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Guest Writer - Gastautor - Gast Schrijver

My Position on Nanotech
Administrative Policy


This position on nanotechnology was formulated in response to questions posed on the Responsible Nanotechnology blog. See also my page on the dangers of nanotechnology.

How soon should nanotechnology be developed?

In an ideal situation, development of nanotechology would be delayed until the arrival of persons more intelligent, wise, and compassionate than human beings. I'm not talking about extraterrestrials, but human beings whose brains have been physically changed, through careful application of neurosurgery, with the criteria of intelligence, wisdom, and compassion in mind. Alternatively, the first person more intelligent and kind than a human being might be made up of silicon transistors or diamondoid logic gates rather than neurons and proteins (Artificial Intelligence), although some may consider that possibility less likely.

Humans lack the emotional stability, the rationality, the intelligence, and the compassion to handle nuclear weapons safely, never mind millions of full-fledged nanofactories. Our Pleistocene psychologies are built to handle combat with sticks and rocks, not missiles and rifles, and certainly not any weapon built by a nanofactory. Developing and applying nanotechnology with the cooperation of smarter-than-human allies is the only feasible long-term solution, regardless of our estimates of the relative technological feasibility of the two. Having said all that, I don't think that a global moratorium on nanotechnology is a realistic option to argue for. However, it may be possible for researchers to selectively accelerate desirable applications of nanotechnology while decelerating potentially dangerous applications.

It is our responsibility, as persons aware of the policy issues of molecular manufacturing, to maximize the likelihood that nanotech is first developed by an entity willing and able to accelerate desirable applications and decelerate dangerous ones. If such entities exist, then it would be ideal that they develop nanotechnology as quickly as possible, and use their technological advantage to encourage positive applications while ethically discouraging negative applications. If no such entities exist, they must be created - and fast. The time is nearing to turn from discussion to action. We've analyzed the issues, alerted tens or hundreds of thousands of people about their great importance, but the inherent timescales operating here demand that we take concrete action before it is too late, and that action entails exerting direct influence over who develops nanofactories first.

But before we drop our essay-writing and feasibility debates and rush to our CAD programs and STMs, it is definitely worth pointing out that discussing the risks of nanotechnology in public fora, as CRN has done, can help one gain contacts, and improve one's overall ability to influence who acquires nanotechnology first. But this influence is negligible compared to the influence one could have if they were an actual member of the research team that creates the first programmable nano-assembler. (It is possible that such a person is reading these words right now.)

By whom?

As stated above, I would prefer that nanotechnology is developed with the assistance of compassionate smarter-than-human intelligences rather than by mere human beings. We currently possess vision-amplifiers (microscopes), calculation and visualization amplifiers (computer software and displays), dexterity-amplifiers (piezoelectric crystals), but we lack effective intelligence and empathy amplifiers. The cognitive circuitry underlying the functions of intelligence and empathy are more complicated than what underlies the functions of vision, calculation, or visualization. But it seems extremely dangerous to proceed without these necessary qualities being amplified within us, no matter the technological difficulty. It seems that the wisest distribution of resources would include projects designed specifically to enhance human intelligence/kindness or create AIs with human-surpassing intelligence/kindness. We need minds with a similar maturity advantage over human adults as adults have over toddlers, or moreso.

But again, this might not be feasible in the near term. We might be constrained to choose a set of people from the subspecies Homo sapiens. Which human beings are eligible to manage and distribute a technology that rivals the power of magic from fantasy novels? Certainly not any government or large corporation I know of. Human governments and large corporations have very poor track records in responsible use of power. Communication between preexisting world powers is hampered by political baggage, the continuous reshuffling of elected officials, and the regular shifting of the global power structure. Plus, the integrity of the leaders of the world powers is highly questionable, as is their familarity with the policy questions behind nanotechnology. I doubt that any military general or Head of State anywhere in the world is familiar with the technical basics behind nanotechnology. Serious thought about safe administration of self-replicating nanofactories is totally out of the question for those unfamiliar with the basics.

CRN's dream of unifying a hyper-cooperative international body of preexisting governments to develop and administer nanofactories is completely out of the question, as far as I can tell. This goal is one to be accomplished in decades or centuries, not 5-10 years. Widespread understanding of the risk of nanotechnology could improve the situation, but few people will understand until nanofactories are already distributed to millions. Notice I say few people - not no people. There are those aware of the risks, those who have thought about the issues at great length, in addition to possessing the technical knowledge to make actual headway towards the goal. But they number in the hundreds or dozens, not thousands or millions, and lack the present-day power of governments and large corporations. But what if the inventors of the first nanofactories were non-governmental, non-corporate scientists and researchers? It might be possible for them to use the technology to bootstrap an effective administrative infrastructure without requiring the cooperation of governments or large corporations. Amazingly, this might actually make it possible for the integrity and awareness standards for top-level nanofactory administrators to be met, in the near term of 5-10 years rather than at some point in the indefinite future.

Notice that I say "might". Nanotechnology might initially be developed by an unscrupulous research team, which could then go on to apply the technology in destructive or reckless ways. But there is also the possibility that it could be developed by an ethical, non-governmental research team with high ethical standards, adequate knowledge of administrative options, and a professional paranoia absent in the leaders of world governments, corporations, and militaries. In the latter case, a dedicated, small team of nano-engineers would have the task of bootstrapping an administrative infrastructure that 1) ensures the benefits of nanotechnology are widely available, 2) prevents the development of unrestricted nanofactories, 3) restricts the synthesis of dangerous products. In addition, these objectives must be accomplished before another entity develops unrestricted nanofactories with the ability to construct life-threatening or species-threatening products. The desirable deadline for this goal would ideally be one year, at most two years, after the initial development of nanofactories.

The Center for Responsible Nanotechnology is a non-profit run by transhumanists Mike Treder and Chris Phoenix. To become better informed about these important issues, I suggest you read their entire website and formulate your own opinion on the matter of nanotechnology administrative policy.

Copyright © 2004 Michael Anissimov

Michael Anissimov

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