Stephen Fry, Cambridge University, and nanotechnology

Courtesy of Nanowerk, I found a new introductory video, Introduction to the strange new world of nanoscience, that Stephen Fry (actor) narrates on behalf of Cambridge University. Providing a very engaging and delightful introduction to nanotechnology, it also illustrates something I was discussing in one of my postings yesterday. The notion that the adoption of any science or technology is inevitable and not to be questioned is in full display. Since the video’s purpose is to introduce (“sell’) nanotechnology I have no quibble with the video itself, my doubts centre on the fact that the nanotechnology discussion is couched in terms of pro or con with no questioning of the basic premise, i.e., should we do this just because we can and how do we decide one way or the other?

Tim Harper on his TNT blog, which is located on his Cientifica website, offers a possible answer in one of his recent postings,

That’s all there is to technology diffusion, whether GM, nanotech or anything else. It is the ultimate form of democracy, because it is us, the people, who eventually get to choose whether a technology is used or not, not politicians, companies or single issue campaign groups.

Leaving aside the concept of marketplace democracy to shift gears, Harper is making the assumption that nothing catastrophic will occur because according to Harper’s posting on the topic,

After ten years of nanotech scare stories I feel that we have a fairly balanced resreach [sic] agenda, with plenty of good science being backed up by excellent toxicology and risk management studies.

It should be noted that Harper is responding from the perspective of someone located in the UK where there has been far more public discussion and interest in the possible risks associated with nanotechnology than there has been in either Canada or the US.

I have to agree with Harper in some degree with his thesis that the marketplace is where a new technology or innovation fails or succeeds and is where democracy  prevails since in the marketplace, the sloganeering and mud-slinging from all sides becomes irrelevant as technology is adopted or it isn’t.

However, it might be time to consider some alternatives to marketplace democracy because, unlike Harper, I’m not quite so confident about the toxicology and risk management studies undertaken so far and the stakes are much higher than they have been in the past. I realize that it’ s impossible to have 100% confidence and I find many of nanotechnology’s possible benefits quite compelling so I’m willing go along with it to a point. I just don’t want to lose sight of the fact that we are juggling many possibilities in a very dynamic environment and using methods and models that worked in times past is rather like showing up to a modern battle zone dressed in medieval armour.

Getting back to the Cambridge University video, do go and watch it on the Nanowerk site. It is fun and very informative and approximately 17 mins. I noticed that they reused part of their Nokia morph animation (last mentioned on this blog here) and offered some thoughts from Professor Mark Welland, the team leader on that project. Interestingly, Welland was talking about yet another possibility. (Sometimes I think nano goes too far!) He was suggesting that we could have chips/devices in our brains that would allow us to think about phoning someone and an immediate connection would be made to that person. Bluntly—no. Just think what would happen if the marketers got access and I don’t even want to think what a person who suffers psychotic breaks (i.e., hearing voices) would do with even more input. Welland starts to talk at the 11 minute mark (I think). For an alternative take on the video and more details, visit Dexter Johnson’s blog, Nanoclast, for this posting. Hint, he likes the idea of a phone in the brain much better than I do.

You can also find the video here on the Cambridge University site where you’ll also find out it was funded by the European Commission for a nanotechnology dialogue project called NanoYou.

4 thoughts on “Stephen Fry, Cambridge University, and nanotechnology

  1. Dexter Johnson

    Thanks for the link to my blog post. I am not sure I am that much more enthusiastic about the “chip in your brain” concept than you. What interested me about it was where did it come from? Welland’s duties at the Nanoscience Center have been reduced in recent years since taking on the role of the science boffin for the UK ministry of defense. So I am not altogether sure whether this futurisic idea is the product of research at Cambridge or from somewhere else. It’s all a bit mysterious.

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  3. admin

    Hi Dexter, I’m sorry for having mistaken your openmindness and curiousity for enthusiasm about this ‘telephone in the brain’ idea. Also, I did not realize that Welland’s duties have been reduced or that he has a role as a ‘science boffin’. I always appreciate it when you drop by to share your thoughts and drop a few tidbits. As for where Welland’s idea might have come from, I pose today’s ‘Nano devices in your brain’ posting as a possible answer. Cheers, Maryse

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