Tending Towards Savagery

I am no particular fan of the monarchy, but Prince Charles was given a bad rap in 2003 when he called for the Royal Society to consider the environmental and social risks of nanotechnology.  “My first gentle attempt to draw the subject to wider attention resulted in ‘Prince fears grey goo nightmare’ headlines,” he lamented in 2004.  Indeed, while yet somewhat misguided, the Prince’s efforts to draw attention to these issues were genuine and not far from mainstream perceptions that scientists sometimes become so absorbed with their discoveries that they pursue them without sober regard for the potential consequences.  A copy of his article can be read here, in which he claims never to have used the expression “grey goo,” and in which he makes a reasonable plea to “consider seriously those features that concern non-specialists and not just dismiss those concerns as ill-informed or Luddite.” 

It is unfortunate that the term “grey goo” has becomes as inexorably linked with nanotechnology as the term “frankenfood” has become associated with food derived from genetically modified organisms.  The term has its origins in K. Eric Drexler’s 1986 book Engines of Creation

[A]ssembler-based replicators will therefore be able to do all that life can, and more.  From an evolutionary point of view, this poses an obvious threat to otters, people, cacti, and ferns — to the rich fabric of the biosphere and all that we prize…. 

“Plants” with “leaves” no more efficient than today’s solar cells could out-compete real plants, crowding the biosphere with an inedible foliage.  Tough, omnivorous “bacteria” could out-compete real bacteria:  they could spread like blowing pollen, replicate swiftly, and reduce the biosphere to dust in a matter of days.  Dangerous replicators could easily be too tough, small, and rapidly spreading to stop…. 

Among the congoscenti of nanotechnology, this threat has become known as the “gray goo problem.” 

Even at the time, most scientists largely dismissed Drexler’s description as unrealistic, fanciful, and needlessly alarmist.  The debate most famously culminated in a series of exchanges in 2003 in Chemical and Engineering News between Drexler and Nobel laureate Richard Smalley, whose forceful admonition was applauded by many: 

You and people around you have scared our children.  I don’t expect you to stop, but I hope others in the chemical community will join with me in turning on the light and showing our children that, while our future in the real world will be challenging and there are real risks, there will be no such monster as the self-replicating mechanical nanobot of your dreams.

 Drexler did, in the end, recant, conceding in 2004 that “[t]he popular version of the grey-goo idea seems to be that nanotechnology is dangerous because it means building tiny self-replicating robots that could accidentally run away, multiply, and eat the world.  But there’s no need to build anything remotely resembling a runaway replicator, which would be a pointless and difficult engineering task….  This makes fears of accidental runaway replication … quite obsolete.”  But too many others have failed to take note, as sadly highlighted by this month’s bombing of two Mexican professors who work on nanotechnology research. 

Responsibility for the most recent bombings, as well as other bombings in April and May, has been claimed by “Individualidades tendiendo a lo Salvaje” (roughly translated into English as “Individuals Tending Towards Savagery”), an antitechnology group that candidly claims Unabomber Ted Kaczynski as its inspiration.  The group even has its own manifesto.  It is not as long as the Unabomber’s but is equally contorted in attempting to justify the use of violence as a means of opposing technological progress.  A copy of the original manifesto can be read here and an English translation can be found here

The manifesto references Drexler when it cites the absurd rationale for the group’s violence: 

[Drexler] has mentioned … the possible spread of a grey goo caused by billions of nanoparticles self-replicating themselves voluntarily and uncontrollably throughout the world, destroying the biosphere and completely eliminating all animal, plant, and human life on this planet.  The conclusion of technological advancement will be pathetic, Earth and all those on it will have become a large gray mass, where intelligent nanomachines reign.

 No clear-thinking person supports the group’s use of violence.  But at the same time, there are many nonscientists who are suspicious of the motivations that underlie much of scientific research.  One need only look at the recent news to understand the source of that distrust:  just this week, the Presidential Panel for the Study of Bioethical Issues released a report detailing atrocities commited by American scientists in the 1940’s that involved the nonconsensual infection of some 1300 Guatemalans with syphilis, gonorrhea, or chancroid.  There are many other examples where scientists have engaged in questionable practices with a secrecy that is counter to the very precepts of scientific investigation. 

“Nanotechnology” is a wonderful set of technologies that have already found their way into more than 1000 commercial products being sold in the electronic, medical, cosmetics, and other markets.  But even though the use of nanotechnology is spreading, many remain concerned that it is unwise to allow it, even if they would not go so far as to bomb the scientists working on the technology.  Here I find myself sympathetic with the real message that Prince Charles was attempting to spread — namely, that the concerns of the nonscientist public need to be addressed, even if those concerns seem to be ill-conceived.

Embers of the Dead

The very thought that a man could do it to his own family is horrific.  And yet we know there are people like that.  Twisted and cruel, without respect for the true dignity of human life.  Such men deserve to be punished, and many think that only the ultimate punishment of death is fitting when evidence of the horror is so plain. 

What could really go through a man’s head as he takes charcoal starter fluid and spreads it within his home?  Spreads it especially near his children’s bedroom and near the front door so that when he ignites it it will be that much more difficult to rescue the children being burned alive inside? 

There was no one with Cameron Todd Willingham in his home to see him spreading the starter fluid, but there was evidence that he had done so, and this evidence was considered at his trial.  Char patterns on the floor in multiple spots in the shape of puddles.  Melting of the aluminum threshold at the front door that was a morbid reminder of the extreme heat generated.  The presence of crazed glass that confirmed the extreme heat of the fire.  All of these were things that arson science said were  characteristics of fires started deliberately with the use of accelerants. 

The science just happened to be wrong.

 Although the National Fire Protection Association published a seminal report as early as 1992 that dispelled much of what had been thought to be understood about the science of arson detection, it has taken many years for those conclusions to become accepted.  The fact is, though, that many of the earmarks that arson investigators confidently believed to be conclusive evidence of arson are, in fact, also caused from accidental fires. 

Willingham was convicted of murder and executed by lethal injection by the State of Texas on February 17, 2004.  Last year, the New Yorker published an article by David Grann that examined the evidence in light of modern understanding of arson science, concluding that there was no evidence for arson that can be sustained under modern critical examination.  His full article can be read here

To be sure, there was other evidence considered at Willingham’s trial in addition to the forensic arson evidence that pointed to his guilt, but the conclusions of the arson investigators were a substantial factor in his conviction.  So much so that the modern understanding of what was found at his home is undeniably sufficient to raise a “reasonable doubt” whether he was guilty of the crime for which he was executed. 

Many are concerned that this case is just a hint of a gross injustice that has been inflicted on many men.  Flawed arson science has been applied in at least hundreds of cases and probably thousands of cases so that it seems likely at least some of those convicted were, in fact, innocent. 

In discussions about the legitimacy of the capital punishment, one of the arguments that those opposed frequently make is that  the death penalty is final; there is no way to correct an error if it is later discovered and at least restore a portion of life to the person convicted.  This argument is very often dismissed.  Surely, the counter-argument goes, there are cases where the evidence is so strong that there can be no doubt at all the person is guilty.  Those are the cases in which it should be applied, proponents say.  After all, those accused are given many, many opportunities to refute the evidence against them, so much so that the appeals of their convictions routinely take a decade or more.  Indeed, in the case of Kansas v. Marsh in 2006, Justice Scalia dismissed criticism of the death penalty in the United States as coming from “sanctimonious … finger-waggers” and suggests that there has not in recent years been “a single case — not one — in which it is clear that a person was executed for a crime he did not commit.” 

But there was that level of certainty in the Willingham case, seemingly backed by the best scientific understanding of those who examined the evidence.  And still the conclusion seems to have been wrong.  Last month, the Texas Forensic Science Commission acknowledged in a preliminary report that there were flaws in the arson evidence that was used in the case.  But the controversy has not ended.  The Commission’s founding chairman, Samuel Bassett, was removed from that position in an abrupt move by the governor of Texas, Rick Perry.  In a memorandum to the Commission publicized in the last few days, Bassett has urged that the investigation into flawed arson science be expanded:  How long has such flawed science been applied?  Did the Fire Marshall’s Office wait too long in adopting more modern scientific standards? 

These are not questions whose answers we should fear.  Indeed, answering them is critical to moving forwards in a positive way.