnology look like?

CRN: We would like to see a world in which security and geopolitical concerns are addressed proactively and skillfully, in order to maximize liberty without allowing any devastating uses.

We would like to see a world in which the ubiquity of tradeoffs is recognized, and where consequences are neither dismissed nor exaggerated. Regulation should be appropriate to the extent of the various risks. The drawbacks of inaction should be considered along with the risks and problems of action.

We would like to see a world in which everyone has access to at least a minimal molecular manufacturing capacity. The computer revolution has shown that inventiveness is maximized by a combination of commercial and open source development, and open source is a good generator of free basic products when the cost of production is tiny.

© 2006 Jamais Cascio. Reprinted with permission.