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From March 20-23, 2003, I joined about 40 other serious-minded people in attending a "Discovering the Nanoscale" international conference at the University of South Carolina in Columbia, SC, USA. Almost all of the attendees were professors or academics, around 60% of them from USC. Approximately 20% of the attendees were from institutions of higher learning in Europe, and the rest were from other colleges and universities in the United States.
Conference attendees represented an interesting mix of disciplines. About 40% were from the "hard sciences", such as physics, chemistry, engineering, and biology. The majority were from other fields, including history, English, journalism, and law. But the most widely represented field was philosophy. This was presumably because the Philosophy Department at USC was primarily responsible for conceiving, planning, and presenting the conference. I was pleased to see that a large number of people with diverse backgrounds and points of view would assemble to consider the important questions raised by nanotechnology.
We began on Thursday evening with a panel discussion of Michael Crichton's controversial novel, Prey. Almost everyone agreed that the science in the book is not very accurate, but there was far less agreement about the value of the work as a novel, or about the impact it might have on the development of nanotechnology. Some speakers and audience members defended the book as a work of fiction by a talented writer, and said that the author of a novel should not be expected to get all of the science right. I made the point that if Chrichton is writing a novel that includes highly questionable science, he should not give it false legitimacy by including a scholarly introduction and scientific bibliography. Most people seemed to agree that bringing public attention to the possible risks and ethical questions of advanced nanotechnology is a good thing. Some, however, were concerned about having the terms of debate framed by a writer whose novels read more like film treatments.
On Friday morning we turned our attention to more serious topics, beginning with four speakers commenting on Epistemology and Methodology. The afternoon session included three presentations on Instrumentation. It was interesting for me to see how much discussion there was in the afternoon about the difficulties in seeing-and knowing what we are seeing-at the molecular level. The last speaker of the day was Hans Glimell, from Goteberg University in Sweden, who delivered a fascinating speech about the politics involved in exploring the possibilities of nanotechnology.
I had lunch on Friday with several participants, including Joseph Pitt from Virginia Tech and Emmanuelle Boubour from Rice University. Both expressed interest in the work that CRN is doing. Friday evening a group of us had dinner at a nice outdoor restaurant near USC. I had a long, productive, and enjoyable conversation with Rosalyn Berne from the University of Virginia. She is writing a book based on interviews with a number of nanotech scientists.
Saturday morning began with three presentations on Interdisciplinarity and the Science-Technology Relation, and two presenters on Science and Technology Policy. In his remarks, Jody Roberts of Virginia Tech frequently referred to an article by Paul C. Lin-Easton, subtitled "A Call for the Involvement of Environmental Lawyers in Developing Precautionary Policies for Molecular Nanotechnology". In this regard, I would call the attention of readers to CRN's paper, Applying the Precautionary Principle to Nanotechnology, available online here.
The weather was beautiful in South Carolina, so several of us had a picnic lunch on Saturday near a fountain on the campus. I had a good talk with conference organizers Davis Baird of USC, and Alfred Nordmann of Technische Universitat Darmstadt, Germany. They are already well along with plans for a follow-up conference to be held October 10-12, 2003, in Germany.
On Saturday afternoon, we started with three presentations on Rhetoric and Beliefs, followed by three speakers on Ethics, Politics, and Technology Assessment. Presenters discussed looming issues of privacy, intellectual property, extended human lifespans, and even gray goo. The last speaker on Saturday was Mark Gubrud of the University of Maryland, who led us through an alarming assessment of the military implications of nanotech. A key point was that using accessible language and avoiding hyperbole would improve communication about all these issues. I noticed that apparently there is extensive misunderstanding about the most likely developmental sequence for molecular nanotechnology. CRN will probably work on an article to clarify this.
There was a concluding banquet on Saturday night, which unfortunately I was unable to attend because I had to get back to New York. Overall this was an outstanding conference. Amid all the talk about the economic potential of nanotech, it is extremely important that we take some time to focus on the societal implications and potential risks of such a powerful new technology. I came away from the conference with renewed conviction that CRN's call for international cooperation in developing and administering advanced nanotechnology is the right approach.
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