[Molecular Nanotechnology Guidelines]

IMM and Foresight Guidelines on Molecular Nanotechnology

Original Version 1.0: February 21, 1999
Revised Draft Version 3.7: June 4, 2000

© IMM and Foresight Institute. Do not publish draft without permission.




The term "Molecular Nanotechnology" (MNT) refers to the ability to program matter with molecular precision, and scale it to three-dimensional products of arbitrary size. This developing technology presents an unprecedented new set of technical and economic opportunities. The opportunities include: the development of inexpensive and abundant diamondoid building materials with a strength-to-weight ratio 50 times greater than titanium, the possibility of widespread material abundance for all the Earth's people, the development of revolutionary new techniques in medicine, and the opening of the space frontier for development. Along with these new capabilities come new risks, and new responsibilities. The acceptance of these responsibilities is not optional. The future capabilities of MNT also raise an unprecedented set of military, security and environmental issues. Dealing with these issues proactively will be critical to the positive development of the field.

The IMM and Foresight Guidelines were developed during and after a workshop on Molecular Nanotechnology (MNT) Research Policy Guidelines sponsored by the Foresight Institute and the Institute for Molecular Manufacturing (IMM). The workshop was conducted over the February 19-21, 1999, weekend in Monterey, California. Participants included: James Bennett, Greg Burch, K. Eric Drexler, Neil Jacobstein, Tanya Jones, Ralph Merkle, Mark Miller, Ed Niehaus, Pat Parker, Christine Peterson, Glenn Reynolds, and Philippe Van Nedervelde. The resulting Foresight Guidelines ("the Guidelines") include assumptions, principles, and some specific recommendations intended to provide a basis for responsible development of molecular nanotechnology.

Continued research and education are needed to create a shared understanding and sufficient knowledge base on the entire set of MNT development and risk management issues that must be addressed. While discussion of guidelines can begin today, the scientific and technical community will continue to evolve its understanding of the issues. The Guidelines have already changed over time to reflect that dynamic understanding and input by a wider community (see Background section).

Future discussions of this subject should include detailed consideration of the economic and environmental benefits of MNT, as well as the potential problems. In particular, the need for some controls should not prevent the responsible development of the technology. Rather than have reflexive, or poorly informed controls imposed upon the MNT R&D process, the developing MNT R&D community and industry should adopt appropriate self-imposed controls, formulated in light of current knowledge and the evolving state of the art. The possibility of the necessity for additional controls remains an open question, and its resolution may depend to some extent on the success of voluntary controls.

The NIH Guidelines on Recombinant DNA technology are an example of self-regulation taken by the biotechnology community almost 25 years ago. While the kind of artificial molecular machines of primary interest for nanotechnology are expected to be very different from the kind of biological systems covered by the NIH Guidelines (just as a 747 is very different from a sparrow, even though both fly), the NIH Guidelines illustrate that advance preparations are possible and can be effective. Those guidelines were so well accepted that the privately funded research community has continued to submit research protocols for juried review, in spite of the fact that it was optional for them to do so. In addition, although the NIH Guidelines have been progressively relaxed since they were first released, they did achieve their intended effect.

Experimenters and industry should have the maximum safe opportunities to develop and commercialize the molecular manufacturing industry. In addition, MNT should be developed in ways that make it possible to distribute the benefits of the technology to the four fifths of humanity currently desperate to achieve material wealth at any environmental or security cost. Providing technical abundance alone cannot make a people wealthy and secure. This also requires education, and social arrangements described as a high-trust, civil society. However, technological abundance can alleviate many of the conflicts that stem primarily from rivalry over resources. Reducing this specific cause of conflict via molecular manufacturing could make the world more secure than it is today. In addition, the release from bare economic subsistence could enable billions of people to take advantage of the emerging global classroom over the World Wide Web. This education effect could compound the positive environmental and security benefits of MNT.

Relevant ecological and public health principles must be utilized in conducting MNT R&D. Diamondoid products may not break down easily in the natural environment. Furthermore, consumers may not at first have means readily available to recycle them. Thus, total "product lifecycle" considerations should be taken into consideration as the MNT industry develops.

Effective means of restricting the misuse of MNT in the international arena need to be developed. Adding MNT to the list of technologies covered in Chemical, Biological and Nuclear Weapons treaties might seem appropriate, but it could lead to the unintended consequence that only the U.S. and other rule following nations would be at a competitive disadvantage economically and militarily. While most nations are likely to adhere to reasonable restrictions, guidelines that are viewed as too restrictive will simply be ignored, paradoxically increasing risk. While a 100% effective ban could, in theory, avoid the potential risks of nanotechnology, a 99.99% effective ban would result in development and deployment by the 0.01% that evaded and ignored the ban. There are reasonable arguments on both sides of the treaty question. However, at this time, the Guideline participants as a group do not endorse any specific initiative to address MNT safety and security concerns through treaty arrangements.

The safe development and use of MNT depends, in part, on the good judgment of the researchers carrying out this work. The more clearly this is recognized, the more effective researchers are likely to be in avoiding and actively preventing unsafe uses of MNT and in insuring that commercial systems have built-in safeguards. The "moral repugnance" associated with biological weapons may have attenuated their development and use, in spite of the fact that they are relatively easy to make and deploy.

Eventually, MNT policy will have to balance potential risks with known benefits, and distinguish between different classes of risks. Molecular Manufacturing and nanotechnology are not one thing, but rather a spectrum of technologies, with radically different risk profiles. A substantial R&D program is needed to clarify the nature, magnitude and likelihood of the potential risks, as well as the options available for dealing with them effectively.

There are significant risks associated with failing to address ongoing economic and environmental problems that the development of MNT could help resolve. The Guidelines were not intended to cover every risk or potential abuse of the technology. People still abuse automobiles, and society has responded both by making cars safer to operate, holding drivers accountable for their actions through laws that are enforced, and requiring drivers to pay for automobile insurance. Likewise, industry and governments are held responsible for their use of technologies that have widespread impact.

The Guidelines are intended to cover most of the risks associated with normal development and use of the technology, and to mitigate, as much as possible, the risks associated with potential abuse of the technology. Informed MNT policy could accelerate the safe development of peaceful and environmentally responsible uses of the technology. This includes capturing the opportunity to develop powerful new approaches to medicine, as well as energy efficient and zero emission manufacturing and transportation technologies.

Guidelines on Molecular Nanotechnology - Table of Contents



People who work in the MNT field should develop and utilize professional guidelines that are grounded in reliable technology, and knowledge of the environmental, security, ethical, and economic issues relevant to the development of MNT.

MNT includes a wide variety of technologies that have very different risk profiles. Access to the end products of MNT should be distinguished from access to the various forms of the underlying development technology. Access to MNT products should be unrestricted unless this access poses a risk to global security.

Accidental or willful misuse of MNT must be constrained by legal liability and, where appropriate, subject to criminal prosecution.

Governments, companies, and individuals who refuse or fail to follow responsible principles and guidelines for development and dissemination of MNT should, if possible, be placed at a competitive disadvantage with respect to access to MNT intellectual property, technology, and markets.

MNT device designs should incorporate provisions for built-in safety mechanisms, such as: 1) absolute dependence on a single artificial fuel source or artificial "vitamins" that don't exist in any natural environment; 2) making devices that are dependent on broadcast transmissions for replication or in some cases operation; 3) routing control signal paths throughout a device, so that subassemblies do not function independently; 4) programming termination dates into devices, and 5) other innovations in laboratory or device safety technology developed specifically to address the potential dangers of MNT. Further research is needed on MNT risk management, as well as the theory, mechanisms, and experimental designs for built-in safeguard systems.

The global community of nations and non-governmental organizations need to develop effective means of restricting the misuse of MNT. Such means should not restrict the development of peaceful applications of the technology or defensive measures by responsible members of the international community. Further research in this area is encouraged.

MNT research and development should be conducted with due regard to existing principles of ecological and public health. MNT products should be promoted which incorporate systems for minimizing negative ecological and public health impact.

Any specific regulation adopted by researchers, industry or government should provide specific, clear guidelines. Regulators should have specific and clear mandates, providing efficient and fair methods for identifying different classes of hazards and for carrying out inspection and enforcement. There is great value in seeking the minimum necessary legal environment to ensure the safe and secure development of this technology.

Development Principles

  1. Artificial replicators must not be capable of replication in a natural, uncontrolled environment.
  2. Evolution within the context of a self-replicating manufacturing system is discouraged.
  3. Any replicated information should be error free.
  4. MNT device designs should specifically limit proliferation and provide traceability of any replicating systems.
  5. Developers should attempt to consider systematically the environmental consequences of the technology, and to limit these consequences to intended effects. This requires significant research on environmental models, risk management, as well as the theory, mechanisms, and experimental designs for built-in safeguard systems.
  6. Industry self-regulation should be designed in whenever possible. Economic incentives could be provided through discounts on insurance policies for MNT development organizations that certify Guidelines compliance. Willingness to provide self-regulation should be one condition for access to advanced forms of the technology.
  7. Distribution of molecular manufacturing development capability should be restricted, whenever possible, to responsible actors that have agreed to use the Guidelines. No such restriction need apply to end products of the development process that satisfy the Guidelines.

Specific Design Guidelines

  1. Any self-replicating device which has sufficient onboard information to describe its own manufacture should encrypt it such that any replication error will randomize its blueprint.
  2. Encrypted MNT device instruction sets should be utilized to discourage irresponsible proliferation and piracy.
  3. Mutation (autonomous and otherwise) outside of sealed laboratory conditions, should be discouraged.
  4. Replication systems should generate audit trails.
  5. MNT device designs should incorporate provisions for built-in safety mechanisms, such as: 1) absolute dependence on a single artificial fuel source or artificial "vitamins" that don't exist in any natural environment; 2) making devices that are dependent on broadcast transmissions for replication or in some cases operation; 3) routing control signal paths throughout a device, so that subassemblies do not function independently; 4) programming termination dates into devices, and 5) other innovations in laboratory or device safety technology developed specifically to address the potential dangers of MNT.
  6. MNT developers should adopt systematic security measures to avoid unplanned distribution of their designs and technical capabilities.

Guidelines on Molecular Nanotechnology - Table of Contents



The idea of guidelines for the safe development of MNT (Molecular Nanotechnology) has been discussed within the Foresight community for over a decade. It is inevitable that any guidelines put forth today will be further discussed and perhaps substantively changed; but the dialog on specific proposals must begin somewhere.

In spite of the diversity of briefing materials and views represented at the Monterey workshop in February of 1999, the participants managed to discuss the technical and policy issues with both intensity and civility. While any one participant might have preferred more or less emphasis on a particular issue, the group was able to converge on a common set of draft guidelines for the development of MNT.

The group agreed to review the Guidelines among themselves, discuss them in wider Foresight meetings during 1999, and then release them on the WWW for review by the larger community. The goal was to get the Guidelines endorsed and adopted by organizations sponsoring MNT research and development projects, and to inspire effective self-regulation wherever necessary and possible.

Another goal of the Workshop members was to educate MNT researchers about the potential benefits and risks of the technology. The long-term goal was to eventually produce a dialog and set of Guidelines that would be useful to policy makers, the public, and the MNT research and development community.

The Foresight Guidelines were intended as a living document, subject to modification and revision. Early drafts have been reviewed and revised several times since the Monterey workshop, including during Foresight/IMM sponsored discussions led by Neil Jacobstein in May and November of 1999. They were also provided in the attachments to Ralph Merkle's June 1999 Congressional testimony on MNT, and referenced in Neil Jacobstein's presentation on Nanotechnology and Molecular Manufacturing: Opportunities and Risks at Stanford University's Colloquium for Doug Engelbart in January of 2000. The Workshop participants debated whether the Guidelines were sufficiently developed for widespread publication, when Bill Joy's article: "Why the Future Doesn't Need Us" was published in the April 2000 issue of Wired Magazine. This article raised public awareness of the potential dangers of self-replicating technologies, including nanotechnology.

Since that time, the Guidelines were reviewed critically by Robert Freitas, and revised by Ralph Merkle and Neil Jacobstein. Version 3.6 of the Guidelines was discussed in a May 2000 Foresight workshop session led by Neil Jacobstein. Bill Joy was invited to participate in this discussion. He made several constructive suggestions, including one that outlined a guideline on closing the economic incentives loop via an insurance policy requirement for developers. Jacobstein incorporated the feedback from this and subsequent discussions into version 3.7 of the Guidelines, and they were then published for open review on the web.

Version 3.7 of the Guidelines are available at the Foresight web URL: http://www.foresight.org/guidelines/ and at the IMM web URL http://www.imm.org/guidelines/. This text, like most web text, can be annotated using software called Crit, which enables in-line comments to be made using a web browser. Information about the use of Crit can be found at http://crit.org. We encourage your ideas and constructive criticism about how to improve the Guidelines.

Eventually, the Guidelines need to become sufficiently specific that they can form the basis for a legally enforceable framework within which MNT development can be safely pursued. Future versions of the MNT Guidelines might eventually be enforced via a variety of means, possibly including lab certifications, randomized open inspections, professional society guidelines and peer pressure, insurance requirements and policies, stiff legal and economic penalties for violations, and other sanctions. Enforcement will be inherently imperfect, but the deterrent effect of unpredictable inspection, combined with predictable and swift consequences for violations, may prove preferable to the available alternatives.

Care must be taken that future revisions of the Guidelines do not become so restrictive that they simply drive MNT research and development underground. This could expose compliant countries to the increased risks associated with decreased technical, economic, and military capabilities. It would also sacrifice the many significant economic, environmental, and medical benefits of MNT that counteract serious and certain risks that society now faces in industrialized countries and particularly in the developing world.

Guidelines on Molecular Nanotechnology - Table of Contents

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