Christine Peterson Looks into the Future of Nanotechnology

Co-founder of the Foresight Institute, Christine Peterson, gives an intriguing and sometimes confounding interview on the future of nanotechnology

3 min read
Christine Peterson Looks into the Future of Nanotechnology
Foresight Institute

I ran afoul of the Foresight Institute in my very first blog post here on the Spectrum website. The fiery response that post received from one of its members really should have come as no surprise to me based on the religious-like fervor Foresight members often exercise. Nonetheless, if pressed, I might have to concede it was invigorating to be so assaulted on my very first blog post here. So when I saw that there was a new video interview with co-founder and long-time President of the Foresight Institute, Christine Peterson, it seemed like a good opportunity to dive into the fray once again.

A little background might be helpful first. After my initial post that rankled at least one its members, I had another run-in with the Foresight folks about three years ago when I wrote about a sudden flurry of interest generated around the topic of “nanobots.”  I discussed Ray Kurzweil’s recent admission that his interest in the Singularity was at least partly motivated by his wish to resurrect his dead father. And I mentioned the addition of a new blogger to the Foresight blog, Nanodot.

The Nanodot blogger and Foresight President of that moment, J Storrs Hall, noticed the post and felt I needed a lesson in economics based on this comment of mine in the post:

“But if I may apply some dime-store psychology to this sudden surge of interest, it might be due to things just being so terrible [a reference to the economic crisis] at the moment were in. It is far better to imagine some day in the future when we can use nanobots to bring our lost loved ones back to life, or to press the button on our home-installed nanofactory that says “Ferrari.”

We can dream about that or face the grim realities of the now.”

I won't repeat my response to Storrs Hall’s economics lesson here. Suffice it to say that I believed he was minimizing the impact of the world’s worst economic crisis since the Great Depression by employing flimsy comparisons to Sci-fi doomsday scenarios. I think the last three years of suffering throughout the world supports my judgment that things were pretty terrible at that time.

While that exchange was mostly cordial--albeit challenging--the ensuing comments from other Foresight members became hostile and once again revealed how unhelpful religious-like fervor can be in discussions of technology.

In addition to those previous altercations, Peterson's video interview (which you can see below) was particularly intriguing to me because of an exchange of sorts we had over five years ago. In August 2007, I wrote an editorial for Spectrum ("Material By Design: Future Science or Science Fiction?") that spurred Peterson to remark at the time that the editorial was "so conservative in its views that it crosses over into being truly radical.

In the editorial, I suggested the timeline for realizing true material by design may be in the centuries—which is so far away that it's a kind of shorthand for saying that it's impossible to say when it might occur. To be honest, predicting that something will take place centuries or even decades from now is basically saying that you have no idea when—or if—a certain outcome will ever take place.

I will add that If I am indeed radical in my views, then so are the two prominent nanoparticle researchers at two different major European chemical companies, along with the head of nanotechnology at a major international scientific modeling company and a professor specializing in molecular modeling, that I interviewed, which reflected their views as well as mine.

As far as the video itself is concerned, aside from the odd and confusing practice within the video of repeatedly putting up titles to topics that Peterson never quite addresses, the interview reveals typical Foresight orthodoxy that has been watered down somewhat to appeal to a broader audience.

What is always striking about those who speak on behalf of the Foresight Institute, and you can see it again here in the video, is an odd cognitive dissonance when trying to define the state of nanotechnology. They talk about the utility of nanoparticles—gold nanoparticles as a cancer treatment, for example, in the video—only to later dismiss nanoparticles as not really being nanotechnology. This need to disassociate the “incremental nanotechnology” of nanomaterials from the “real nanotechnology” of molecular manufacturing always seemed to me to miss the point of how one evolves (potentially) into the other.

It was also interesting to me—and somewhat gratifying—to hear Peterson remark in the video about “material by design” and suggest that its realization may be decades away. After being branded a "conservative/radical", it was good to see a few more years added onto a Foresight representative's prediction of when we will see material by design as outlined in the editorial.

I suppose the mission of the Foresight Institute is to consider and give timelines for those technological outcomes that are almost impossible to predict. I don't want to begrudge them that important role. However, it would be nice if they could practice that aim with a bit less hostility to those wishing to discuss and challenge those predictions.

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