Report from the Nanotechnology Lecture

Today I would like to look at some of the issues raised at the Nanotechnology lecture that I posted about last week.

The lecture was delivered by Michael Bruch, head of Research and Design of Allianz insurance company. He brought up some interesting points about nanotechnology and its production.

One problem that he raised is that we do not really know how much nanotech we are surrounded by as products containing engineered nano-particles do not have to be labeled.

Many cosmetics, sun creams and sports related products use the technique, but also food manufacturers, so it is really difficult to understand how much exposure we have to these particles. Scratch resistant paint and darkened windscreens are already here, but self repairing paint is also under trial, as is paint that changes colour.

Another problem is that their manufacturing processes are practically unregulated. Most of these materials are produced by small companies that have little or no safety procedures. And it is unclear what type of procedures would be of use.

This is because it is unclear how exposure affects the human body. These particles can enter the body in various ways, and have the capability of passing directly from the blood to the brain. This means that they can be used for medical cures such as in fighting cancer, but also that once in your body they can transfer everywhere.

Nanotechnology Lecture Panel - Jonny Hankins

The panel of speakers

Recent studies have found that exposure to nano carbon tubes does affect the heart in mice however, and similarities are drawn with asbestos as many of the fibres look similar. One complicating factor however is that materials used on a nano scale have different properties, so something that is inert such as gold might be toxic at nano scale or the other way round.

Further problems arise when we think about end of life treatment. Much of the expert knowledge is not passed down the line to those responsible for disposal of these products, so they may not be treated correctly when it comes to recycling or destroying them.

All of the above means that the nanotech industry brings with it an enormous amount of risk. Health risks are easy to see, but also environmental risks. We do not know how much is released into the atmosphere today, nor whether there will be industrial accidents and what their effects might be.

Regulation is difficult to draw up however as terms and definitions have not been agreed upon. Voluntary codes seem to be the only attempt at implementing some form of standardization.

What is safe to say is that this technology is certainly changing our lives, but that as it is developing so quickly little is known about how to treat it or the consequences it might bring.

I made a speech myself, the outline of which is below. Thanks to everyone who watched via streaming, the photos were taken from the live stream by Christopher.

Jonny Hankins nanotechnology lecture

Me at the lecture

Comment by J Hankins of the Bassetti Foundation at the Bocconi University in Milan.

I would agree with previous comments that there is definitely a role to play for insurers in innovation.

I would also argue that the lecture Dr Bruch has just delivered is not only about innovation, but also about responsibility and obligation.

Innovation is a complex phenomenon combining science, technology, finance, management, enterprise and organizations to achieve a goal that is not only scientific but also entrepreneurial and political. The ultimate use of any results will be outside science, even though they greatly need the contribution of science, in what is by definition a continuous process.

Taken literally, innovation is something that comes about when an advance in knowledge, which is a result of a discovery, is accompanied by and combined with technology, and the power to put that advancement into practice (capital). It is not simply discovery. It is something more than that. It is part of a new historical situation arising from a combination of knowledge, technology, know-how, and the risks/opportunities developed and implemented by business or other powers. That is, it is something that was not there before and which has come about through a “new” combination of knowledge and power, bringing change into the social world. This change is appropriated, negotiated, lived through, or fought, by people – whether as citizens or as consumers.

Innovation, however, is also creativity, which necessarily implies unforeseeable change. It implies increased risk/opportunity and social power. It leads to unpredictability in the socio-political field (new institutions, types of relationship, of production, of war, and new powers), in the technical and economic realms (new materials, sources of energy, tools and categories of goods), and the cultural-aesthetic field (new styles, fashions, tastes and habits).

If we look at the interest that governments currently show in nanotechnology development this relationship to power becomes easier to see. As an agent of change, risk is intrinsic to all innovation, and I would argue that it should be carried out responsibly.

The development of nanotechnology in some ways exemplifies the problem of responsibility in innovation perfectly. As we have seen in Dr Bruch’s lecture, developments in the medical field offer new treatments for cancer, in engineering we are seeing ever lighter and stronger construction materials, and these advances will continue to ever more change the way we live and our surroundings.

But as stated, these developments are not without risk, and risk requires responsibility to be taken.

It is the entire process of innovation that must be responsible through the actions of all involved in it, in all of their different roles. It would help to have a societal understanding and a political framework in place for collaborative deliberation and for a collective capacity to rethink the fundamentals of our own premises and assumptions as we go along, changing the world we live in.

I would argue that Dr Bruch’s presentation can be seen as a call for responsible innovation in its entirety. In some ways he is saying that a company can only insure you if you play your part, as the innovator you must be transparent and thorough. But the cover is also reliant upon other actors. The consumer must be educated and informed so that when they purchase something they do it knowingly. This requires reliable information on the part of the media as well as an absence of political manoeuvring. The regulator figure is also necessary, as they must inform and orchestrate the communication that underlies their decision making and intervention.

The fact that insurance cover is seen as necessary before investment means that companies that cannot find insurance cover have difficulty securing funding for their products. This puts the insurance companies in an interesting position, as they have a direct influence on the innovation process. In some ways they become the gatekeeper, allowing those that display best practices to pass, and those who may not demonstrate an appreciation of the consequences of their work may find finance difficult.

If we look at the risk analysis in Dr Bruch’s lecture we find that it is necessarily very widely drawn, sometimes even vague as the spectrum of possible effects is large and the time scale immeasurable. This does not mean however that it is not important or should be overlooked however.

If we have no loss history, as in the case of nanotechnology, how can we measure the risk involved? Can we gain foresight? Can we use the experience of the insurance industry to create an algorithm for future risk that is not based on case history. If so could we in fact do the same for responsibility?

The examples of needs and obligations given in Dr Bruch’s lecture are not only applicable to nanotechnology however. The process required for the adequate testing of exposure levels, medical studies, political decisions, the drawing up of regulation and its implementation are present throughout society. We cannot believe that ad-hoc regulation is an answer, because by definition it can only be implemented late on in the innovation process, when the factors that may be foreseeable have been measured, standardized and formalized, and we should remember that many other factors that are more difficult to see will also play their part.

Regulation is necessary, but if we accept that it can only appear late in the innovation process it cannot be the basis for our goal. The innovation process itself must be imbued with responsibility, its design and implementation must try to take implications for the future of present actions into account.

As Dr Bruch mentioned perceptual risk is also an issue that needs to be addressed. Here we move into the political arena, an arena that should certainly not be overlooked given the influence of national, international and global politics in nanotechnology. The management of the perception of risk is as real as the management of risk itself, as perception affects decision-making.

If I could raise some questions to the audience I would like to think more about ‘stewardship’, the responsibility insurance companies hold in granting cover to operators in the nanotech industry and how a premium can be calculated in the face of such uncertainty and indeterminacy.

Nanotechnology Lecture Invitation

On Tuesday I am participating in a lecture about nanotechnology at the Bocconi University in Milan.

Nanotechnology Lecture Poster

Nanotechnology Lecture Poster

This is not a subject that is new to this website as a quick search demonstrates. In May of 2011 Hayley asked the question of whether nanotechnology research is safe. It is a well written and commented post that raises some critical questions about the ethics and practices surrounding technology that is already changing our lives and has incredible potential in many walks of life.

Hayley continued her thread in January of this year with an article about nanobots, the future of nanotechnology. Here she describes the bottom up approach that the technology is taking on, underlining the importance of self replication.

In March I followed up on these articles with a post about how nanotechnology procedures are regulated, based upon the National Research Council’s report of the same month. Many similar issues are raised in the report about environmental damage, possible risks to health and governance.

On a lighter note in April I posted about nano-art and again in May about how nanotechnology is making waterproof electronics a reality.

So all of this leads me on to Tuesday’s lecture. The main speaker is Michael Bruch, the Head of R&D and Risk Consulting at Allianz Global Corporate (the insurance company). He is going to talk about the role of insurance in innovative technologies, with a focus upon nanotechnology.

If we read the articles linked above we understand that this research is fraught with risk, and so development companies have to take out insurance against losses, but how can the level of risk be calculated with such an unknown and potentially powerful product? What might the implications be for the global financial system if something goes catastrophically wrong?

Well if anybody can tell you Mr Bruch can.

The proceedings will be streamed live through the Bassetti Foundation website, but I am travelling half way round the world to be there in person. It will also be available later on podcast, and I think will be a very interesting debate.

I will let you know next week how it all goes. Invitation enclosed.

Hurricanes, Natural Disasters and Science

EDITOR NOTE: Congratulations to Jonny, this is his 50th post on Technology Bloggers! Feel free to thank him for his fantastic contribution to the blog with a comment 🙂 – note by Christopher

This is my 50th post and I am very pleased, so once again I would like to try to propose something a little different.

This week I have experienced my second hurricane, Sandy passed through Boston where I currently reside, tearing up trees, bringing down power lines and bucketing tons of water upon us. The disaster seen in New York was not replicated here, but we are still in a state of emergency with millions of people without power.

One interesting aspect about the whole affair was watching the state prepare for something that it could not really fully understand. The authorities did not know where the hurricane would hit land, or how much damage it would do. They had to rely on scientists’ models and experience to make plans and try to save lives and limit damage.

Car crushed outside

A car crushed by a fallen tree on our street

Which all brings me on to the topic for today’s post, scientific advice.

Another disaster is in the news this week from my other home country, Italy. 6 of Italy’s leading scientists and one ex government official have received prison terms for offering falsely reassuring advice immediately before the 2009 Aquila earthquake. They were each found guilty on multiple counts of manslaughter after more than 300 people died in the catastrophe. The BBC has a short article on the proceedings and sentence here.

All members of the National Commission for the Forecast and Prevention of Major Risks, they were accused of having provided “inaccurate, incomplete and contradictory” information about the danger of the tremors felt ahead of the quake. There had been a series of smaller tremors in the weeks and months preceding the larger one on 6th April, but the Commission had suggested that this did not mean that a larger quake was on its way.

They were wrong however, but many members of the scientific community have come to their defense, stating that earthquakes are inherently unpredictable, technology does not allow accurate prediction, and that a series of tremors such as those seen in Aquila only lead to a major quake on about 1% of occasions.

The Scientists found guilty are amongst the most respected geologists and seismologists in Italy, and this leads me to ask several questions. Who can we ask for advice in order to prepare for disasters if the best scientists are not able to provide the answers? What effect will this ruling have upon the scientific community and their willingness to give advice on such matters? Can we hold scientists responsible for such events? What effect does politics have on their decision making and advice to the public?

Here during hurricane Sandy several local government officials were criticized for not implementing evacuation procedures that were called for by central government upon advice given by scientists, and I would ask if the fact that there was loss of life might have been avoided. We all knew it was coming!

These points above could also be made about other problems, the obvious one being climate change. There are several articles on this website that address this issue including my own ‘Health of the Planet‘ series, but once more the entire subject is bogged down with political versus scientific arguments.

We are talking about risk here, and risk is not an easy thing to assess or to communicate. The Aquila scientists may argue that the 1% risk is minimal after a series of smaller shocks, but the risk may also be greatly magnified from a starting point of no shocks. A great deal is in the phrasing, and phrasing may be political.

Last year, here in Cambridge Massachusetts, I interviewed our local Congressman, Michael Capuano on the problems of making political decisions regarding science, and you can see a transcription here if you like. It makes for interesting reading.