Volume 1, Issue 2 
2nd Quarter, 2006

Proactionary Nano-Policy: Managing Massive Decisions for Tiny Technologies

Max More, Ph.D.

page 2 of 7

Regulators fear Type I errors (errors of commission) more than Type II errors (errors of omission). An example of an error of Morecommission is when the FDA approves a drug and as a result, children are born horribly deformed. This happened with thalidomide[1,2], for which the FDA was severely criticized. An error of commission can result in a regulator ending up on the front page of the newspapers, being pilloried by the press, possibly even losing his or her job.

A Type II error, on the other hand, results in few or no repercussions. If the FDA prevents a drug from being distributed even though the drug has benefits, no one would ever hear about it. No commissions would be held in Congress to investigate why the drug was not approved. A regulator does not get into trouble for an error of omission, so they tend to be biased towards over-regulating. 

In addition, we have a general cultural bias towards emphasizing catastrophe. This is the reason that there is so much bad news on television and why so many catastrophe movies are made. Catastrophes are exciting and draw our attention.

Regulators’ Required Reading
For a little fun, I have made a list of required reading for regulators. Regulators must be well-read in "The Fall", Pandora’s Box, the Tower of Babel, Icarus, and Prometheus. They must read Rachel Carson’s "Silent Spring", Paul Ehrlich’s "The Population Bomb", "Frankenstein", and of course, they must watch the movie, "The Terminator".

The Brain Analogy
Here is an amusing parallel. Some say that nanotechnology could be dangerous and that we had better stop it and/or regulate it. Imagine if we had a parallel argument about brains. Brains are dangerous things. They are potentially fatal and could cause the destruction of the human race. Brains are insidiously clever devices that hide inside skulls where we cannot observe them, just like nanodevices, which are too small to see. Even worse, they can make copies of themselves and the instructions within them via human reproduction. All of these statements are true, literally speaking. Yet we do not want to regulate brains in that respect. 

However, we may need to regulate brains in a different sense. We may need to regulate them in the sense that we need to structure our decision-making procedures for attaching risks and benefits. In other words, we do not want to let people loose regulating or deciding whether to release something or how to employ the technology without thinking very carefully. We want to structure these decision procedures in a specific way.

The Wisdom of Structure
This leads me to the wisdom of structure. To counter both these organizational and cognitive biases, we need to use intelligent methods to structure our decisions. By structure, I am talking about using the best knowledge that we have in the decision sciences, in cognitive psychology, and in the social sciences to understand factors, such as who can direct us. For example, in a group of people, certain people dominate the discussion and lead to certain conclusions that may not be the best given the knowledge in the room. How can you remove those biases? 

How can we allow for the bestiary of biases listed above? There are actually many methods of doing so, but they are rarely used, even when much is at stake.

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1. Thalidomide is a sedative and hypnotic drug that was withdrawn from sale after it was found to cause severe birth defects when taken during pregnancy. More recently, though, it has been approved as an anti-cancer drug. Stedman’s. The American Heritage Medical dictionary. Boston, New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2004. p 817.
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2. Thalidomide was originally developed to prevent morning sickness in pregnant women. Research is now looking to see whether it might be effective as a treatment for some types of cancer. Cancerbackup.org, Biological Therapies. April 17, 2006 10:20AM EST (back to top)

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