Now let's take a look at the dark side of advanced nanotechnology. This is the question posed by our recommended study #26: "What are the disaster/disruption scenarios?"
(Note: We're not entirely dystopian -- see our earlier post on nano benefits.)
This disaster/disruption topic is part of the third segment of CRN's thirty essential studies, on "Policies and Policymaking". Recommended in-depth studies in this section assume the existence of a general-purpose molecular manufacturing system. All preliminary answers are based on diamondoid nanofactory technology.
Determine which of the following scenarios are plausible, and if so, whether they are survivable or preventable.
Subquestion A: Massive war?
Preliminary answer: Highly plausible. A nano arms race appears almost inevitable, and would probably be unstable as discussed in the military capabilities study (#20).
A nano-enabled war would probably be lethal to many civilians. As pointed out by Tom McCarthy, "Military planners will seek a target that is large enough to find and hit, and that cannot be easily replaced. The natural choice, given the circumstances, will be civilian populations." Both full-scale war and unconventional/terroristic war will target civilians, who will be nearly impossible to defend without major lifestyle changes. It would be easy to deploy enough antipersonnel weapons to make the earth unsurvivable by unprotected humans.
Subquestion B: Economic meltdown?
Preliminary answer: It's easy to imagine a nanofactory package that allows completely self-sufficient living, off grid and without money, while retaining modern first-world comfort levels. However, a modest amount of advertising would make this unattractive to most people.
As discussed elsewhere, we can expect a large fraction of jobs in a wide range of areas related to manufacturing, extraction, and supply to disappear. This problem is already appearing with increased automation and efficiency, but could rapidly get worse.
The factors that lead to economic meltdown also provide increased self-sufficiency, so it ought to be survivable in the absence of oppressive policy (maintaining artificial scarcity while removing sources of income). Secondary effects from social disruption may be problematic but ought to be survivable.
Attempts to subsidize dead-end jobs will probably be harmful in the long run. Some amount of economic disruption should be expected. Social engineering to reduce the stigma of unemployment (why should unearned income be good for the rich and bad for the poor?) and policy to allow displaced workers to share in the benefits of the new technology will be helpful.
Subquestion C: Runaway self-replication?
Preliminary answer: Also known as the 'gray goo' scenario, this is perhaps the earliest and most famous concern related to molecular manufacturing. Contrary to early statements by Drexler, this could not happen accidentally; manufacturing systems, even early lab versions, will not remotely have the capability to become self-contained free-range self-replicators. However, the deliberate combination of a very small nanofactory, a very small chemical plant to convert organic chemicals into feedstock, and some robotics, could be a substantial nuisance or even threat. Eventually, the technology will develop to the point where it will be easy to make a device that requires active cleanup to avoid widespread environmental damage. The prevalence of computer viruses implies that creating such devices will be attractive to certain personality types, and eventually within their capability.
So, although runaway self-replication is not a first-rank concern, eventually it will need to be studied, and some combination of prevention and cleanup capability probably will have to be implemented. In theory, this could pose an existential threat.
Subquestion D: Dangerous software?
Preliminary answer: An arms race (either military or corporate—in fact, conducted by any organization) could involve the development of increasingly capable AIs for the purpose of manipulating or coercing people. Note that this does not require full general intelligence. A variety of manipulative techniques (on either human psychology or other complex systems) can be imagined using only specialized data-processing.
Some theorists believe that a self-improving AI could pose an existential threat: almost any command would cause unexpected and massively disruptive side effects. We do not know whether this is plausible. But nanotech development will certainly be an enabling technology for powerful AI, though we may face this problem even before nanotech is developed. Robert Freitas cites some of these concerns going back decades in Kinematic Self-Replicating Machines. Already, enough infrastructure is computer-controlled to make a cyberspace attack potentially very destructive. As more products become computer-integrated, a software attack could shut down, damage, or subvert increasingly crucial functions.
The variety of possible impacts on human psychology, computer-integrated infrastructure, and other systems (e.g. the effect of computer trading on the stock market) implies that this whole area should be extensively and creatively studied.
Subquestion E: Moral or social meltdown?
Preliminary answer: The availability of new products and lifestyles may cause disruption in social fabric, especially in conservative societies that may actively resist change. This may inspire a backlash, possibly including force. It is likely to destroy some cultures. Broader effects are unknown.
Subquestion F: Environmental devastation by overproduction?
Preliminary answer: It would be easy to build enough nano-litter to cause serious pollution problems. Small nano-built devices in particular will be difficult to collect after use. It will also be easy to consume enough energy to change microclimate and even global climate.
Overpopulation is probably not a concern, even in the event of extreme life/health extension. The more people use high technology, the fewer children they seem to have.
Provisional conclusion: Several plausible disaster scenarios appear to pose existential threats to the human race.
Our initial basic findings (preliminary answers and provisional conclusions) for all thirty studies should be verified as rapidly as possible. Because our understanding points to a crisis, a parallel process of conducting these studies is strongly preferred.
We are actively looking for researchers who have an interest in performing or assisting with this work. Please contact CRN Research Director Chris Phoenix if you would like more information or if you have comments on the proposed studies.