Lawrence Lessig: Should science tell the truth? You’d think that question would need no answer. But in the vortex known as Washington, DC, the obvious too often gets bent.
Consider the debate raging through the fledgling field of nanotechnology, the manipulation of matter at the atomic level. Nanotech was born in 1959 with a speculation at Caltech by Nobel Prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman that tiny things could be engineered to build big things; manufacturing, Feynman hinted, could be molecular. In 1986, Eric Drexler turned that speculation into a book, Engines of Creation, and then six years later, an MIT dissertation. Researchers began to consider what could be made if tiny machines were doing the making, and soon nanotech became the next great thing. (Full disclosure: I’m an unpaid advisory board member of the Foresight Institute, a nanotech educational nonprofit cofounded by Drexler.) In January 2000, Bill Clinton went to Caltech to launch the National Nanotechnology Initiative – a promise of billions from the federal treasury to find ways to make nanofleas dance.
Three months later, however, Bill Joy poured a bit of terror on Feynman’s idea. In an article published in these pages (“Why the Future Doesn’t Need Us,” Wired 8.04) Joy linked nanotech with other sciences that scientists shouldn’t pursue. A hypothetical self-replicating substance called gray goo, Joy warned, and nanobots (atom-sized machines that could assemble molecules) would be too much for society to manage. He concluded that we must “limit development of the technologies that are too dangerous by limiting our pursuit of certain kinds of knowledge.”
Suddenly, nanotech replaced Y2K as the nightmare du jour.