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Should Nanotech Be Regulated? 403

Posted by Zonk
from the microfabrication dept.
Memorize writes "Josh Wolfe writes an article in Forbes arguing that it is too early to regulate nanotech. Wolfe is worried that the 'green gang' (his term for environmentalists) are going to regulate nanotech out of existence before the technology even works in the lab. It seems like much of the discussion of nanotech is hype, including the potential benefits, such as immortality and the potential dangers such as grey goo. However, nanotech does hold some promise of environmental benefits such as cheap solar power. Are the risks real, and if so, is it worth the risk?" From the article: "There are rumblings that regulations are needed. They say they want to guarantee the safety of the technology and instill confidence in the general public."
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Should Nanotech Be Regulated?

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  • by MyLongNickName (822545) on Thursday April 07, 2005 @12:56PM (#12166626) Journal
    I wanted to be a nanotech inspector, but I failed the eye exam.
  • Nanotubes (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Rei (128717) on Thursday April 07, 2005 @12:57PM (#12166633) Homepage
    Well, given that CNTs seem to be a perfect size to get lodged in the lungs, I wouldn't want the industry to be exposing itself to an asbestos-style situation.
    • Regulating soot (Score:2, Informative)

      by DaleBob (676487)
      CNTs and buckyballs are just forms of soot. You can find them in any fireplace. So whatever regulations are on soot emissions to the atmosphere, they should be applied to CNTs as well.
      • Re:Regulating soot (Score:3, Insightful)

        by timster (32400)
        Cyanide is just a form of baryonic matter. You can find it in any apricot. So whatever regulations are on feeding people apricots, they should also be applied to feeding people cyanide.

        Come on, you can't possibly be serious.
    • Too late. (Score:5, Informative)

      by abb3w (696381) on Thursday April 07, 2005 @01:20PM (#12166869) Journal
      I recall seeing a citation that many firms (especially outside the US) were using the health and materials safety data for graphite for CNTs, since nothing specific for carbon nanotubes existed. I've found at least one CNT data sheet [yahoo.com] online, but therein the phrase "TO THE BEST OF OUR KNOWLEDGE, THE CHEMICAL, PHYSICAL, AND TOXICOLOGICAL PROPERTIES HAVE NOT BEEN THOROUGHLY INVESTIGATED" raises alarm bells for me at least.

      Nanomaterials are weird. Gold metal and even sub-hair thin wires are fairly inert; but nanodivide it, and it becomes highly reactive and much more toxic than lead. And we're putting nanocrystal zinc oxide into sunscreens these days. I'll use it anyway-- with my skin and family history, melanoma is the bigger risk. But nanomaterials exposure is already happening.

      • Re:Too late. (Score:2, Insightful)

        by youngerpants (255314)
        products such as Sulphiric Acid haver been thoroughly investigated, and apparently its pretty bad for us... much worse than CNT's or Asbestos. Its still used a lot in industry though.


        One day, politicians/ regulatory bodies are going to find a happy medum between FUD and ignorance.

      • by Mr. Underbridge (666784) on Thursday April 07, 2005 @02:30PM (#12167750)
        First, please provide a legal definition of nanotech for me.

        That's where the stupidity in the proposed falls. Nanotech is a bunch of very disparate materials that have been lumped together 1) by people who don't understand them, and 2) researchers trying to make their work sound more interesting than it might actually be.

        Nanotech is pretty much nothing and everything. This is just baseless fear of the unknown. We've been doing nanotech for years, it's called pharmaceuticals. Just like any other material, safety needs to be determined on a case-by-case basis.

      • We've been breathing buckyballs, nanotubes, an other nanoscopic carbon structures since the domestication of fire. It's called "soot", and is where buckyballs were first discovered.

        Harmfull stuff, too. Humans have evolved to be MUCH less damaged by such things as a result of long use of fire in enclosed places. (To the point that some dioxins amount to deadly poisons for EVERY animal but people, for whom they're just a medium-grade carcinogen/teratogen at exposure levels high enough to overwhelm the det
      • Re:Too late. (Score:3, Insightful)

        by srleffler (721400)
        On the other hand, I have often noticed that material safety data sheets are sometimes unreasonably dire in their warnings, and tend to always prescribe the most extreme measures imaginable without regard to the extent of the possible exposure.

        Don't believe me? Look at the data sheet for table salt [jtbaker.com]. "Lab Protective Equip: GOGGLES; LAB COAT; PROPER GLOVES", "In the event of a fire, wear full protective clothing and NIOSH-approved self-contained breathing apparatus with full facepiece operated in the press

  • Wide Societal Debate (Score:5, Interesting)

    by ALeavitt (636946) * <aleavittNO@SPAMgmail.com> on Thursday April 07, 2005 @12:57PM (#12166637)
    From TFA:
    "There needs to be a wide societal debate informing and underpinning government decisions, and this can't be confined to technical issues alone. It would be a mistake to attempt to sideline this discussion to a group of experts..."

    Great thinking. Let's take the debate out of the hands of the people who know what they're talking about, and put it firmly in the hands of John Q. Public. "But I read a book about nanotechnology, and these swarms of tiny robots killed people. Won't somebody think of the children?"
    I'm not saying that it's a mistake to involve society at large in a matter like this, but experts' opinions are going to be the most well-informed, and therefore the most valuable. People who know nothing about nanotechnology except for the fact that a manufactured particle can damage the environment just don't know as much about the issue as people who have been studying nanotechnology for years. The public's opinion can easily be swayed by politicians with hidden agendas, and somehow I doubt that scientific advancement will win out against mass panic and sentimentalism. What we need are some honest, unbiased reports of the pros and cons of nanotechnology: where it's headed, how it could help us, how it could harm us, and what the cost will be. Instead we'll have a mob of people going off half-cocked and writing their senators because them thar robots are goin' take over, and you cain't even see 'um. Give authority to the people who have earned it; they're the ones who will know the right thing to do with it.
    • by Anonymous Coward on Thursday April 07, 2005 @01:08PM (#12166750)
      You mean, just like how genetically modified foods was handled?

      This stuff now pervades many aspects of our everyday eating habits, yet I can't find out about it, and I don't know the risks or benefits.

      The "people who know what they're talking about" are often people firmly entrenched in companies that are out to make a buck, and are possibly more than willing (as history has proven) to ignore potential dangers in that quest. Do you trust Monsanto to tell you the god's honest truth about GM foods?

      The biggest problem here was that there was next-to-no public debate about it. These companies are even resisting a requirement to label foods as GM foods! This is ridiculous! It eventually comes down to individual choice, so it makes more sense to get involved sooner rather than later.

      The more this is done under public scrutiny, the more we can verify that companies or special interest groups are not bribing or unduly influencing public officials. Or do you think it's a wise idea to have accounting crooks shaping national energy policies behind closed doors to suit their own motives?
      • by mthaddon (580045) on Thursday April 07, 2005 @01:23PM (#12166914)
        Too right.

        "Leave the regulation to the industry who knows it best" - er, hello, conflict of interest anyone?

        I don't want to regulate new technology out of existence, but at the same time, I don't want lack of regulation allowing big corps to go ahead and do exactly what they want without any accountability and/or assessment of the risks.

        We're not talking about regulating scientists here, we're talking about regulating corporations.
      • by _Sharp'r_ (649297) <sharper@NoSPAm.booksunderreview.com> on Thursday April 07, 2005 @02:14PM (#12167462) Homepage Journal
        See also a previous comment [slashdot.org] in another story for the perils of the government setting up a [whatever] to regulate nanotech.

        Better to not have any regulations at all then to let those who would break the regulations or who want to avoid competition in nanotech become the ones creating the regulations.
      • by TGK (262438) <KillfileNO@SPAMNephandus.Com> on Thursday April 07, 2005 @02:14PM (#12167465) Homepage Journal
        My wife is a political science graduate student researching the Codex (and I'm going to spell this wrong) Alamantarius, which is a International Regulatory group based out of Rome dealing with food safty standards. I've been helping her edit/research her thesis a bit, so I'm in a pretty decent position to comment on this.

        GM Foods - For starters, GM foods are more or less prevasive in the US right now. If you buy produce at a major supermarket, chances are 99% that it's a GM product. If it's marked "Organic" odds are that it's only partialy organic, more than likely also incorporating GM strains. Yes, that's not how it's supposed to be, but that's proving to be overwhelmingly the case.

        GM foods carry a lot of risks, though not as many to the 1st world population as you've probably been lead to beleive. There is evidence that US Beef may contribute to various forms of cancer (the EU brought this evidence to light in their case before the WTO on their argiculture subsidies) but that's not a GM issue so much as it being pumped full of antibiotics and sterroids.

        The real danger of GM foods is in the 3rd world (no longer an accecptable term, but a hell of a lot shorter than the real deal... and everyone knows what it means). Because GM foods are considered intelectual property, the seed stocks cost a great deal more than non-GM seed stocks. In many 3rd world countries, where 1st world corporations own a huge amount of the land, subsistance agriculture is no longer an option. In order to drive down food prices, 3rd world governments are forced to try to maximize production on non-agribuisness owned land. When offered GM crops that yeild 4-5x as much, they jump at the chance. Typicaly the first year's seed stock is free.

        Unfortunatly, Thermodynamics comes into play here. You can't just create 5x as much food from the same plant without takinx 5x as much out of the soil. Doing so depletes the soil, making it all but useless for non-GM products. You can use high end fertilizers, but these very high nitrogen compounds often damage plants that have not been specificly tailored to survive them (read GM plants).

        The trap is closed in year two. With feilds unable to sustain anything but GM products the faltering agricultural economy has no choice but to buy the seed stocks. Since they are IP, the stocks are priced well above those of normal seed stocks and are typicaly incapable of reproduction.

        And you wonder where famine comes from.

        In all honesty, the risks to you of eating a tomato grown with an extra tick skin to allow easier transport are fairly minimal... it just tases like crap. The real victims are the countries in which those tomatoes are grown to the exclusion of staple crops like corn and wheet so that you can have a Whopper meal (with tomato, lettuce, and pickles) for less than $5.00

        Of course, there are a few stocks of GM corn that made it into the human food supply that were never approved for human use, just cattle. God alone knows what's in that stuff. That, by the way, does reproduce... and today we've no idea what corn is natural and what is cattle GM.

    • by Anonymous Coward
      The quote is not actually advocating taking the debate out of the hands of experts and putting it into the hands of anyone who feels like contributing. The quote is advocating bringing additional experts from other areas into the debate. In other words, as the quote states, the debate "can't be confined to technical issues alone", or even "to only focus on environmental and health issues". The quote is saying "let's look at this from all angles". It is not saying "let's let any moron decide and ignore the e
    • by WidescreenFreak (830043) on Thursday April 07, 2005 @01:11PM (#12166789) Homepage Journal
      Or even worse ...

      "I saw that Star Trek episode where two nanites had sex and reproduced like rabbits! They had to shoot the computer! And then they, like, started talkin' and stuff, and that dude had to apologize.. Well, shit, I ain't wanna apologize to some sex-maniac robots who want to take over my computer! No way, man! None of this nanotechnology for me! I don't wanna shoot my 'puter neither!

      I saw it on TV, so it's gotta be true!"
    • by hey! (33014) on Thursday April 07, 2005 @01:19PM (#12166859) Homepage Journal
      Great thinking. Let's take the debate out of the hands of the people who know what they're talking about, and put it firmly in the hands of John Q. Public.

      I for one won't welcome our new technocratic overlords.

      People who know nothing about nanotechnology except for the fact that a manufactured particle can damage the environment just don't know as much about the issue as people who have been studying nanotechnology for years.

      True. But people who are promoters of the technology can't be entrusted with decsions that affect society as a whole either. Even "experts" in nanotechnology aren't necessarily experts in environmental impact. They aren't necessarily experts in human health. The problem when it comes to assessing widespread commercialization of a technology like this becomes interdisciplinary. Who will enforce that this debate takes place? Mr. Special Interest pushing against unwashed John Q. Public who is whipped into a frenzy by Snidely Politician, Esq.

      If you want a better system, do something for your local elementary school, shake, stir, then wait twenty years and hope things turn out beter.

      I'm not saying that it's a mistake to involve society at large in a matter like this, but experts' opinions are going to be the most well-informed, and therefore the most valuable.

      Well, I'm not sure what you propose then.

      The fact is, venal politicians will try to sieze on an issue one way or the other. The answer is not to discourage debate, but to encourage more of it. The power of the "opinion makers" to convince society of all kinds of malarkey doesn't come from vigorous public debate, but the lack of it.
      • If you want a better system, do something for your local elementary school, shake, stir, then wait twenty years and hope things turn out better.

        Or, just spray the local elementary school with brain-enhancer nanobots and let them do what they're good at!
    • Where's the beef? (Score:4, Insightful)

      by MillionthMonkey (240664) on Thursday April 07, 2005 @01:27PM (#12166954)
      Is this really a problem? Has anyone really been calling for the regulation of nanotech?

      The only evidence he offers is that people were worrying that buckyballs might cause cancer, and the NSF is funding toxicity studies. And the British are also interested in studying nanoparticle toxicity. So what?

      But he also offers this, from the same source from which he gets his scary "wide societal debate" quote:
      Also the ETC (an action group on Erosion, Technology and Concentration)--the same group that had lobbied against Monsanto's (nyse: MON - news - people ) genetically engineered crops in the 1990s--has called for nothing less than a moratorium on the use of synthetic nanoparticles in the lab and in commercial products.
      So a small Canadian corporate watchdog group [etcgroup.org] with an unsuccessful record of opposing biotech holds an extreme position on nanotechnology. Oooh, I'm scared!

      This link found in the article is rather telling:
      Special Offer: Get in on the ground floor of a growth industry still in its infancy. Click here for a complete list of stocks in Josh Wolfe's "Nanosphere" portfolio and for up-and-coming private companies.
      With your subscription for the special introductory price of only $195 (a 67% discount off the cover price), you will receive 12 monthly hard-copy issues of the author's Nanotech Report delivered right to your door. No doubt each issue will be filled with screeching about nonexistent political threats to nanotechnology from powerful Canadians.
    • > Great thinking. Let's take the debate out of the hands of the people who know what they're talking about

      I think that even though experts really know what they are talking about, they are sometimes too biased in favor of their dream, too biased to step back and think more objectively.

      When they were first testing nuclear bombs, scientist and Govt decided to go ahead, even though people as distinguished as Fermi at that time wondered whether a nuclear bomb would ignite the atmosphere. Just ponder the gr
      • by s20451 (410424) on Thursday April 07, 2005 @01:41PM (#12167097) Journal
        When they were first testing nuclear bombs, scientist and Govt decided to go ahead, even though people as distinguished as Fermi at that time wondered whether a nuclear bomb would ignite the atmosphere

        To nitpick, it's pretty well known that almost every physicist who worked on the Manhattan project encountered the "atmospheric ignition" problem. Apparently it was considered a good exercise for the newbies to prove that it was not possible given what was known about the nuclear cross-sections and energies of atmospheric atoms. For example, see "The making of the atomic bomb" by Richard Rhodes.

        So the debate can be phrased better in terms of: what if there are unknown phenomena that could still lead to atmospheric ignition? This is not a trivial question. For example, the "Castle Bravo" nuclear test had a design yield of 6 megatons, but actually yielded 15 megatons due to an unforeseen fusion reaction involving lithium in the core. It ended up being the largest nuclear test ever performed by the United States, and ended up sickening and killing Japanese fishermen who accidentally saied through the fallout.

        Another problem is that it's very hard to put a percentage on the risk of an event which is by nature unknown, or that by nature is either true or false. We now know that the atmosphere didn't ignite (and that micro-organisms didn't come back from the moon, etc.), so to say there is a 1% chance is somewhat meaningless. It's like saying there is a 1% chance that God exists.
    • by EvilTwinSkippy (112490) <yoda&etoyoc,com> on Thursday April 07, 2005 @01:29PM (#12166978) Homepage Journal
      Having trained as an engineer, I can tell you that every independent review system is designed to do preciesly that.

      Einstein once said "You don't really understand something until you can explain it to your grandmother."

      If the techies can't put it in layman's terms, they don't understand the material well enough themselves. And considering that the people who have to live in the world with this stuff ARE John and Jane Q. Public, if you don't want them showing up at your doorstep with pitchforks and torches, you need their buy in early.

      If a technology is safe and effective, consumer resistance is as long as their attention span. The technology will be used, it may just be 20 years later.

    • by s20451 (410424)
      Great thinking. Let's take the debate out of the hands of the people who know what they're talking about, and put it firmly in the hands of John Q. Public.

      You're missing the point. The debate is already in the hands of the masses, and is always in their hands. The largest source of funding for research is the government, and the government answers to the people, at least nominally. Furthermore, the public is ultimately going to pass judgement by either buying nanotech goods or boycotting them.

      People r
  • Regulation (Score:3, Insightful)

    by jmartens (721229) <[moc.liamtoh] [ta] [snetrammij]> on Thursday April 07, 2005 @12:58PM (#12166648)
    The problem with regulation of nearly anything is it only stops honest people. Usually, the people that weren't going to do anything wrong in the first place.
    • Re:Regulation (Score:2, Interesting)

      by ackthpt (218170) *
      The problem with regulation of nearly anything is it only stops honest people. Usually, the people that weren't going to do anything wrong in the first place.

      You also have to question the legitimacy and intentions of the regulators, as he's alluding to, sort of. In the broad sense, everyone is entitled to it. Better to allow everyone to have the stuff and treat them fairly, than withhold it and waste intelligence resources (and more) trying to stem its spread.

    • Re:Regulation (Score:3, Insightful)

      No. Regulation means that everyone is bound by the same rules, and there is not "profit motive" for taking the low road. We have regulations on child labor so it does not become the model of efficiency. We have regulations on dumping so that piles of trash are not models of efficiency.

      Regulations keep everyone honest. How? Because entreprenuers are REALLY good at knowing what is in the rules and not in the rules. And there is no rule about X (no matter how morally repugnant), and if X means bigger profits

    • The problem with regulation of nearly anything is it only stops honest people.

      No the problem with regulation is that it keeps everyone honest. If there is not rule, it's never wrong to break it.

    • without regulation, you have no legal recourse against the dishonest people. sure, an honest person would never release harmful nanotech particles into the environment, but we know that not everyone is honest, and if we don't have laws against it the dishonest ones cannot be held responsible for their behavior.
  • Yes. (Score:3, Funny)

    by Seumas (6865) on Thursday April 07, 2005 @12:58PM (#12166651)
    In America, everything should be regulated. What are you - some sort of godlesss pink commie?
  • by October_30th (531777) on Thursday April 07, 2005 @12:59PM (#12166655) Homepage Journal
    The last thing it needs is a "societal debate" and intense government scrutiny. How can you intelligently discuss and regulate something that is still in the discovery and development stage, before it really exists in a practical manufacturing sense?

    Heh. This article is nothing but yet another libertarian call for unlimited dog-eat-dog capitalism. Then again, what else can you expect from Forbes?

    Of course anything that has as monumental potential consequences as nanotech needs at least proper societal debate -- even when it's still in discovery and development stage. What are we going to do if the promises and nightmares come true? Furthermore, in the case of nanotech we would not only need government scrutiny but international governmental scrutiny and control. You don't have to be a greenie to realize that.

    The fact that the people doing the debate do not understand the scientific details has nothing to do with their eligibility to participate in the debate. We already have referendums concerning whether we should build new fission plants and a perfectly valid argument against such a plant is: I don't want nuclear waste buried in my backyard for my grandchildren to take care of. You don't have to be a nuclear scientist to have something meaningful to say in a sociological/political sense. The same goes for nanotech.

    So why is this guy saying that we shouldn't have public discussion (not referendums, mind you) about such a revolutionary technology as nanotech? Because it makes the profitmongering more difficult. That's why. The part of the article that I quoted above summarizes the attitude of the author perfectly: "shut up, shut up, shut up - I can make a lot of money with this, so you've better shut up about anything negative we might face when developing nanotech".

    And where is that nasty Green Gang anyway? All sources I can see him quoting are respectable research organizations like the British Royal Society and Royal Academy of Engineering. If his beef is with scientists who're capable of thinking green in any other context than a dollar bill, he's the one who's risking the nanotech revolution.

    • a perfectly valid argument against such a plant is: I don't want nuclear waste buried in my backyard for my grandchildren to take care of.

      I'm sorry, but NIMBY is not a valid argument.
      • NIMBY can be a valid argument -- if nobody wants it in their back yard, perhaps we need to find a better way to build it, or increase the local value until someone does want it in their back yard.
      • Why is it not a valid argument? If there is some major reason why you wouldn't want to have it nearby you, then perhaps the root of that desire has some merit. Such as: Disposition of nuclear waste is a major concern, and if it is improperly disposed of near residential areas, it could poison and kill off the local environment. If you don't want to live next to it, then that concern should be addressed in a sane fashion before the process continues.

        It is the irrational or unfounded 'NIMBY' responses to an
    • by revscat (35618) on Thursday April 07, 2005 @01:22PM (#12166895) Journal

      So why is this guy saying that we shouldn't have public discussion (not referendums, mind you) about such a revolutionary technology as nanotech? Because it makes the profitmongering more difficult. That's why. The part of the article that I quoted above summarizes the attitude of the author perfectly: "shut up, shut up, shut up - I can make a lot of money with this, so you've better shut up about anything negative we might face when developing nanotech".

      Exactly. The belief that the market will take care of everything bad all by its lonesome is just asinine. It's religious in a way: the market is perfect and holy, and the government is evil and wicked. It's stupid mainly because it is so grossly simplistic.

      Just because money is to be made at something doesn't mean that it is risk-free or unworthy of regulation. This is a potentially very dangerous technology. Examining that and working towards prevention of abuse is just the wise thing to do. If it is possible for someone to use nanotech to make machines that present a realistic threat to the general population, then by all means we can and should look at taking legal steps to prevent such abuse.

      The free market is great, except when it isn't.

    • The fact that the people doing the debate do not understand the scientific details has nothing to do with their eligibility to participate in the debate.

      Still hold that opinion when it comes to evolution, or just when its convenient for your agenda?
    • This article is nothing but yet another libertarian call for unlimited dog-eat-dog capitalism

      Dog-eat-dog capitalism is what brought you the lifestyle that allows you to post on Slashdot, kiddo.

      I love it when geeks slam capitalism. Since high tech equipment of all kinds can only be affordable via mass production and massive R&D, it's pretty fucking hypocritical to say anything about capitalism while you're typing away on a product that took MASSIVE capital investment by the largest companies in t
  • Once people understand the implications and the power behind the technology and they still aren't concerned that it could have profound good and bad consequences for all life here then that's proof that it needs to be controlled. But can it be controlled? I don't think so. Let the nano-wars begin!
  • Questionable... (Score:4, Insightful)

    by TripMaster Monkey (862126) * on Thursday April 07, 2005 @12:59PM (#12166662)
    From the article:


    Last March, a report released by an environmental toxicologist at Southern Methodist University showed that Fullerenes--the soccer ball shaped carbon nanoparticles also known as Buckyballs--caused brain damage in fish.


    However, an earlier report has shown conclusively that just about any substance will cause brain damage in fish, provided that enough of said substance is introduced into their little brain cases.

    Seriously, though...just how much fullerene was used in this study? From www.nanomedicine.com:


    Pure fullerenes are fairly chemically inert. They are stable substances in air or in solution and can be purified by sublimation without decomposition. Unmodified fullerenes are virtually insoluble in water, suggesting a low reactivity with biological tissue.


    I really sympathize with the hippie tree-huggers....honestly, I do. My personal opinion is that all industry should eventually be moved offplanet, and the earth itself converted into one big park. But that goal's quite a ways off, and without important technologies like nanotech, we simply aren't going to make it. These Luddite environmentalists who foam at the mouth at the mention of every new technology, and attempt to instill the same irrational, knee-jerk mentality in the general populace are not helping their species, or Mother Earth. Another point in their disfavor: every prohibition simply creates another underground. There's big money to be made in nanotech, and if people can't do it legally, they'll do it illegally, and I'm betting that the people who are bold enough to disregard the regulations won't really put too much thought...not to mention funds...into safety.

  • Grey Goo? (Score:5, Funny)

    by Anonymous Coward on Thursday April 07, 2005 @01:01PM (#12166673)
    I don't know, anything that is two letters short of an alcohol isn't all bad in my book.
  • yes! (Score:5, Funny)

    by bcrowell (177657) on Thursday April 07, 2005 @01:02PM (#12166684) Homepage
    I also propose regulation of:
    1. flying cars
    2. artificial intelligences that pass the Turing test
    3. cures for the common cold
    4. concealed laser pistols
    5. faster-than-light travel.
    I think the need for #1, for example, should be obvious -- I'm amazed that nobody's been killed yet, considering the complete lack of traffic regulations. And re #5, according to special relativity, any faster-than-light drive also allows time travel, which has obvious potential for use by terrorists -- surprising they haven't used it yet, given the complete lack of government oversight.
    • Re:yes! (Score:3, Insightful)

      by maxwell demon (590494)
      But what's the reason for #3?
      • But what's the reason for #3?

        Snake oil salesmen and abuse. If you claim some drug does something, you must be able to prove it. Similarly, while it may in fact cure the cold, it shouldn't cause fungus to grow out of your nose. Both are classes where the law is used to great benefit.

      • Re:yes! (Score:3, Funny)

        by isotope23 (210590)
        Think of the damage to the cold-remedy industry!!!

      • It causes cancer.
    • Time travel itself should be at the head of the list by a long way. To misquote Varley [amazon.com]:

      Time travel is so dangerous it makes H-bombs seem like perfectly safe gifts for children and imbeciles. With a bomb, what's the worst that can happen? A few million people die. With time travel, we can wipe out the entire universe.

      Oh, and flying cars are covered under the FAA rules, as I recall.

    • you forgot to mention:

      6. time travel

      or maybe you did, and somebody travelled backwards through time and erased it!

  • With all the promises of nanotech, regulation will only slow down development. Not a good idea.
    • Quite the contrary. The more red tape there is the more organized, fluid and stable the process will become. /sarcasm

      Tom
    • So we need regulations! Otherwise, it will happen like in AI, where some time it turned out that all the promises we were given never were fulfilled, and the actual achievements of AI are much less. Therefore heavy regulations are necessary, so when the promises can't be fulfilled, you can just blame the over-regulation instead of having to admit that you were just over-optimistic.
    • Such a pathetic reason.

      There are many reasons to include regulation in such development when the potential fallout from the products could be lethal. But hey, as your logic goes, let's remove the FDA and get all those drugs out onto the market faster! Doesn't really matter if they kill a few thousand or so because they weren't properly tested, or because the company (as just about ever f'king company that ever existed does) cut corners and shaved off the testing time of development in order to make their b
    • Is it really better to inject products into the general public without having a good idea of whether they're actually safe or not? Once you've put the stuff out there, it's hard to get it back. If we can't do a good job recalling defective car seats, what are the odds that we can get individual molecules out of circulation?

      Yes, there are risks to moving too slow. People die by the thousands when the FDA is too slow to approve a product. But when a substance gets widely adopted and then is discovered
  • Nah (Score:3, Funny)

    by Neil Blender (555885) <neilblender@gmail.com> on Thursday April 07, 2005 @01:04PM (#12166708)
    The industry is too small to need to be regulated.
  • by Ironsides (739422) on Thursday April 07, 2005 @01:05PM (#12166712) Homepage Journal
    the same group that had lobbied against Monsanto's genetically engineered crops in the 1990s--has called for nothing less than a moratorium on the use of synthetic nanoparticles in the lab and in commercial products.

    So before we even know even a fraction of the possible benifits and dangers, they wan't an outright ban on anything that would let us find out what the good or bad is? Banning it from commercial products means it doesn't get used in anything, banning it from the lab means we won't ever find out more on it until the moratorium is lifted. Which probably wouldn't happen until we found out more about it. Catch-22.
    • Indeed, a moratorium in the lab is about the stupidest thing you could do. Especially if those things can be dangerous, you do certainly want to know about the dangers before e.g. some terrorist supporters find out and you get hit unprepared. And if those things turn out to be harmless, well, there's no reason not to use them in the lab.

      So banning it from the lab is wrong if it can be dangerous, and is wrong if it cannot be dangerous. Therefore it's always wrong.

      Of course, if there were some unmanagable d
  • by cahiha (873942) on Thursday April 07, 2005 @01:05PM (#12166720)
    There is no such thing as "nanotech". Nanotech was an unfulfilled pipe dream about "molecular assemblers" and the like. Of course, Wolfe is just trying to make money off the name as well; he is trying to present this as a brand new industry that is at risk of being stifled.

    Because nanotech was such an abysmal failure, in order for people to save face and sell old research as new, the term has now been applied to traditional areas of material science and molecular biology. Whether those areas need to be regulated and how needs to be decided on a case-by-case basis.

    For example, releasing new materials into the environment, in particular dusts and coatings that can turn into dust, should be subject to stricter regulations--whether "nanoengineered" or just chemical, that sort of thing is a health risk.

    Molecular biology generally has regulations in place already; applying the moniker "nanotech" to molecular biology should not let companies or researchers evade those regulations.

    More generally, however, I don't subscribe to the notion that a new industry (even if "nanotech" were a new industry rather than just good old chemistry and material science) should not be stifled; if it's potentially dangerous, of course, its growth should be stifled until we know how to mitigate the dangers.
    • if it's potentially dangerous, of course, its growth should be stifled until we know how to mitigate the dangers.

      If you stifle something, nothing gets done. Not even research. Therefroe, you won't know how to mitigate any dangers and won't ever unstifle it. Great way to kill off all industry. How about we stifle fusion research until we know how dangerous an exploding reactor is? Or Wind until we know the dangers it will cause on the world air flow? Could end up stoping the jet stream. Or how abou
  • 'green gang' (his term for environmentalists)

    He should learn some history, the Green Gang was the predecessor to the KMT, or Nationalist Chinese and was largely run by "Big Eared Tu" in the manner of organized crime with Chiang Kai-shek as his puppet.

    Today's Nanotech is probably tomorrows equivilent to nuclear weapons. Who's to say who can and can't have it? The mighty leader of the free world?

    • He should learn some history, the Green Gang was the bleh bleh bleh...

      Yes, that will indeed have confused a lot of people. 'What's this got to do with pre-KMT Chinese nationalist political movements' I mused to myself as I read the article.

      Actually, I'm lying - I didn't read it at all.
  • by starseeker (141897) on Thursday April 07, 2005 @01:07PM (#12166742) Homepage
    As the technology matures, it will become easier and easier to do virtually anything with nanotech. So, eventually, it will be abused. (Which I assume is what people are worried about.)

    The question we SHOULD be asking is how can we develop nanotechnology in such a way as to make sure we can stop dangerous/malicious applications. Because they WILL happen. There are just too many people on this planet for any kind of control to succeed in general on such matters. I suspect in the end nanotechnology will become another kind of virus, and it will take something like nanoengineered biological defenses to stop them, which will have to be continually upgraded.
  • Wolfe is worried that ...[environmentalists]... are going to regulate nanotech out of existence

    It all depends on who will be making money off of it. If their are profits to be taken, public safety will have to take a back seat. If it threatens a current business' profits, "public safety" will be the rallying cry.
    And, of course, the radical fundamentalists will somehow work "God's Law" into the whole debate.

  • by PxM (855264) on Thursday April 07, 2005 @01:13PM (#12166806)
    The major issue with nanotech in the next few decades won't be a grey goo problem or any other sci-fi apocalypse. The biggest problem will be the toxic garbage mentioned in the article. Self replicating nanobots are still in the distant (20+ years) future but the problem with nanoparticles exists now. Some of the artifical dust being created by the nanotech manufacturing processes is small enough to pass through the various safeguards that organisms have evolved to protect against the environment. Very few things in nature are self contained objects on a nanometer scale so organisms never had a chance to evolve protection against the things we are creating. There is a valid risk of a problem similar to asbestos related cancers and DDT if nanotech becomes widespread before the proper safeguards are in place. I fully support nanotech and do believe the grey goo fears are overstated, but toxic dust is something that people should figure out how to deal with before it becomes dangerous.

    --
    Want a free Nintendo DS, GC, PS2, Xbox. [freegamingsystems.com] (you only need 4 referrals)
    Wired article as proof [wired.com]
  • From TFA:

    If you would like an example of how business can flourish in a largely unregulated environment, look at the changes to our lives that have occurred thanks to growth of the Internet. E-mail, VoIP, eBay and Google have greatly enhanced lives around the globe. What happens when there is too much regulation? Too often you wind up with tragic corporate sagas and employee fallout. Just look at what is happening to the airline business or to AT&T. Let's not throw a blanket over nanotech before it beg

    • Hey, look what "deregulation" has done for the airlines. It used to be they made billions in profits. Today, taxpayers are "charged" billions in bailouts.

      Changing the rules by which airlines ass rape the customer does not change the price of aircraft. the cost of fuel, or the fact that someone needs to pay to maintain airports and security.

      What it did do is allow certain entities to push the cost off onto other entities.

    • For example, the deregulation of the energy market in California was botched big time, and the energy consumers were gouged by the likes of Enron.

      California was botched because the regulators kept the price controls, but eliminated most everything else. The Electric companies were by law selling electricity at less than cost. That was going from a fully regulated to partialy de-regulated system. This is the opposite (big differnece here).

      In Enron, the company was speculating in the energy business and
  • What will be funny is when the "Grey Goo" ecophagy theory plays itsself out and the people at Google figure out a way to search the nanobots blanketing the earth and patent it. And yes, it will be called "Grey Goo-gle".
  • In a word: Yes (Score:3, Insightful)

    by EvilTwinSkippy (112490) <yoda&etoyoc,com> on Thursday April 07, 2005 @01:17PM (#12166836) Homepage Journal
    There are plenty of examples where nanotech versions of certain chemicals behave in a radically different manner than conventional material.

    Take carbon nanotubes. Companies allowed to treat it, according to OSHA standards, as graphite. Technically, yes, it is pure carbon. But there are some exotic, and potentially carcinogenic, reactions that nanotubes can create in the human body. Particularly when inhaled.

  • ...including the potential benefits, such as immortality...

    Immortality is NOT a benefit, not to yourself, and not to the world population.
    • by Neph (5010)
      Immortality is NOT a benefit, not to yourself, and not to the world population.

      I was hoping someone would make that point. To amplify: The extropy.org FAQ's response to this issue seems to be "Continuing to die to prevent overpopulation is like not curing a child's toothache because then it would eat too much". There are two problems with this reasoning.

      First of all, the analogy is badly flawed in that the consequences are completely disproportionate: They're comparing overeating with increasing res

  • by null etc. (524767) on Thursday April 07, 2005 @01:19PM (#12166863)
    We absolutely have to regulate how nanotechnology is used. Think what would happen if spyware and malware authors got ahold of a few nanobots!
  • I wonder what organ earth resides in.
  • by Kraemahz (847827) on Thursday April 07, 2005 @01:21PM (#12166882)
    Outright banning or heavily restricting a particular field of research is the fastest way to create a technological divide and be swept away by the pace of advancement, and at the rate it's going that means the country in discussion will be left in the dust in a handful of years.

    You can't question the ethical nature of a technology itself and restrict it appropriately and also have progress. Would nuclear technology have advanced if they were worrying about the very long term consequences? You might argue that nuclear facilities haven't helped us all that much, and have done quite a bit of damage, but we also couldn't be taking steps toward fusion without learning from our mistakes with fission.

    Essentially, the countries that take the risks and have the courage to step into unknown territory are going to see the biggest returns the fastest, since ultimately nanotech offers to return more resources than those expended getting to it. Meanwhile, anyone who pussyfoots around is going to find themself quickly losing military, economic, and technological prowess.
  • by obiquity (658885) on Thursday April 07, 2005 @01:22PM (#12166893)
    There is a common misconception about nanotechnology that even /. editors are not immune to. I suppose this has to do with the fact that nanotechnology has morphed over the years into a discpline that has very little to do with "nanofabrication" and nanomachines, areas in which research has slowed substantially since the early 90s.

    Rather, most academic research is now geared towards the production of highly controlled materials at the nano-scale. Nanoparticulate metals and oxides have tons of applications but almost none of them are nano machines. Rather, this work has become advanced form of materials chemistry and physics, designing regular surface features or particles. For this reason, nano-materials are not going to be much more dangerous than normal materials in the big picture. Nano-disperse carbon, which is sometimes called *smoke* or soot, is probably just as toxic as bucky-balls.

    An interesting issue is: why have researches have abandoned nano-machines? I think it has to do with the fact that we already know how to build them. There's technology that has a great track record and can do almost anything you'd like at the nano and sub nano scale. They're called *enzymes* and recent enzyme engineering advances have made many nano-related tasks kind of superfluous. Also there are viruses and bacteria(maybe) that range into the nano-scale as well. So I think it boils down to a "why bother" issue with nano machines.

    Of course I *might* be biased given my chosen area of research. I'm a chem. Prof investigating enzyme and bacteria engineering. Nah, I'm not biased.....
  • ... Most "Slashers" would probably argue in favour of regulation now before it is indeed too late.

    Incidentally, I will hopefully post a review of this excellent book soonish, if nobody beats me to it.

  • by tgibbs (83782) on Thursday April 07, 2005 @01:32PM (#12167007)
    So buckyballs may be bad for you? Not exactly a big surprise--there are buckyballs in soot, after all, and breathing soot is not beneficial.

    For the most part, nanotechnology is just a novel approach to doing chemistry--creating molecular assemblies of atoms. It makes possible some novel chemistry, and there will probably be some novel hazards, but there's nothing to indicate that there is some kind of "generic" hazard as is the case with radioactivity, where many different isotopes emit only a handful of energetic particles. So it makes no sense to try to create generic regulations for nanotechnology.

    So we're going to have to investigate the risks of nanosubstances just the way we investigate the risks of biological substances (which are just "evolved organic nanotechnology," anyway) and new chemical compounds--case by case. A company that wants to discharge some nanotechnological waste should be subject to exactly the same scrutiny as a company that wants to discharge a new chemical. Eventually, we'll probably begin to figure out whether particular classes of nanosubstances have particular hazards, like asbestos or polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons. But targeting nanotechnology per se for some sort of heightened scrutiny is just obstructionist fear of new technology.

  • sssshhhh..... (Score:2, Interesting)

    by tempest69 (572798)
    Ok, everyone keep it quiet that molecular biologists are doing way too much nanotech already. Enzymes are molecular machines that can build things at nano scales. When the nanotech regulators come around remember to call it biology. Storm
  • What is nanotech? (Score:4, Insightful)

    by exp(pi*sqrt(163)) (613870) on Thursday April 07, 2005 @01:41PM (#12167100) Journal
    I used to think nanotech meant things like microscopic sized self-reproducing robots. One might imagine an army of these reducing the world to goo - but that's so far off in the future there really is no need for regulation.

    But when I peruse web sites of companies claiming to sell nanotech what I actually find are companies selling small amounts of powder that has been ground up really small. For example a medical application of nanotech is really small bits of ground up magnet with antibodies attached giving a nice way to detect antigens through a magnetic field. Or another application comes from the fact that really small particles have a high surface area to volume ratio making good reagents and catalysts for chemical processes. So nanotech is really just finely ground stuff. (It sounds a lot less sexy when you actually say the truth free of jargon.) And that, IMHO, is far more dangerous than imaginary robots because it can get in your lungs and lodge in other parts of your body. But this doesn't necessarily need specific regulation, we can just use existing regulation for particulate pollution more finely grained (no pun intended) to limit how much nanoparticle sized stuff may be released into the air.

  • So how do new products get evaluated?

    You would think that after all the lesson learned, and the work put in to get asbestos and PCBs off the market, there would be a mechanism in place to keep it from happening again.
  • The real issue is the question of the possibility that nano bots could be built that replicated infinitely consuming a wide range of materials as they went. It would only take a single nano bot in the entire world to do this, so regulation isn't going to help, unless it can be guaranteed 100% effective, not 99.999999999999%, this theoretical nano bot would of course have to be programmed not to eat other similar nano bots and they would also need to get into a good formation (a sphere?) or they would face f
  • by mu-sly (632550) on Thursday April 07, 2005 @02:28PM (#12167715) Homepage Journal

    I'd like to pick a bone with this labelling people with environmental concerns as some kind of wierdo hippy gang.

    We live on a planet that is vital for our existence, yet we (as a species) seem to take every opportunity to destroy it or damage it, because each individual small piece of damage doesn't seem much on it's own. It seems that only once it's too late and we've poisoned the whole place will we think about changing our ways.

    Quite frankly, if you aren't really, really concerned about protecting the environment that gives you and those you love the chance to live, then you don't deserve a life here at all.

    When making money comes ahead of protecting our home, that's when you know we are fucked. But then, only a complete asshole would put profits ahead of planet anyway.

    I'm not going to comment on the nanotechnology issue as I'm still undecided, but trying to label people who care about the environment as a minority freak group is just bullshit.

    Everybody needs to care about the environment we live in, because if we don't, there will come a point where the environment we live in will be damaged beyond repair, and we will no longer be able to live in it.

    Unlike nanotechnology, this isn't fiction. It's already happening, and will continue to get worse unless we act right now to improve our ways. No amount of technology can save us from the terminal stupidity of our species, and making fun of people for looking out for our home is about as low as you can go.

  • by dr. loser (238229) on Thursday April 07, 2005 @02:43PM (#12167953)
    To establish my credibility: IAAPP (I am a physics professor). I'm an active researcher in nanoscale electronics, and I teach a two-course sequence on nanoscale physics and engineering.

    Josh Wolfe is emblematic of what is wrong with media perception of science today. He has no undergraduate or graduate training in any physical science at all. His background is in business, and he works for a VC firm. He has no scientific credibility.

    He is, however, articulate, bright, and very slick. That is why this guy, with less training than the undergrad working in my lab, is able to get national attention from the media (be it Forbes, or CNN, or MSNBC, all of which have deferred to him as an "authority on nanotechnology").

    He has every right to speak his mind, and when it comes to investing in high technology companies, I think he knows his stuff. However, there is no way this guy should be viewed as an appropriate authority to whom policy makers should pay attention.

    (By the way, I actually agree with his position on this issue. I simply take issue with the idea that he is viewed by the media as worthy of a bully pulpit on this.)
  • why (Score:3, Interesting)

    by samantha (68231) * on Thursday April 07, 2005 @02:52PM (#12168060) Homepage
    Why are we discussing this in this forum where only a few are well informed on the subject? Nanotech will be regulated to some extent and there are active knowledgeable groups like the Center for Responsible Nanotech and the Foresight Institutte that are able to say what is likely to be needed with credibility.
  • by logicnazi (169418) <{moc.liamg} {ta} {izancigol}> on Thursday April 07, 2005 @02:58PM (#12168163) Homepage
    This article mentions a few ancedotal accounts and scary potentialities. Hardly enough to get worked up about yet or cast blame on the enviornmentalists. If we want to castigate the enviornmental movement there are plenty of other places to start, for instance their refusal to prioritize issues which makes it very difficult to achieve victories on global warming (for instance here in the bay area the enviornmentalists want to tear down a dam to rescue the scenic landscape before offering another renewable energy replacement for the hydroelectric power). I think there are plenty of instances happening right now where enviornmentalists are putting emotion before reason to the ultimate detriment of the enviornment and we should worry about these far before this tenous concern about regulating nanotech.

    However, I think the article is right to challenge the reflexive call for social discussion and debate about these issues. This isn't restricted just to nanotech but to virtually all scientific and even complex policy questions. It appears that somewhere along the line the fact that the voters have the right to vote on whatever opinion they have was confused with the idea that its okay for the voters to have whatever opinion they want and that it is somehow discussion amoungst the general populance which should decide issues of public policy.

    Quite simply the average voter just doesn't have the training or expertise to understand these issues. Thus it is NOT societal debate which should decide the question but scientific debate. Just as it is a bad idea to let public discussion drive the debate about how much arscenic we should have in our water rather than scientific experimentation (the public will probably come up with the unrealistic standard of 0).

    Of course at the end of the day the public needs to decide which experts to trust but it should be emphasized that this is the role the general voter should aspire towards. The voter should not aspire to making up their own mind based on emotions and intuitions they have about nanotech (or GMOs or whatever) but based on the degree of trust and credibility they have in the various experts.
  • by Julian Morrison (5575) on Thursday April 07, 2005 @03:16PM (#12168423)
    ...for the same reason you don't fear the bacterial equivalent. Fuel energy is scarce, as are vital resources, so the search for food takes up approximately 100% of a small organism's time and effort.

    For nano to be useful it will either have to be in a food-rich environment (eg: inside the human body) or else plug into the power socket in the wall. Grey goo (were such a thing invented) would munch through the power cord, and just stop.
  • by deuist (228133) <ryanaycock&gmail,com> on Thursday April 07, 2005 @03:33PM (#12168637) Homepage
    I don't know how many people will read this comment (my karma is pretty low), but I work on a toxicology project where we're examining the effects of nanoparticles on cell cultures and, in some case, we also perform animal studies. Let me the first to say that no nanotox studies have ever been performed on large mammals or humans. The best data we have so far comes from in vitro cell cultures, fish, or rats. Therefore, we don't know the true impact that these materials will have on humans. Further, much of the research is inconsistent and all over the place. In our lab we show that nano aluminum (a common ingredient in making military weapons) will kill lung cells in a Petri dish. However, when we force rats to inhale these same particles, we cannot measure an inflammatory response, much less a toxic effect. Unfortunately, extremists from the environmentalist camp (i.e., the ETC Group) want to see nanotech banned before its even has a chance to be studied in a lab. I think --- and this is my professional opinion --- that we need to continue doing tox studies while allowing industries to put their products on the market.

    As a bonus, here are some of the results from some others' research on nanotech:
    * When rats inhale carbon nanotubes, the tubes bypass the blood-brain barrier and cover the brain. The resultant rats had black brains!
    * Titania dioxide, a common ingredient in paint, sun screen and tooth paste, is very toxic to cells and rats.
    * Silica dioxide, also a common ingredient in paint and food, is not toxic.
    * Fullerenes (aka, bucky balls) are deadly to fish (verified by Richard Smalley from Rice University --- he created bucky balls)

    Note that all of these materials exhibit very different properties from the bulk. You won't get sick from most of these products if you use the same concentrations of material, but simply change the size of the particles.

    Our work will be published early next week on http://www.nanotoxicology.ufl.edu/ [ufl.edu].

  • by Doc Ruby (173196) on Thursday April 07, 2005 @04:38PM (#12169432) Homepage Journal
    Nanotech is chemistry. Why shouldn't chemistry be regulated? Of course, it shouldn't be regulated wrong, but that's another word for "no regulation". Unless Wolfe can somehow indemnify us with his vital organs for when he's surprised to find that a chemical company has damaged us with a nanotech screwup, he's just another greedy opportunist.
  • by tlambert (566799) on Thursday April 07, 2005 @06:07PM (#12170298)
    Full Disclosure: I'm a Senior Associate with the Institute for Molecular Manufacturing http://imm.org/ [imm.org].

    I have to say that this article seriously misses the mark.

    Recombinant DNA research self-regulation has been in place for 30 years now, and it has worked very well to prevent "Andromeda Strain" style accidents. The most recent full overhaul was in 1994:

    http://www4.od.nih.gov/oba/rac/guidelines/guidelin es.html [nih.gov]

    There are people who are holding debates about similar regulation for molecular nanotechnology already: The National Nanotechnology Initiative http://www.nano.gov/ [nano.gov], The Foresight Institute http://foresight.org/ [foresight.org], The International Council on Nanotechnology http://icon.rice.edu/ [rice.edu], and many others, including the IMM. The intent of these organizations is to establish guidelines for developement of nanotechnology, and to explore applications.

    Here is the first set of guidelines which have been established:

    http://imm.org/guidelines/current.html [imm.org]

    I fully expect that this will be updated, as the technologies involved become more capable.

    A good analysis of the actual societal implications is available from NNI here:

    http://www.nano.gov/html/facts/society.html [nano.gov]

    Don't blow things out of proportion until they are actually implemented; the amount of regulation of any technology has historically always been as much or even much more than was necessary at the time.

    -- Terry

Whenever a system becomes completely defined, some damn fool discovers something which either abolishes the system or expands it beyond recognition.

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