Ramez Naam's debut novel Nexus is a superbly plotted high-tension technothriller about a War-on-Drugs-style crackdown on brain/computer interfaces. Kaden and his friends are Bay Area grad students who've hacked Nexus 3, a recreational party drug that nano-infests its users brains and makes them weakly telepathic while they dance the night away. What Kaden and his fellow bio-hackers do is build a Turing-complete virtual machine on top of this platform, port a lightweight version of GNU/Linux (or fictional analog) to it, and start running software on their own minds, arranging for strongly telepathic, hive-mind-style linkups.
This turns out to be a completely prohibited activity in the USA, where enforcement of a convention against posthuman and transhuman enhancement has spawned a DHS-on-steroids (heh) that can render its arrestees to internment camps without trial. The enforcement apparatus is nominally aimed at fighting neuroslavery, ghastly human trafficked sexbots, and apocalyptic cults whose followers are infected with god-viruses that make them worship the leaders as messiahs and render them pliant to their will. But the convention doesn't distinguish between hackers who conduct legitimate scientific inquiry and slavers and terrorists. Any advance in this sort of technology represents an existential threat to the human race, and it is not permitted, period.
Nexus tells the story of Kaden's kidnapping and blackmailing by the anti-trafficking enforcement side, who have the power of life and death over his friends and their wider circle of pals/experimental subjects. He is turned into an intelligence asset, charged with militarizing his research, and sent to entrap one of China's leading neuroscientists.
What follows is a beautifully plotted thriller, one that is full of delicious, thoughtful moral ambiguity. The power and cost of technology is thoroughly examined, turned over and peered at from every angle, and even the worst bad guys have at least a colorable claim on our sympathy at one moment or another. Naam is a hacker-turned-futurist who's run a nanotech startup, so the nerdly stuff all has the ring of truth. This is combined with excellent spycraft, kick-ass action scenes, and a chilling look at a future cold war over technology and ideology, making a hell of a read.
Yesterday, Craig Cormick—the public awareness manager at Australia's Department of Innovation, Industry, Science and Research, and the person who invited me to the 6th Science Center World Congress—leaned over during a conference session and showed me this story on his blackberry. I had to double check and make sure it wasn't a sketchy email forward.
But the truth is that, sometimes, anti-science sentiment coalesces into violent attacks on scientists themselves. That's happened to researchers who work with animal models in the United States. And it's also happening to researchers around the world who are working with nanotechnology. The threat seems to be particularly prevalent in Mexico. In manifestos, the terrorists have said that they're attempting to prevent scientists from inventing self-replicating nanobots that could turn the entire world into "grey goo."
Nanotechnology was singled out as a target for the attacks in manifestos posted on the Web by the group behind the bombs, which calls itself "Individualities Tending Toward Savagery." It has been linked to attacks in France, Spain, and Chile, and to a bomb sent earlier this year to a scientist at another Mexican university who specializes in nanotech. An analyst who helped identify the Unabomber—who turned out to be a former professor—says the posts show signs of someone well-educated who could be affiliated with a college.
The new group's latest package exploded in an office on the campus of the Monterrey Institute of Technology and Higher Education, outside of Mexico City, in early August. The blast wounded its intended target, Armando Herrera Corral, director of a technology-transfer center, which the group's manifesto said is key to the university's plan to promote research projects that "are relevant for the progress of nanobioindustry within the country." The explosion also wounded a nearby colleague, Alejandro Aceves López, director of the university's graduate school of engineering and science.
In the group's online post (written in Spanish) claiming credit for the latest bombing, the terrorists complained about the growing number of nanotechnology experts in Mexico, which it estimated at 650. "The ever more rapid acceleration of this technology will lead to the creation of nanocyborgs that can self-replicate automatically without the help of a human," it said.
While it's entirely possible that this "group" is actually one dude (in the gender-neutral sense of "dude"), I still think it's appropriate to use the label of "terrorism." When you carry out violent acts against non-combatants in an effort to scare a broad category of people or political entities into doing what you want, I think that counts as terrorism. That's a bit of a broad definition, and imperfect. But you get the idea. This, to me, goes well beyond simple "violent crime."