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By Doug Brown
Small Times Correspondent

WASHINGTON, Dec. 19, 2001 – The scientist who coined the term nanotechnology warned Tuesday that development of “extremely powerful, extremely dangerous technologies” must be shepherded by stewards tutored in both its promise and its peril.

“One of my profound hopes is that the new spirit of seriousness about life and death issues that we see in the wake of Sept. 11 … will encourage people to pay a little less attention to politics and a little more attention to reality,” said Eric Drexler during a symposium about science’s role in the war on terrorism. Drexler is founder and chairman of the Foresight Institute, a nonprofit educational organization established to help society prepare for advanced technologies.

“This is a technology which can reasonably be described as extreme in all directions: extreme upsides, extreme downsides.”

He added: “Those of us who are trying to envision a world in which we go through this next great technological transition are still very uncomfortable with it. There’s much to be concerned about.”

Drexler said that many scientists eagerly slapped the term "nanotechnology" on their research when it was viewed as “sexy,” but became “a little upset to find that they had a label on their work that was associated with outrageous, science-fictiony sounding claims about the future and scary scenarios and other things.”

The net result, he charged, is that many members of the nanotechnology research community “like to distance themselves from the consequences of their own work.”

Drexler gave his presentation during a daylong symposium sponsored by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the world’s largest general science organization and the publisher of the academic journal Science.

Also speaking during the symposium were senior academic researchers – from epidemiologists to philosophers to physicists – and government officials. John Marburger, the director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, gave the keynote address.

Drexler carefully defined for the audience his own vision of nanotechnology, saying that the field has forked into two branches.

The popular conception of nanotechnology, which is anchored in the state of most current research, refers generally to all technologies at nanoscale.

This contemporary research comprises a diversity of applications, from better quality paints to superior electronics for ships to medical care.

The work “is good, and we shouldn’t worry about it,” he said. “Instead, we should exploit it. And then there is this future thing, which isn’t here yet, but back in 1959 Richard Feynman said it was a technology that he thought could not be avoided. I think he was right. We’re going to get there. We need to understand what it is that we’re heading towards if we’re going to manage it properly.”

His research pursuits revolve around “an as-yet unrealized technology based on artificial molecular machine systems,” a “frontier that we are only beginning to nibble at in our science and technology.”

This future nanotechnology reasonably contemplates the development of health devices that can sense molecules, and patterns of molecules, make diagnoses based on molecular computers and use the information to make surgical repairs at the molecular scale on the cell, he said.

“What does that do to medicine?” he asked. “Well, it transforms it utterly. How do we get there? What do analogous devices do for biowarfare? Well, they get extremely practical in a way that they have not thus far militarily, and therefore they are extremely dangerous, particularly if they get into the wrong hands."

In an interview after the symposium, Chuck Piercey, Foresight Institute executive director, said that Drexler’s conception of nanotechnology lurks between seven and 10 years into the future. For now, he said, nanotechnology doesn’t have any applications in the war on terrorism because it’s still too young.

But the federal government’s commitment to the science through the National Nanotechnology Initiative, a program launched by former President Bill Clinton last year and slated to receive more than $500 million in funding next year, represents a step in the right direction, he said.

“For the first time, the government is beginning to recognize this scientific area, and will create a core group of people to do the research,” he said, adding that venture capitalists stray away from long-term nanotechnology research. Venture capitalists, he said, tend to look no further than five years into the future. “If the federal government continues to fund the National Nanotechnology Initiative, you have to say they are looking to the future for nanotechnology.”

Drexler was not the only panelist who delved into nanotechnology’s role in the war on terrorism.

Gerald Yonas, vice president and principal scientist at Sandia National Laboratories in Albuquerque, N.M., described an emerging field he calls “cognotechnology,” that is the result of a convergence of nanotechnology, biotechnology and information technology.

With nanotechnology, he said, it’s feasible to use brain implants to moderate behavior or brain functioning. The technology would be used as a neuro or sensory prosthesis, allowing brains that have been damaged to continue functioning. But they would also be used for more questionable purposes, like changing the behavior of criminals.

He also discussed a developing field that focuses on remote sensing of brain function, including the intention to commit deception. Such technologies could be helpful in ferreting out potential terrorists from airports, but it also could target lots of other people with more benign, albeit deceptive, thoughts.

Yonas said he has talked with military officials developing mind-control nanotechnologies that would give war leaders a choice to “either blow up that building, or do something to the people inside, so the people inside lose the desire to continue with combat.”

“There are two sides to the sword of science and technology, and as we move forward there is no way we can stop any advance from happening, but we should be aware of the implications and the possibilities,” he said, “and long before these things happen we ought to think about, 'What are the rules?' ”