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« CRN on the Radio | Main | Nanomedicine, Vol. IIA »

May 01, 2004

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Mr. Farlops

I agree. Deterrence and surveillance aren't sufficient and can carry risks.

Deterrence can lead and has lead to arms races where each side attempts to gain the technological advantage. Even the best surveillance in the world often misses things in the noise of overwhelming and irrelevent data, for example the Cuban Missile Crisis and the fall of the Soviet Union.

The trick is to remove the obvious causes of discontent in the world and economic development with nanotechnology will help, but remember that some discontent and injustice don't stem from economic causes. Some are due to nationalism, power politics, racism and ideology. Examples of this might include Cyprus, the Israeli and Palestinian conflict and many others. Even if all the people Sudan were made prosperous and healthy with nanotechnology, there would still be autonomy, ideological and religious issues to settle between the Muslim North and the Traditional and Christian South.

And now that I think about it, we want to avoid the past failures of grand schemes for technological development of poor countries. One only has to think of all the rusting and abandoned factories in West Africa to realize that. This mustn't be imposed in an arbitrary, top-down kind of way otherwise we will have the nanotech equivalent of abandoned, crumbling roadways and abandoned power plants.

And still another thing that occurs to me is that even in countries which are rich and mostly stable, like the United States, there is still discontent powerful enough to drive some to terrorism. The Oklahoma City bombing, the attacks on abortion clinics and animal testing labs are proof of that.

Yes, economic development and better global living standards through nanotechnology will help a lot but not all discontent is economically based and won't cease to exist after this has happened. Although I guess that it will fall to levels were deterrence and surveillance will be sufficient.

Brett Bellmore

I believe that opening up the solar system to colonization will be a key factor in easing discontent. It will give people who just can't stand society the way it is someplace else to go.

Dale Carrico

Mr Farlops wrote:

"[R]emember that some discontent and injustice don't stem from economic causes. Some are due to nationalism, power politics, racism and ideology."

This is definitely true, and I don't want to create the mistaken impression that I am unaware of this --

Nevertheless, I think it is very easy to underestimate the legitimate sources of discontent and get a tad distracted by self-serving rationalizations that overgeneralize some of these other causes.

The key moment in the essay on this topic was:

"Criminals, fanatics and madmen are in fact a manageable minority in any culture (racist know-nothing slogans about a so-called "Clash of Civilizations" certainly notwithstanding), and although there is no question that Lessig's "Insanely Destructive Devices" could still do irreparable harm in their hands, it is profoundly misleading to focus on the threats posed by crazy and criminal minorities when it is as often as not the exploitation of legitimate social discontent that makes it possible for lone gunmen to recruit armies to their 'causes.'"

Your other point that "we want to avoid the past failures of grand schemes for technological development of poor countries" is also very important, and I tried to address that a little in emphasizing the way the much-maligned Precautionary Principle may provide a way to democratize developmental deliberation in another column "The Need for Fair Risk," which is also archived at BH. Of course, Mike and Chris talk about all of these things very eloquently and at greater length than I have elsewhere on the CRN site!

Karl Gallagher

One of the insights I took away from my history minor was that the combatants of WWI believed that technology had given an advantage to the offense over the defense and they acted accordingly by trying to be the first to strike. The machine gun had made the defense predominant but since no one at the top levels realized that it didn't affect their decisions.

That's why I worry when I read the discussions here assuming that nano-weapons will automatically provide an advantage to the offense. There's no real way to tell until they've been deployed, and governments act much more calmly when they think the defense is dominant. Let's keep that an open question instead of making an unfortunate assumption.

Chris Phoenix, CRN

Karl: if I understand right, you're saying that CRN's worries about arms races and first strikes could be a self-fulfilling prophecy, and if instead we said "Defense may well be stronger than offense" then we could promote a more calm and reasoned development of military capability.

Trouble is that as far as I can tell, offense really is dominant. There are so many possible ways to attack (types of weapons times number of dimensions in a complex system) that defense against attack will require far more effort than offense. In any case, prevention of attack will almost certainly be easier than defense. (Deterrence doesn't work against all groups. Prevention may look a lot like policing, assuming that a legitimate police force can be organized.)

If we were to say that defense will dominate, we might cut off policy discussion that will be badly needed if other thinkers decide that offense dominates and they should go on the attack.

Even if we leave it an open question, those who don't want to worry about tough issues will happily assume that defense will in fact dominate. (Look at the response to Freitas' Ecophagy paper. A lot of people think it says we'll have plenty of time to mount a defense against gray goo. CRN doesn't think gray goo is an urgent concern--but only by comparison with other nano risks! Eventually, if we survive long enough, we will presumably have to address it.) My point is that the outcome is different enough depending on whether offense or defense is stronger that we really can't afford unwarranted assumptions or people leaping to overly optimistic conclusions.

I'd been thinking that the responsible thing to do here was to point out the possibility of the worse case, so that people would be able to avoid it. But you've made me realize how important it is to get a preliminary finding on the question of offense vs. defense. We'll be making that a priority.

Chris

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