Volume 4, Issue 2 
December 2009

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

James B. Lewis, Ph.D

Page 6 of 6

Among the few proposals that address this problem, my favorite was made by Eric Drexler in 1986 [1]:"...distributing ownership of the resources of space (genuine, permanent, transferable ownership) equally among all people — but doing so only once, then letting people provide for their progeny (or others') from their own vast share of the wealth of space. This will allow different groups to pursue different futures, and it will reward the frugal rather than the profligate. It can provide the foundation for a future of unlimited diversity for the indefinite future, if active shields are used to protect people from aggression and theft. No one has yet voiced a plausible alternative."

However, the date suggested by Drexler for doing this distribution (April 12, 2011) is far too imminent for any such agreement to be in place by then.

If we are to improve upon the results of Asilomar and prepare in advance for the issues that are associated with a technology that does not yet exist—self-replicating nanotechnology—then we first have to prepare the ground for discussing and resolving the most fundamental and pressing issues that will arise with respect to that technology (which probably do not include “gray goo”).

The lessons of Asilomar suggest that serious discussion of those issues will not occur until there is a consensus that the technology at issue, if not already existing, is at least very likely to develop soon. Therefore, we can expect that “reconciling conflicts, apprehensions, and scientific ambitions regarding self-replicating nanotechnology” will be a long, drawn-out process stretching through the decades until the imminent advent of the technology becomes obvious—perhaps paralleling the efforts to get society to come to grips with the effects of human activities upon climate change. What might advance such a reconciliation?

  1. Use EHS issues with respect to current and near-term nanomaterials technology to establish the precedent of open and rational discussion, support for conclusive research, and a consensus process for appropriate regulations regarding nanotechnology, paralleling the historical regulation of recombinant DNA technology.
  2. To render self-replicating nanotechnology more credible, publicize progress toward that goal, and lobby for more support for similar research. For example, recent results [2] with structural DNA nanotechnology and protein design indicate acceleration of progress along the modular molecular composite nanosystems path toward atomically precise productive nanosystems [3].
  3. Promote films, books, and other media that depict self-replicating nanotechnology and other “Singularity”-associated technologies to foster awareness of and discussion of impacts.
  4. Promote conferences to develop consensus positions on dealing with impacts. As progress towards the technology becomes more credible, more specific Asilomar-like conferences to deal with specific issues will become appropriate.
  5. Follow and encourage development of open source 3D printers capable of making some or most of their own parts [4] as a prototype of self-replicating nanotechnology. At what point in their development do these projects raise issues comparable to the issues that will be raised by self-replicating nanotechnology? Can possible solutions be tested with these projects?

The above suggestions are made in the belief that the more people who can be convinced that a goal is worthwhile and doable, the more people will work to uncover and solve the whole spectrum of problems that could be associated with the goal, and thus the more likely that the outcome will be both successful and ethical.

[1] http://e-drexler.com/d/06/html#Ch_15

[2] "Protein design revolution points toward advanced nanotechnology," posted by Jim Lewis on April 9th, 2009 http://www.foresight.org/nanodot/?p=3007
"DNA nanorobot walks without intervention along rigid track," posted by Jim Lewis on April 10th, 2009 http://www.foresight.org/nanodot/?p=3008
"Modular DNA nanotubes provide programmable scaffolds for nanotechnology," posted by Jim Lewis on April 27th, 2009 http://www.foresight.org/nanodot/?p=3019
"Advancing nanotechnology by organizing functional components on addressable DNA scaffolds," posted by Jim Lewis on April 29th, 2009 http://www.foresight.org/nanodot/?p=3023

[3] See http://metamodern.com/2008/11/10/modular-molecular-composite-nanosystems/ and http://www.foresight.org/roadmaps/index.html

[4] See, for example, the RepRap project started in 2004 by Adrian Bowyer. http://www.reprap.org/ "RepRap is short for Replicating Rapid-prototyper. It is the practical self-copying 3D printer shown on the right - a self-replicating machine. This 3D printer builds the parts up in layers of plastic."
"A fundamental principle of the RepRap project is that anyone who has a RepRap machine will always be able to use it to build the next generation improvement. That way even if you start with the very bootstrap machine, you can always build your way back up to the full technology." http://reprap.org/bin/view/Main/FuturePlans
For a discussion of ReRap and nanotechnology, see "The other half of nanotech" by J. Storrs Hall, posted on April 28th, 2009 http://www.foresight.org/nanodot/?p=3020


James B. Lewis, Ph.D.

Dr. Lewis holds a Ph.D. in the field of biochemistry from Harvard University. His interests include the convergence of biotechnology, artificial intelligence, information science, and cognitive science. Fascinated by current and advanced nanotechnologies, Dr. Lewis applies his knowledge to the writing and editing of works associated with nanotechnologies in hopes of solving the world’s most pressing human problems.



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