Replicating concerns

Fanciful worries over nanotechnology express our modern ambivalence about change.

Jeremy Hazlehurst

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Topics Politics

From Chicken Licken to Private Fraser, there is a grand tradition of doom-mongering. With his criticism of nanotechnology, warning that tiny self-replicating machines could one day multiply so rapidly that they might threaten to engulf the whole world in a silicon ‘grey goo’, Prince Charles has taken up a buffoonish position somewhere between the two.

Easy though it might be to mock self-important royals, Charles is not alone in his fears. He speaks for a growing number of influential figures who are voicing concerns about the emerging technologies.

In his most recent book, Prey, Michael Crichton tells the tall tale of a nanotechnology company whose creations start to take on a mind of their own and attack humans. Back in the real world, a pressure group called ETC has got the heebie jeebies so badly that it is calling for a UN agency to monitor nanotechnology, and for a moratorium on all research until it is better understood.

Bill Joy, cofounder and chief scientist of Sun Microsystems, has called nanotechnology ‘a Faustian bargain’ that could ‘risk that we might destroy the biosphere on which all life depends’.

Other innovations are eliciting such reactions. The influential US thinker Francis Fukuyama has warned that genetic technology threatens to undermine democracy, religion and human nature. The US writer Bill McKibben agrees, and in his book Enough: Staying Human In An Engineered Age adds a scenario straight from the more fanciful nightmares of Philip K Dick: McKibben says that a combination of genetic engineering, robotics and nanotechnology might create a society made up of the ‘GenRich’, whose children are genetically engineered to have whiter teeth, blonder hair, and higher Iqs, while an underclass of impoverished ‘naturals’ will shiver in some kind of impoverished Luddite netherworld.

While insisting on his progressive credentials, McKibben warns portentously that these technologies threaten to ‘erode our sense of humanity’. Fiddling with embryos to reduce their chances of developing inherited diseases, he says, is ‘the double black diamond ski slope of all slippery slopes’.

It’s certainly a rum old place, this Brave New World. But is the future really so bleak? Well, Prince Charles’ ‘grey goo’ idea is recycled from book written in 1986 by a chap named Dr Eric Drexler, a man with a Bond villain’s name and whose work is considered a classic by Star Trek fans with a penchant for dystopian sci fi. At the point he wrote his book, nanotechnology was no more than a glint in the evil scientist’s eye, and Drexler’s ideas can be politely described as fanciful.

In reality, most of the nanotechnology work is about making complex biological molecules. One of the holders of the largest number of nanotechnology patents is that sinister hotbed of Doctor Strangelove-like characters, the cosmetics firm L’Oreal. The kinds of mini-machines that are causing so many sleepless nights are, Mark Welland, professor of nanotechnology at Cambridge University, recently said, ‘about as viable as time travel’. As for Fukuyama and his ilk, their ideas are speculative. Apart from bizarre cults like the Raelians, nobody really believes that cloned ‘designer’ babies are around the corner.

Why, then, is there so much paranoia around the emerging technologies? One reason is that they make great stories. The newspapers feed on a fear of anything that is seen to be ‘unnatural’: from GM foods, to genetic engineering and nanotechnology, we just don’t like the idea of cutting and pasting in the Book of Life.

This is possibly a reaction against the techno-optimism of the mid-twentieth century, with its belief that by now we would all be taking our meals in pill form and wandering about in our nuclear powered homes in tin-foil clothes. Such setbacks as the development of antibiotic resistance and Chernobyl have seriously dented the optimism.

The post-optimism reality check might be a good thing – but we have swung back to a kind of terrified phobia of the new. The most common paradigms we use to think about science are Frankenstein’s Monster and Pandora’s Box. Mix this in with the general sense of doom-mongering pervading the culture at the moment (SARS, MMR, BSE, the so-called Clash of Civilisations) and we are getting addicted to worst-case scenarios.

Although it might make good headlines, scientific scaremongering is seriously counterproductive. If we just throw up our arms when the scientists tell us about new technologies, that is an impetus to secrecy, and secrecy means that instead of the public being able to scrutinise the works of scientists, they are likely to present us with a fait accompli.

Rabble-rousing headlines and public hand-wringing will never help us better understand the true implications of new technologies: we just need to get over our fear. After all, the sky has not fallen in yet.

Jeremy Hazlehurst is a freelance journalist.

Read on:

Nanotechnology: a slippery debate, by Joe Kaplinsky

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