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Home > Introduction > Articles > Steve Burgess > "Scary" Article Counterpoints

Steve Burgess - "Scary" Article Counterpoints

Last Updated: Saturday, 29-Mar-2008 14:10:15 PDT

Steve Burgess, Burgess Consulting & Forensics
Steven G. Burgess
October 31, 2005

"Scary" Article Counterpoints

In the article, "The (Really) Scary Soldier of the Future," Alan Goldstein points out some important concerns about our government and the emerging field of nanotechnology, but then goes on to paint a bogeyman future through the use of scary imagery and logical fallacies. I'd like to address a few with which I specifically take issue.

Goldstein says, "Multibillion-dollar federal R&D budgets have replaced the solitary inventor with veritable armies of scientists and engineers in laboratories across the country. Public policy itself has become the captive of a scientific-technological elite."

This is an unsupported claim. Is public policy really captive? If it is, then it's captive to the current administration, a group that no one would confuse with a "scientific-technological elite." Furthermore, one of the bogeymen Goldstein references is Zyvex, a company founded by an inventor of the successful software program, Freehand, and whose small former company also created the Fontographer graphics program.

"The risks -- and opportunities -- posed by today's corporate-academic-military behemoth are exponentially greater than in his day. So is the money:"

True and true again.

But then Goldstein smirks, "Oh sure, this stuff could also revolutionize medicine, communications, transportation and every other aspect of human life: the shopworn "spinoff" argument honed for decades by NASA's P.R. machine."

Whether or not an argument has been used many times ("shopworn") does not provide an indicator of its validity. A prime example of a technology that was developed for military use but had far more civilian uses is the laser. The author seems to indicate that, although nanotech could revolutionize medicine, communications, transportation and every other aspect of human life, it's no big deal.

The author now gives us some legitimate meat: "But whether humanity will get to use the awesome power of these new technologies -- in particular nanotechnology -- for good rather than ill is one of the key questions of the 21st century." This is absolutely true! It's an essential question. This would be a good point to get into the discussion. But instead, we get more fear, uncertainty and doubt.

The author says, "There has never been anything like nanotechnology." But there has been. It's called our world and every living and nonliving thing in it. We're all living nanotech factories. The cells in organisms perform nanoscale operations to build proteins, enzymes, other cells, and all the other essentials of life. What's different is our ability a-borning to join in some of this operation by choice and by our own (hopefully intelligent) design.

"[nanotech] will someday be capable of breaking the world down into its smallest parts (or creating new parts) and putting them back together again in new ways."

That's what we do right now: we break the world down into its smallest parts- except we use explosives, fossil fuels, and chemicals to do it. We blow up mountains, transport the pieces hundreds of miles away, apply tremendous energies, chemicals and pollution in order to manufacture something as simple as a fork, when nanotech should be able to do so on a desktop from a pile of slightly fortified dirt.

"For the past five years, unknown to most Americans" (It's no secret - it just hasn't had a lot of writers telling people about it - the NSF is now spending $34 million to tell us).

"One of the NNI's chief purposes is to revolutionize military equipment. "

The stated goals of the NNI are to:

  • Maintain a world-class research and development program aimed at realizing the full potential of nanotechnology
  • Facilitate transfer of new technologies into products for economic growth, jobs, and other public benefit
  • Develop educational resources, a skilled workforce, and the supporting infrastructure and tools to advance nanotechnology; and,
  • Support responsible development of nanotechnology.

Among these are solar power, medical, coatings and many other beneficial technologies. Included are studies regarding safety. One of the new projects funded is the Center for the Impact of Nanotechnology on Society at the University of California, Santa Barbara (announcement here). This is not just some secret big black box churning out superweapons.

And we should not forget that nanotechnology is being funded by public and private entities. Billions are being poured into nanotech by foreign governments and by homegrown US investors.

Goldstein says, "Its members include bluebloods of the old military-industrial complex like Raytheon and DuPont, along with new blood like Zyvex ("providing nanotechnology solutions -- today") and Carbon Nanotechnologies."

Guilt by association: by lumping Zyvex (founded by one of your missing inventors - Jim VonEhr) and Carbon Nanotechnologies with old military-industrial contractors, you implicate them as acting in the same manner. I could use the guilt by association fallacy to say that writers for Moonie newspapers like the Washington Times and BlogsForBush.com have been joined by Alan Goldstein in Salon. But of course, Salon & the Washington Post are very different sorts of creatures. Similarly, the nanotech companies referenced are fresh, nimble, and in vision distinct from hoary old embedded members of the military-industrial complex. Zyvex, for instance, is "creating clean, flexible, and powerful manufacturing" (link). Raytheon, by contrast, talks about missiles right on its home page (link).

Regarding projects whose stated intention is to develop protective technologies, Goldstein states, "This description of research projects -- "protection" from bullets and blasts -- makes them sound purely defensive, but there is simply no way that can be true." The statement suggests the fallacy of the slippery slope - it's a fallacy of distraction. You know one thing, so you assert another, more insidious one. The author has shown no evidence or reason why the statement can't be true. Fabric intended to stop a bullet may have no application as an offensive weapon. Kevlar, for instance, catches a bullet in its weave and disperses the impact to the surrounding fabric. It's the antithesis of what's required for an effective projectile. While there may be offense developments, the author hasn't shown us evidence of them.

The entire next paragraph goes on to repeat this fallacy. If they can do one thing, then they'll do another.

Then he says, "Plus, the most amazing things these folks are factoring into their games undoubtedly remain classified." Such a statement is known as the logical fallacy of an argument from ignorance: something has not been proven false, it is therefore true. I don't know about it, therefore it must exist. Where is the logic here? I suppose the most amazing writing Mr. Goldstein has he keeps hidden as well. (Well, of course, it's not hidden - it's in his more intellectually honest article, "Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Nanotechnology..." which does an excellent job of laying out a basic understanding of nanotechnology and some of its concerns.)

Goldstein says, "Research that, enabled by the latest breakthroughs in nanofabrication, will bring imaginary terrors into being. It is exactly this circular logic that has led America to initiate the next global arms race in recombinant DNA-based, nanotechnology-enabled bioweapons."

And so the author engages in circular logic to prove his point. They don't talk about it - therefore it must be secret, therefore it must exist, therefore, they'll do other things with it and it will be a self-generating horrific cycle.

"Put simply, the whole world knows that you can't separate biodefense from biowarfare."

Here is a causal fallacy. Biodefense by definition is a defense against biowarfare. Such a truth does not necessitate that biodefense causes biowarfare. The logic doesn't work the opposite direction - "Because A then B" does not mean that "because B then A." For instance, because I needed milk, I went to the store does not mean that because I went to the store, I needed milk. Preparing a defense does not mean preparing an offense.

Then amidst the gloom, Goldstein reveals a gem - a ray of hope: "The key thing to remember is that every military application also has a non-military one: tomorrow's sword will be next week's plowshare (and vice versa). In the nano age, if you aren't very afraid and very excited at the same time, you aren't paying attention."

That truly is a thing to remember and to prepare for. How do we get the good stuff & minimize the bad stuff?

Goldstein goes on to offer a number of alternate, usually scary "translations" of projects he says the nanotech community is working on. I offer alternates to his alternates:

"Energy-absorbing materials" -- Alternate simple translation: better body armor.

"Mechanically active materials and devices" -- Alternate translation: better, more efficient, more personal transportation

Sensors and chemical/biological protection - just what it says.

He raises a very good question as to who gets them. The question is the reason I am interested in nanotechnology: how can we assure that the benefits of nanotech accrue to the greatest portion of humanity - unlike the onset of most other technological advances in history? Should they be in the public domain?

Goldstein warns about "hardwiring" the delivery of medical procedures, drugs or chemicals directly into things worn in or on the body in response to remote signals or sensations. This will undoubtedly save lives on the battlefield, but it also opens up mind-boggling possibilities for behavior modification and control. Instead of an injection when you are wounded, how about an injection when you act in an antisocial manner? Will we have the wisdom to control the machines we have created, especially when they have been built to operate autonomously? In the years ahead, that question will no longer be merely philosophical."

Again, that slippery slope yields a scary scenario. Yet we are not aware of widespread involuntary application of serums to control us in the present. We don't have any indication that it will be any different in the future. We have to be on the lookout right now for behavior modification and controlŠsay, in our educational, political, and employment realms.

And what about machines that operate autonomously? Let's extend this a step further - autonomous devices obviate the need for actual soldiers. A war of the future might require: no people! Just machines fighting each other. This is a potential improvement over the need for wholesale slaughter of troops, no?

"It kind of makes one long for the old "mineshaft gap" of the Cold War."

We don't need the Cold War to be concerned about a new mineshaft gap (link).

I am an avid subscriber to and reader of Salon. I am disappointed when I see a piece that uses fallacies and misdirection to incite readers to fear the unknown, when they would be better served by embracing and learning about it and some of the work that is being done to address potential dangers. The author raises some good questions; but they are set within a "The Sky Is Falling!!" scenario. There are real concerns and questions about nano that need to be answered, but this article seems to me a dishonest and sensational presentation without any real attempt to engage the reader in generating important answers.

By the way - I'm not that Steve Burgess (a Salon contributing writer), although I enjoy his writing.

Steve Burgess is the principal of Burgess Consulting & Forensics, a firm that specializes in Computer Forensics and expert witness services and of Data Recovery Worldwide. Burgess was a founder of the data recovery industry circa 1984, and has founded several businesses, including Committed To Memory, an online data storage company. He writes about electronic discovery and nanotechnology.

When he grows up, he wants to run nanotechnology companies in order to see the benefits of the nanotech economy accrue to a large slice of humanity. To that end, he's writing about nanotech for the lay public.

He's a contributor to the Center for Responsible Nanotechnology's and Nanotechnology Now's Press Kit and Glossary, both of which are intended to aid in lay understanding of nanotechnology.

He's also active in a CRN task force on the effects of nanotechnology and is a long-time Senior Fellow of the Foresight Nanotech Institute.

He can be reached at steve@burgessforensics.com



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