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Center for Responsible Nanotechnology
Since founding CRN five years ago, we've been concerned that the unprecedented power of molecular manufacturing and the potential for exponential proliferation of nanofactory technology may make it essential to create an international administration to regulate it. Half a decade later, have global political conditions changed in any way to make this outcome seem more likely?
May 17th, 2008
Nanotechnology and the Potential for Global Governance
Ever since the founding of the Center for Responsible Nanotechnology five years ago, we have been concerned that the unprecedented power of molecular manufacturing  and the potential for exponential proliferation of nanofactory technology  may make it essential to create an international administration to regulate it.
Our earliest writings  on this topic were published in 2003. At the time, those ideas were mostly dismissed as unachievable, ill-advised, or both. Half a decade later, have global political conditions changed in any way to make this outcome seem more likely?
To begin, we should note that the formerly active debate  over the feasibility of mechanosynthesis  and exponential general-purpose molecular manufacturing  seems to be largely over. The last several years have seen remarkable progress in the development of technologies that may contribute to the eventual creation of desktop nanofactories. We won't go through the whole list here, because it is too long (see this Enabling Nanotech Update  for some examples), but it now seems obvious to us and to many scientists  and other observers  that the feasibility question is well on its way to being settled. The contention that building productive nanoscale machinery  is impossible for this reason or that reason has faded into the background.
As a result, the need to evaluate the implications  of molecular manufacturing -- especially if it leads to widespread nanofactory proliferation -- achieves new urgency.
So, we have seen a shift in general acceptance that the progress of nanotechnology development will lead eventually to a powerful new technology that might transform and disrupt society in many ways. But does that recognition get us any closer to actually being able to design and implement a "single, trustworthy, international administration"  to oversee responsible use of molecular manufacturing?
There are two recent trends that make us cautiously optimistic. The first is a growing belief among international policy advisors that unless more is done to assess the risks of even early-generation nanoscale technologies, the "science of nanotechnology could founder" on the "same negative publicity that dogged genetics." Researchers working in the field complain that there are "no industry standards or government regulations." 
Last month, David Rejeski, director of the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies  warned a US Senate science and technology subcommittee, "Public trust is the ‘dark horse' in nanotechnology's future. If government and industry do not work to build public confidence in nanotechnology, consumers may reach for the 'No-Nano' label in the future." Rejeski told the committee that the benefits of nanotechnology may never be realized without an improved governance structure, because the public might not trust this emerging technology. 
At the same time, some industry observers  worry that exposing nanotechnology to "intense government scrutiny" in these early days could create "a backlash" against nano of the same kind that has hampered the introduction of genetically modified organisms.
It seems clear to us, however, that candor about the risks plus openness about purposes and processes is the best way to avoid a backlash.
If industry -- in the US, Europe, or elsewhere -- is not prepared to do the risk assessment, prepare acceptable guidelines, and effectively regulate themselves, then governments will have no choice. Their citizens will demand action.
Governments also have a stake. Unless they act to engage research facilities, businesses, and NGOs in finding legitimate answers and communicating those answers to the public, all their efforts (and investment) in trying to build an industry will falter.
From CRN's perspective, the greatest concern is that nanotech development will run afoul of legislators, litigators, activists, and pundits even before molecular manufacturing is on the table. If that happens, it will be much harder to conduct reasonable discussions about the deeply serious social, ethical, and environmental implications of advanced nanotechnology.
We're pleased to see, however, that there seems to be real movement toward consensus among the various stakeholders and that the potential for achieving common international standards and meaningful regulation is better now than at any time in the past.
The second trend to arise in recent years and to give us optimism is the increasingly positive attitude toward a global "Responsibility to Protect"  under the guidance of a coalition of international humanitarian organizations.
This has especially come to the fore within the past week due to the horrific tragedy unfolding in Burma/Myanmar. We're witnessing not just a terrible natural disaster there, but now also the possibility of an even greater man-made catastrophe caused by avoidable contamination, disease, and starvation. 
With the death toll continuing to mount and with the generals who run the country reported to be hoarding supplies and preventing relief from reaching the worst struck areas, the possibility of a UN-sanctioned international invasion to defy the ruling junta and bring aid to those who so badly need it is being considered seriously. 
As stated at the beginning of this column, CRN has been concerned for many years that the unprecedented power of molecular manufacturing and the potential for exponential proliferation of nanofactory technology may make it essential to create an international administration to regulate it. That may not prove to be necessary in the end, but just in case it does, it would be helpful if the world already had experience in managing global challenges with a collaborative consensus approach.