Volume 1, Issue 1 
1st Quarter, 2006

Alternative Models for Managing Self-Replicating Nanotechnology

Martine Rothblatt, J.D., Ph.D.

This article was adapted from a lecture given by Martine Rothblatt at the First Annual Workshop on Geoethical Nanotechnology on July 20, 2005. In it, Rothblatt analyzes the guidelines put forth by the Foresight Institute, the world's first foundation that aims to develop nanotechnology, and proposes an alternative, geoethical approach.

Molecular nanotechnology (MNT) is the ability to program matter with molecular precision. This is not the same thing as nano-dimensional materials, and does not imply self-replication, which is itself a subset.

The point has been made by several people who are at the forefront of MNT that self-replication is unlikely for MNT manufacturing, at least in the near term. This may be true because self-replicating technology may be unnecessary for basic manufacturing, at least in the short term.

Foresight Institute Guidelines
The Foresight Institute's orientation is to educate and create shared understandings; to develop community controls; Rothblattmaximize research, development and commercialization; and to distribute MNT benefits to the third world and poverty-striken populations. In addition, the institute aims to respect ecological and public health principles and to develop a means to restrict the misuse of MNT internationally. This is a distillation of several pages of MNT background and preamble.

The Institute developed a set of guidelines with the intention that, over time and with subsequent iteration, they could become sufficiently specific that they could form the basis for a legally enforceable framework, and that this framework would consist of things such as lab certifications, random open inspections, professional society norms, insurance requirements, stiff legal and economic penalties, and other sanctions.

Are the Guidelines Solid?
The guidelines are meant to be flexible. Because nanotechnology risks vary, nanotechnology consequences should vary. Legal liability, market costs, built-in safety measures all should be adjusted to meet the level of risk that the particular form of molecular nanotechnology entails. Therefore, the Institute envisions scaling all of the various risks of molecular technology so that that there could be scaled sanctions, guidelines or economic costs depending on the risks.

Certain development principles have also been built into the Foresight Institute guidelines. The one that is of most interest to this presentation is that there be no uncontrolled replication. In fact, self-replication outside of a controlled environment is completely prohibited under the Foresight Institute guidelines.

There are design guidelines that have been developed that discourage mutation and discourage access. The real question is, are these solid guidelines? Are these guildelines like a hard walnut shell or are they more like an egg shell that will fracture and crack as soon as we get to the real world and develop real technology?

The guidelines are also expressed as scorecards for professionals, for industry, and for government policy. The scorecards allow people to score themselves on a scale of zero to five, along these three different types of guidelines. You could have a high score, a medium score, a low score; however, the guidelines give you no guidance in terms of what to do with your score.

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