Growing Smaller

Microscopic mechanical devices get attention of policy-makers.

In "Prey," Michael Crichtons latest novel, to be released this week, the master of technology-run-amok visions sets his sights on nanotechnology and describes a horde of bacterium-size machines that break out of a lab and evolve into flesh-eating, self-reproducing predators. While even experts in nanotechnology consider it "so new that it barely exists," the science already sparks widespread alarm among environmentalists and disarmament proponents, not to mention science fiction writers.

Over the summer, the Action Group on Erosion, Technology and Concentration, in Winnipeg, Manitoba, called on world leaders to declare an immediate moratorium on the commercial production of nano-materials. In the August issue of "Disarmament Diplomacy," Editor Sean Howard made an appeal for an "inner space" treaty "to protect the planet from devastation caused—accidentally, or by terrorists, or in open conflict—by artificial atomic and molecular structures capable of destroying environments and life forms from within."

Last week, to counter the growing negative publicity and promote a policy environment more conducive to nanotechnology, the Pacific Research Institute for Public Policy released a report examining several regulatory alternatives. PRI added nanotechnology to its studies last year when it discovered that cautionary tales of unchecked nanotechnology were not relegated to technophobes.

For example, in the realm of IT, practical applications are at least five to 10 years away, but that did not stop Sun Microsystems Inc. co-founder Bill Joy from warning, in an April 2000 Wired article, that "we are on the cusp of the further perfection of extreme evil, an evil whose possibility spreads well beyond that which weapons of mass destruction bequeathed to the nation-states, on to a surprising and terrible empowerment of extreme individuals."

"[Joys article] really made us start to think that there was a danger that fear, hysteria and a lot of political involvement could really start to harm this industry," said Sonia Arrison, director of PRIs Center for Technology Studies, in San Francisco.

Joining groups such as the NanoBusiness Alliance, in New York, and the Foresight Institute, in Palo Alto, Calif., PRI is trying to fight efforts to stymie nanotechnology research, prepare the general population for its developments and dissuade policy-makers from acting on popular fears.

In "Forward to the Future: Nanotechnology and Regulatory Policy," Glenn Harlan Reynolds, a professor of law at the University of Tennessee College of Law, in Knoxville, considers three regulatory frameworks for promoting safe nanotechnology research. The least feasible options would be to impose an outright ban, according to Reynolds.

"This is a very difficult technology to police. You could really almost literally do bathroom lab nanotechnology research," he said.

Short of banning nanotechnology research altogether, the government could try to keep its advances classified, which theoretically would reduce its chances of being used for deliberately destructive purposes outside the military.

Relegating nanotechnology solely to the government raises the risk, however, that it would evolve into a more dangerous product because civilian versions tend to be more robust than military versions, Reynolds said. Using the analogy of open-source software, Reynolds said that open nanotechnology would be more reliable because bugs could be worked out in an exposed environment with appropriate oversight.

The preferred approach, according to Reynolds, is to build a regulatory framework that would allow the science to thrive commercially and at the same time limit opportunities for abuse or accidents. The framework could combine export controls; a code of professional ethics; peer review; and research guidelines, including design constraints.

Lawmakers overseeing technology are eager to play a role. In September, Sens. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., and George Allen, R-Va., introduced a bill that would create a National Nanotechnology Research Program, a Presidential National Nano-technology Advisory Panel and a National Nanotechnology Coordination Office to support the panel and the program.

Policy-makers fear that the United States may fall behind other industrialized nations, including Japan, in developing the potentially highly lucrative technology. "The thing about nanotechnology is that you cant call it tinkering with life the way you can with biotechnology," Reynolds said.

For nanotechnology policy models, Reynolds points to professional guidelines established for biotechnology and a set of nanotechnology design constraints outlined in 1999 at a conference sponsored by the Foresight Institute. The design constraints center on preventing the development of machines that could live in the wild and evolve on their own—a quandary that scientists call the "gray goo" problem.

While an unlikely scenario, according to Reynolds, the "gray goo" problem could be prevented if scientists and policy-makers agreed on design constraints, including limiting the number of generations a nano-device could reproduce itself, he said.

That option, however, would have left Michael Crichton without a plot for "Prey."