Nano nano

Nanotechnology is our primary focus in Bioethics today. Glenn McGee wonders first if we have an adequate handle on what it is we’re talking about, when we talk nanoethics. Do we know how to spend $42.6 million per/annum wisely on this subject?

A good parallel question, at just this the moment, is whether the brain-mapping project the President announced the other day is itself wisely targeted. Do we need an extensive map or a more detailed set of correlations between brain and behavior?

Rather than putting a huge amount of money into a single project, as the Europeans have, and as the Obama Administration apparently intends, we should endow five separate projects, at a billion dollars each, addressing five of the most fundamental unsolved questions in neuroscience. One project, for example, should focus on deciphering the basic language of the brain. What is the basic element of neural computation? What is the basic scheme by which symbolic information (like sentences) are stored? A second should focus on understanding the rules governing how neurons organize into circuits; a third on neural plasticity and neural development, and understanding how the brain communicates information from one region to another, and determines which circuits to use in a given situation; a fourth on the relation between brain circuits, genes, and behavior; a fifth on developing new techniques for analyzing and observing brain function. Gary Marcus

A billion here and a billion there really do add up to a major investment, and probably a smarter one than the larger-scale plan evidently envisaged. But the brain aside, the stakes for nanomedicine are huge. I mean tiny.  Beam me down, Scotty.

“Drops the bottom out of the world you know and understand,” indeed. We’re truly on the verge of fantastic adventures when TEDMED plausibly asks if we can “use our brains to directly control machines — without requiring a body as the middleman?” Liberating the brain from the physical constraints of the body: how far can we take it? How low should we go?

Nano nightmares also lurk. The future does need us, especially if Bill Joy‘s gray goo gets spilled.

“Plants” with “leaves” no more efficient than today’s solar cells could out-compete real plants, crowding the biosphere with an inedible foliage. Tough omnivorous “bacteria” could out-compete real bacteria: They could spread like blowing pollen, replicate swiftly, and reduce the biosphere to dust in a matter of days. Dangerous replicators could easily be too tough, small, and rapidly spreading to stop – at least if we make no preparation. We have trouble enough controlling viruses and fruit flies.

Among the cognoscenti of nanotechnology, this threat has become known as the “gray goo problem.” Though masses of uncontrolled replicators need not be gray or gooey, the term “gray goo” emphasizes that replicators able to obliterate life might be less inspiring than a single species of crabgrass. They might be superior in an evolutionary sense, but this need not make them valuable.

The gray goo threat makes one thing perfectly clear: We cannot afford certain kinds of accidents with replicating assemblers.

So why is there still so little regulation, with

no single body or organization responsible for monitoring nanotechnologies in any given arena– public health, environmental health, or other areas. We have no idea what the standards for risk assessment in these arenas should be. No single group governs or determines this, nor is there consensus. (BB)

I suspect its because the specter of goo is just too wild and crazy and unprecedented to take seriously, until it’s on us (and too late). It’s a lot like global warming that way.

What to do? “We need a pragmatic approach,” I agree. Proceed, with caution.

The “playing god” objection is mentioned again in Case 28, this time in connection with optical enhancement.  I still  think Stewart Brand took roughly the right line on this back in ’68:

We are as gods and might as well get good at it. So far, remotely done power and glory—as via government, big business, formal education, church—has succeeded to the point where gross defects obscure actual gains. In response to this dilemma and to these gains a realm of intimate, personal power is developing—power of the individual to conduct his own education, find his own inspiration, shape his own environment, and share his adventure with whoever is interested.

And he was more right in 2010: we have to get good at practical planetary management, at every scale. The problems and opportunities facing us are only going to get bigger. And smaller.

Nano nytTEDmapNano shockwavesNanoSOTUMaking nano work for us

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