If molecular manufacturing has to be controlled, how much of society needs to be controlled to accomplish that?
A few days ago, I wrote an article implying that liberty in the U.S. may be at risk due to an ongoing state of near-war. I quoted Aldous Huxley: “Permanent crisis justifies permanent control of everybody and everything by the agencies of the central government.”
A commenter asked: “I wonder, however. Considering the rather draconian measures you believe would be required to control nanotechnology, do you think this is a bad thing?”
First, let me clarify (for any new readers) that “nanotechnology” here is used to mean molecular manufacturing—its original meaning—not all the newer stuff that has been grafted onto the word, such as nanoparticles. No one is suggesting that nanoparticles might need draconian control measures—though some kinds of nanoparticles might need a bit more control than they’re currently getting.
So, molecular manufacturing: tiny nanotech machines, made out of precisely designed molecules, that can rapidly build more machines of equivalent precision and complexity. A manufacturing revolution: general-purpose manufacturing, using non-scarce equipment, of inexpensive and highly advanced products. And the manufacturing systems could be small, easily concealed, easily duplicated—very difficult to control, if an unrestricted system was ever in civilian hands.
Pretty revolutionary—which means disruptive—which means potentially destructive. So, does it require draconian control measures?
There is some argument that it should simply be allowed to be developed with minimal controls, in the expectation that the good will outweigh the bad, and problems will be outweighed by solutions. In my more optimistic moments, I have a lot of sympathy for this viewpoint. Computers have developed pretty much that way, and we—and our infrastructure and society—have so far managed to survive computer viruses, spam, and data-mining. On the other hand, if a computer virus could kill a person instead of just erasing their data, we might be a lot less sanguine.
If molecular manufacturing has to be controlled, how much of society needs to be controlled to accomplish that? The good news is that not much broad-based control may be required. In other words, it may be sufficient to keep control of a few key technological capabilities, to make it difficult or impossible for a private effort to develop molecular manufacturing until technology has advanced to the point that molecular manufacturing is no longer a big deal.
There may, of course, be paths to molecular manufacturing that, once conceptualized, turn out to be fairly simple recipes, accessible with technologies that are already widespread. That would be problematic. But without sophisticated tools and lots of R&D money, such recipes couldn’t be developed and tested.
I’m not yet ready to say that broad-based control of society to avoid technological evils is definitely unnecessary and will always continue to be unnecessary. But I do think (at this moment, at least) that in terms of potential harm to humans from private development of high tech, there are other technologies that loom a lot larger. And I think this will continue to be the case until the first advanced molecular manufacturing system is not only developed, but released to the public in unrestricted form.
If it turns out to be necessary to restrict molecular manufacturing, then either limits on its development or technological limits on its implementation may well be sufficient. I don’t see the need to restructure or oppress society to keep us safe from this technology.
My ideal future would have most of the limits be technological, and applied to limit the use of publicly available manufacturing systems. Technological limits would have to be carefully designed, because almost anything can be cracked given enough effort. But molecular manufacturing has enough potential for good that I’d like to see it available in some form that’s appropriately restricted but still broadly useful.