Convergence 08

I just learned about Convergence 08, a two-day event at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, CA featuring a bunch of futurists and other thinkers on technology. From their buzzword-heavy blurb:

On November 15-16, 2008, the world's most dangerous ideas will collide in Mountain View, California. Convergence08 examines the world-changing possibilities of Nanotech and the life-changing promises of Biotech. It is the premier forum for debate and exploration of Cogtech ethics, and ground zero of the past and future Infotech revolution. Convergence08 is an innovative, lively unconference, the first and only forum dedicated to NBIC (Nano-Bio-Info-Cogno) technologies.


The speaker list includes some heavyweight futurists/technologists like Paul Saffo, Aubrey de Grey and Peter Norvig, and at least one critic, Denise Caruso.

I'm not sure I get the idea of an "unconference" as the main event, though. I thought those were typically free, alternative forums that took place outside big conferences.

Presidential Candidates Invited to Science Quiz, er, Debate

The Science Debate 2008 campaign sent out invitations to the four major candidates recently for the debate, now set for April 18th if anyone shows up.  In the invitation they write:

This is a policy debate.  It is not intended to be a science quiz. Nor
are we interested in state-level battles such as the evolution versus
creationism/ID debate.  Our goal is to find out how aware candidates
are of America’s major science and technology problems and
opportunities, and how they propose to offer the kind of visionary
leadership and policy solutions that will tackle those challenges and
ensure America’s place as the most scientifically and technologically
advanced nation on earth.  This is your opportunity to demonstrate that
you are such a leader.

It’s telling that they needed to reassure candidates that it’s not a quiz, because when Science Debate first came on the scene it was clear that many of the people pushing for it wanted a quiz.  There was gloating in comment boards about the chance to make fun of candidates who don’t believe in evolution or don’t understand science.  (Not that those are excusable — thank the gods that Mike Huckabee doesn’t have a chance of winning.)

There are important science and tech policy issues to discuss, but I’m still skeptical of the need for a separate debate on this.  (Previous post: Do we need a presidential debate on science?)

There have been several recent articles on the story:

Public Nanotech Forum

Next Tuesday and Wednesday (October 23-24) there will be an online public forum about the benefits and risks of nanotechnology, hosted by the Project on Emerging Nanotechnology and Consumers Union.  From the description:

Nanotechnology—the ability to measure, see, manipulate and manufacture
things between 1 and 100 nanometers (1 billionth of a meter)—is seen as
the driver of a new industrial revolution emerging with the development
of materials that exhibit new properties and potential new risks and
benefits at this tiny scale. However, according to recent polls, the
majority of Americans have heard little or nothing about
nanotechnology, even as consumer products containing nanomaterials are
entering the marketplace at a rapid pace. There are already over 575
nanotechnology consumer products available to the consumer, with
nanoscale materials now in use in cosmetics, clothing, sports
equipment, electronics, automobiles, and home furnishings.

We decided to launch this dialogue in order to provide an easily
accessible venue for the public to discuss information and share their
thoughts about the usage and potential benefits and risks of consumer
products made with nanomaterials. It is aimed at exploring key issues
surrounding the ways that consumers, citizens, students, researchers,
policymakers, scientific experts, and the media learn about and respond
to nanotechnology consumer products. Participants in the dialogue will
have the opportunity to ask questions of expert panelists about
nanotechnology, to examine its use in consumer products, to discuss who
is responsible for oversight, and to brainstorm with each other on
needed future actions.

We hope to use information that emerges from this conversation to
inform policymakers about how consumers perceive the use of
nanotechnology in products that they can buy in the stores or over the
Internet and what consumers think about related risks, benefits, and
uncertainties. We also hope that consumers will bring to our attention
additional nanotechnology consumer products that are not contained in
our on-line inventory, which is available at

It sounds like a very interesting event.  To participate in the discussion you just need to complete a free registration.  There’s much more information at their site: Nanotechnology and the consumer: A public dialogue.

Update: They’ve posted summaries of the event, as well as archives of the discussions, at the same link: Nanotechnology and the consumer: A public dialogue.

Excerpts from The No-Nonsense Guide to Science

At the Post-Normal Times blog, Jerry Ravetz has posted excerpts from his book, The No-Nonsense Guide to Science (described here previously).  An excerpt of an excerpt:

The decline of the illusion of objectivity

Over the last half-century, science has experienced great transformations in its scale, size, power, destructiveness, and corporate control and social responsibility. There is lively debate over many policy issues concerning health and the environment, and over proposed innovations such as those in the GRAINN set. But until we get over the illusion of objectivity of science, as embodied in its supposed certainty and value-freedom, those debates will be hindered and distorted. So long as each side in a debate believes that it has all the simple and conclusive facts, it will demonise the other, and dialogue will not be achieved. We need not fall into some nihilistic philosophy of total subjectivity or power-games. That is not the only alternative to the lost illusion of perfect objectivity of science. To find a viable alternative we will need to examine why scientific objectivity is no longer common sense.

The process is already well underway. Towards the end of the last century, just too many things began to go wrong for science. First we discovered how mankind has been polluting the environment. And sometimes the pollution was worse when the science was the strongest. The first big pollution scare came in 1963 with Silent Spring, where the death of the songbirds was explained by their being poisoned with agricultural pesticides. Then we had the accidents in civil nuclear power. Of all industries this was the one most completely based on science. We might have expected that an industry created and run by scientists would not be vulnerable to sloppy workmanship and elementary blunders; but we were wrong. In both those cases, as in many others, the pattern was that even where science had defined the situation, something would unexpectedly go wrong, leading to an accident or disaster. Then science would be brought it for the attempt to understand the accident and to prevent its happening again. It was as if science was chasing after itself in the cleanup jobs, retrospectively correcting its own mistakes.

The public’s experience of values, priorities, choices and exclusions has come through debates on science in fields relating to health and the environment. For a very long time, supporters of ‘alternative energy’ have pointed to the vast disparity between the meagre funds doled out to them for research and development, and the huge sums still lavished on the moribund nuclear power industry. In medical research, patients’ groups have observed how the lion’s share of the resources, even those collected and allocated by charities, goes on that ‘basic’ research which someone hopes and claims will solve the problems of cause and cure of the disease. At the same time, research on the quality of treatments and of care is left on the margins. The reasons are plain: everyone hopes for a ‘magic bullet’ which will kill the pathogen that makes us sick. Also, that sort of research is also useful in building a career in the relevant research science. By contrast, treatment and care are the ‘soft’ sciences, in which there are no Nobel prizes. It doesn’t take much imagination to see how particular sets of values are built into the ruling criteria of quality in science.

Link: The Post-Normal Times – Putting Science into Context: Excerpts from The No-Nonsense Guide to Science.

Hazards of Extreme Genetic Engineering

The ETC Group (Action Group on Erosion, Technology, and Concentration) has released a free 70-page report on the threats of "synthetic biology."  From the press release:

A new report by the ETC Group concludes that the social, environmental and bio-weapons threats of synthetic biology surpass the possible dangers and abuses of biotech. […]

"Genetic engineering is passe," said Pat Mooney, Executive Director of ETC Group. "Today, scientists aren’t just mapping genomes and manipulating genes, they’re building life from scratch – and they’re doing it in the absence of societal debate and regulatory oversight," said Mooney.

Synbio – dubbed "genetic engineering on
steroids" – is inspired by the convergence of nano-scale biology,
computing and engineering. Using a laptop computer, published gene
sequence information and mail-order synthetic DNA, just about anyone
has the potential to construct genes or entire genomes from scratch
(including those of lethal pathogens). Scientists predict that within
2-5 years it will be possible to synthesise any virus; the first de novo
bacterium will make its debut in 2007; in 5-10 years simple bacterial
genomes will be synthesised routinely and it will become no big deal to
cobble together a designer genome, insert it into an empty bacterial
cell and – voilà – give birth to a living, self-replicating organism.
Other synthetic biologists hope to reconfigure the genetic pathways of
existing organisms to perform new functions – such as manufacturing
high-value drugs or chemicals.

A clutch of entrepreneurial scientists, including the gene maverick J.
Craig Venter, is setting up synthetic biology companies backed by
government funding and venture capital. They aim to commercialise new
biological parts, devices and systems that don’t exist in the natural
world – some of which are designed for environmental release. Advocates
insist that synthetic biology is the key to cheap biofuels, a cure for
malaria, and climate change remediation – media-friendly goals that aim
to mollify public concerns about a dangerous and controversial
technology. Ultimately synthetic biology means cheaper and widely
accessible tools to build bioweapons, virulent pathogens and artificial
organisms that could pose grave threats to people and the planet. The
danger is not just bio-terror, but "bio-error," warns ETC Group.

Link: ETC Group – Publications – Extreme Genetic Engineering: An Introduction to Synthetic Biology.

There’s some interesting discussion happening at Salon between Salon columnist Andrew Leonard, ETC Group, and MIT assistant professor of synthetic biology Drew Endy.  The latest post is here (update: and in the comments I believe I’m called both a Luddite and evil — nice!).

The ETC Group is based in Canada and was one of many parties behind an open letter calling for public debate on synthetic biology, issued last May to coincide with the Synthetic Biology 2.0 symposium — see previous post.

Their site has lots of interesting reading material.  They recently had a competition to design a hazard symbol for nanotechnology (the final judging will take place soon).

What Are You Optimistic About?

The Edge has published its 2007 question that it asks of dozens of big-name scientists and other thinkers.  I’ve only skimmed a few, but as usual the results are a mix of the interesting, amusing, and (mostly) predictable.  Cory Doctorow is optimistic about the anti-copyright movement — who’d have thought?  Ray Kurzweil surprises by giving a bit of space to biotech risks (reprising an op-ed that he co-wrote with Bill Joy in 2005 called Recipe for Destruction).

have a new existential threat which is the ability of a destructively
minded group or individual to reprogram a biological virus to
be more deadly, more communicable, or (most daunting of all)
more stealthy (that is, having a longer incubation period so
that the early spread is not detected). The good news is that
we do have the tools to set up a rapid response system, like
the one we have for software viruses. […]

I’m optimistic that we will make it through without suffering
an existential catastrophe.


Last year they asked "What’s Your Dangerous Idea?" (see previous post).

I am optimistic about pessimism: that people will begin to understand the momentous risks and biases inherent in some technologies now with us or on the horizon, will see the value of thoughtful, rational debate, and will learn that, despite the rhetoric to the contrary, technology is not inevitable — we can make choices and always have.