Volume 4, Issue 2 
December 2009

Recombinant DNA and Self-replicating Molecular Manufacturing: Parallels and Lessons

James B. Lewis, Ph.D

Page 4 of 6

Despite the early recognition that the issue of feral self-replicating assemblers is a red herring, early attempts (in 2000) [1] to develop guidelines for advanced molecular nanotechnology, which explicitly reference the precedent of Asilomar for self-regulation of a powerful emerging technology, were heavily focused on restricting self-replicating nanotechnology. Even the current version of those guidelines [2], written in 2006, retains a prohibition against autonomous replicators. Commenting on the guidelines in 2006, Rothblatt [3] notes the disproportionate emphasis on prohibiting autonomous replication of nanotechnology systems:

"The guidelines seem to take the position that self-2replication is unnecessary, uneconomic, and therefore unlikely. Yet they are overwhelmingly consumed with the issue of self-replication to the point that nearly half of the guidelines deal either explicitly or implicitly with self-replication."

Instead of prohibiting self-replicating nanotechnology, Rothblatt proposes establishing (via treaty), an international organization that would have "exclusive worldwide rights to self-replicator production rights.

Instead of prohibiting self-replicating nanotechnology, Rothblatt proposes establishing (via treaty), an international organization that would have "exclusive worldwide rights

" In responding to Rothblatt’s proposal, Kurzweil adds the thought that self-replicating nanotechnology will be a necessary component of any immune-type system to protect the world from pathological (or malicious) self-replication.





  NYC after 9/11 attack
It might also be noted that in some situations self-replicating molecular manufacturing systems might need to do something similar to what would be done by gray goo: turn the surrounding environment into feedstocks and molecular building blocks for molecular manufacturing, but under controlled conditions. Examples could include vast rubble fields left after some disaster, hydrocarbon oceans on some frozen moon, asteroids awaiting conversion to space habitats, or virgin solar systems to be made suitable for human intelligence.

In such cases the relevant question becomes not low-level controls on the replication machinery, but the behavior of the intelligence controlling the systems. These might be much more difficult questions, but focusing on the low-level controls on the replication machinery distracts attention from the important problems.

So, to return to the question: What lessons does Asilomar have to teach us about “reconciling conflicts, apprehensions, and scientific ambitions regarding self-replicating nanotechnology”?

The set of problems facing self-replicating molecular manufacturing today is very different from the situation with recombinant DNA technology in 1975.
1. Asilomar was needed to demonstrate that an existing technology could be safely implemented, and that the community of practitioners could be trusted to regulate themselves.

Unlike recombinant DNA in 1975, self-replicating nanotechnology is not an existing technology. It is a visionary proposal about which the scientific mainstream remains largely skeptical, and the implementation of self-replicating molecular systems is still decades away. None of the work that needs to be done in the next decade or so to develop the basic technology is awaiting guidelines on how to prevent autonomous self-replicating manufacturing systems from escaping into the environment.

The relevant comparison today to recombinant DNA in 1975 is the widespread environmental, health, and safety concerns with various types of nanomaterials that have already entered into widespread commercial use. A number of studies have provided evidence that there are indeed concerns about the effects of some nanomaterials on the environment and on human health, and some groups have advocated a moratorium on work with nanomaterials. It is imperative that all those involved in current day nanoscience and nanotechnology follow the example of Asilomar with respect to openness, sufficient scientific study to understand the problem, and adoption of openness, sufficient scientific study to understand the problem, and adoption of regulations that evolve in step with evolving scientific understanding. Consideration of the EHS issues with current and next generation nanomaterials is beyond the scope of this presentation, but current activity in this area is intense [4] At least superficially, it looks like this activity is following the lessons learned from Asilomar, although the size and complexity of the problem, the number of international stakeholders, and the immediate economic interests at stake, are far larger than was true with recombinant DNA in 1975, so it is too soon to predict outcomes.

[1] Draft Version 3.7 of June 2000 of the “Foresight Guidelines on Molecular Nanotechnology,” available at http://www.foresight.org/guidelines/2000june.html includes among other restrictions the statement:
“Development Principles
            1.         Artificial replicators must not be capable of replication in a natural, uncontrolled environment.”
[2] Draft Version 6: April, 2006 of the “Foresight Guidelines for Responsible Nanotechnology Development,” Neil Jacobstein, available at http://www.foresight.org/guidelines/current.html includes the statement:
"Productive nanosystem based manufacturing makes use of inherently safe system designs requiring no autonomous replication."

[3] "Alternative Models for Managing Self-Replicating Nanotechnology," Martine Rothblatt, The Journal of Geoethical Nanotechnology, 1, 7-12 (2006).

[4] Much information about nanomaterials EHS issues can be found on the web site of the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies of the PEW Charitable Trusts and the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars http://www.nanotechproject.org/
For example, see their report Oversight of Next Generation Nanotechnology,
J. Clarence Davies (April 2009). http://www.nanotechproject.org/pen18/ Europe has also been very active in this field. From the Swiss-based Innovation Society FramingNano project, the report "Mapping Study on Regulation and Governance of Nanotechnology" (January 2009) http://www.innovationsgesellschaft.Study.pdf "The report gives an insight on the international debate on risks and concerns related to nanotechnologies (EHS issues and ELSI), and provides an ample overview of the different regulatory approaches proposed or already developed to deal with these issues ..."



1 2 3 4 5 6 next page>