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« Nanotechnology in Taiwan | Main | NAS to Review NNI »

December 19, 2004


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Brett Bellmore

Well, I read it. And two words came to mind:

"Dystopian nightmare".

Mike Deering

When MM first shows up, offense will be easier than defense. It will take a lot of research before defense catches up and surpasses offense. During this initial period anyone with unrestricted MM capability can, if they choose, destroy anyone else. For the same reasons that a bipolar nanotech arms race is unstable so would be unrestricted MM for the population. It would just be a 6 billion sided nanotech arms race.

The only survivable situation is for one authority to have complete control of nanotechnology and to prevent everyone else from independent development by banning all non-state technology beyond a certain very basic level (circa 1940). Of course, all non-state R&D would be illegal, but also all non-state high-tech industry would have to be shut down. It would be illegal for any but the state to build any type of precision machine or product.

This would prevent state run advanced technology activities in the areas of medical infrastructures, environmental rehabilitation, public communication and transportation, crime prevention. It would be a trivial effort for the state to provide all citizens a basic subsistence level of resources without stifling incentives to greater personal achievement.

The majority of the world population could continue or return to an agrarian lifestyle with the remainder involved in simple small scale manufacturing (blacksmithing, wood furniture making) and various other industries including service and entertainment.

All of these activities would be much more effective than in the past because of the integration of advanced technologies in a state controlled safe manner. Weather could be accurately predicted or controlled by the state for farmers, and GMO seeds could improve crop yields. Saw blades used in the wood shops could be diamondoid coated so they never dulled. Machine bearings would be perfectly sealed and last forever.

The medical establishment could maintain perfect health for everyone. All disease organisms: harmful bacteria, viruses, and parasites, could be eliminated from the environment.

Every child could get a good education and be assured of a safe and happy childhood free from extreme poverty, malnutrition, or abuse. All crime could easily be eliminated. Institutional, legal, or cultural discrimination based on race, religion, ethnic origin, or gender could be eliminated. Wars, plagues, and famines could be eliminated from the world for the first time in history.

It might not be as much fun as having your own spaceship with an all humanoid robotic crew who all look remarkably like Nicole Kidman, but I could live with it.

Mike Deering

"This would prevent state run advanced technology activities" should be "This would not prevent..."

Tom Craver

Mike: I suppose it depends on what you mean by "defense". If you mean things that slow or stop attacks, offense has had the upper hand since castles and armor went out of style. Much of what we call "defense" these days consists of being prepared to use the means of offense against anyone attempting to use them against us. We "defend" by being ready to shoot anyone coming after us with guns.

Daydreams of how great a single authority could make things are just that - maybe for a short time reality would look a little like your hopes and dreams. But before long, that single authority would turn from savior into oppressor, and with your 1940's technology there'd be nothing you could do about it.

This is a classic example of the world-fixer's trap - "Here's how I would fix things if I had all the power in the world. Oh, but I won't have it, will I? So we'll somehow arrange to give that power to someone or some group of people who are really qualified and just happen to want to implement exactly the plans I'd implement if I had the power. Problem solved!"

Brett Bellmore

Yup. I have never understood people who plan to pile up huge concentrations of power, and expect them to end up controlled by good people. That's generally NOT what happens in the real world. Heck, even in democracies, the upper leadership is generally pretty dispicable, and really, the only thing that moderates their behavior is the prospect of losing an election. And you have to have mechanisms in place, playing one person's greed for power against another, to keep them from just canceling the next election.

So, the obvious question is, what's to stop the people running this uber regulatory agency from becoming a dictatorship more thurough than any the world has ever seen before? One with such resources for survailance and control that we would NEVER escape it?

John B

1) This presupposes a single source of nanotech breakthrough.

2) This presupposes either significant foresight or instant reaction by the people working the issue to implement this solution from day one.

3) This also presupposes that a workable statement of 'nanotech safety' can be hammered out either without the tech to experiment on or awful damn quick as the tech comes to maturity. How much you wanna bet that the first nanotech 'oops' leads to a tremendous series of lawsuits, not just for restitution but also to stop such an 'inherently hazardous process until its safety can be properly proven' (translation - block development under Precautionary Principle tactics)?

In short, I think Brett almost has it right in his initial post - "dystopic nightmare" is correct, but it's also myopic, in that you're assuming a perfect setup to lead to your 'solution'.

-John, pessimist

(An aside - I *REALLY* dislike your innuendo on the linked page. "...to produce weapons and other tools of crime and terror." In the US, weapons are NOT just 'tools of crime and terror", they are also a constitutional right of the populace (for whatever reason - that's a huge additional arguement), as well as a practical part of the recreational life of many citizens.)

Karl Gallagher

When MM first shows up, offense will be easier than defense.

Mike, do you have a page addressing that assertion? I really don't think it's true. New weapons are almost always failures when first deployed. They're not as reliable as hoped, the logistics slow them to a crawl, and the enemy comes up with an innovative counter-tactic using their existing tech. I expect the same with MM weapons. Launching an offense won't win dramatic victories (or devastate populations), it'll cause a bit of damage that will antagonize a coalition into launching a counter-attack.

Most civilian MM applications are going to be "dual use" in a defensive sense. A lot of what we're talking about--medical support, smart structures, etc--is devoted to fighting entropy. Weapons try to increase entropy. So the more civilian MM we have deployed the tougher we'll be against a MM attack.

As for Mike's vision of a future society . . . it's a dystopia by my definition. And it's certainly enough in conflict with the US Constitution that I'd die fighting to prevent it.

Michael Vassar

Brett: The point of Mike's post is that it is a description of something that would already be a dictatorship more thorough than anything the world has ever seen, yet life under such a dictatorship could be decent, e.g. better than life today, primarily because such dictators would have no motivation to care what the people under them did. Assuming (and it's a lot to assume) that the dictators were at least slightly benevolent (a possibility that seems more likely than not, at least for a few centuries, and plausibly for much longer, since there doesn't have to be a succession problem), and that they were careful enough or unambitious enough not to destroy themselves or turn themselves into something alien through careless use of neurotech and/or AI, this would be one of the more likely livable outcomes of MNT. I see many things that could go wrong, but it seems likely that a typical European cabinet would be willing and able to pull this off in a manner that would produce a higher standard of living, for a larger population, for a longer time, than any previous socio-economic system has. OTOH, when it ultimately broke down this system would be a major existential risk, and there would be little hope of risk-limiting developments under it.

Karl Gallagher

life under such a dictatorship could be decent, e.g. better than life today, primarily because such dictators would have no motivation to care what the people under them did.

One of the patterns of current governments is that governments with an independent income (ie, not dependent on what the subjects produce) treat their people much worse. If you need the peasants to produce a good crop you have to take reasonable care of them. If they don't make any useful contributions then they're nothing but a source of rebellions and had best be kept as far down as possible. This is sometimes referred to as the "oil curse." Compare the human rights status of Arab OPEC member nations to their neighbors Tunisia and Jordan. It's not just limited to oil, Egypt's income from Suez canal tolls and African diamond exports cause the same tensions.

If an absolute world dictatorship with a MNT monopoly was formed it would have no practical incentive to keep the rest of the human race around. I'd expect the founders to be high-minded enough to want to take good care of everyone, but with no effective feedback they'd grow careless.

Brett Bellmore

Yes, under such a dictatorship, we might be treated well by 20th century standards, at least at first, but essentially we'd just be domesticated animals getting good veteranry care. All the greater promises of nanotechnology would be denied us, because they'd put our owners at risk. And eventually they'd decide the risk of keeping us around was too great.


I´ve got a couple of Devil´s Advocate questions:

How is international agreement on the ESM approach to be built and between whom is it met? Between industry representatives, agreeing to protect their then obsolete business models?

Abuse is not only to be expected from users, but also from people in control of the security. This already starts at software backdoors inserted by a programmer. Human error and criminal intent can and probably will happen and add up through every security level. Do we really know how to make such a widely distributed and attractive system robust enough to make up for all the flaws in and attacks on its security?

The ESM approach requires global cooperation. What if a large MM power (e.g., Russia, China or India) doesn´t support the plan and enforces only some or none of the proposed regulations? That would make the whole plan fail.

It is unlikely that the majority of the global population will accept such heavy restrictions because the majority will believe the restrictions to be way exaggerated. Ignoring public opinion might mean defeat in the next elections and lead to the previous scenario, convincing the public might require yet more time.

Building the agreement and implementing close to perfect, globally working security systems on many technical and non-technical levels will be difficult, expensive and take a lot of time to implement and coordinate. To make a heavily restricted nanofactory, one needs an unrestricted one first, implying the possibility of functional prototypes, blueprints, etc. leaking out without regulation. This means that technology will probably outrun even the first attempt of global regulation.

It is not known who will develop the first nanofactory and when. It could happen unannounced (for competetive advantage) in some corporate lab, meaning that commercial interests might influence security concerns only insofar as commercial interests are to be protected.

Competetive pressure between nations will make it very likely that it´s "every nation for itself" to gain strong competitive advantage over the others. The maybe best example for this mindset is the current US foreign policy which is based on the assumption that no other nation or group may even begin to question the US military hegemony.

Brett Bellmore

As I see it, the most likely scenario is something approaching a photo finish, with several research groups achieving functional nanotechnology within a fairly close time frame, too close for the first to realistically dominate the others. And with enough knowlege of how they did it leaked that others can duplicate the feat before the sort of survailance and control system necessary to stop them can be implemented. In short, I don't think a meaningful monopoly on nanotech will exist, unless it's arrived at afterwards, through a bloody war of conquest. So I view any plan that starts with the assumption of a nanotech monopoly on the part of some group that isn't murderously inclined as unrealistic.

If there's a monopoly, it will be a monopoly held by murderers, on a devestated planet. Kind of like the US could have had, if we'd used our temporary monopoly on nuclear weapons to conquer the rest of the world.

Therefore, I'd rather see us try to figure out how to make things turn out well without the assumption that somebody will have a functional monopoly.

Michael Vassar

Karl&Brett: Generally good points about the proposed dictatorship. It's still certanily not the worst possibility, but it's surely very far from the best one. I will note that careless dictators may fail to ensure the adequate dissemination of MNT benefits, but they are unlikely to allow full-scale wars.
I see a photo finish as very likely IF MNT research is seriously pursued by many players, but currently it appears to be pursued by NO large organizations. Seriously, Zyvex may end up developing it first by default, or IBM, Intel, or someone may develop it by 'almost accident' (e.g. a couple decades from now a few employees divert some of the budget for a less ambitious nanotech project). In such a situation, a lead time of many months is likely, and a couple years becomes plausible if the developers decide to pursue secrecy while refining their tech. This would not be a unusual outcome. That's how heavier than air flight happened, for instance.
Developing non-monopoly proposals is certainly high priority, but the alternative is not necessarily dystopian. That depends on who has the monopoly, what they do with it, and how well they understand what they've got. Part of our job is to try to take care of the third of those variables.

Tom Craver

I think Brett has it right - there'll be a number of early developers in parallel. At first it'll probably be every nation for itself, but that should very quickly shift into a duopoly similar to that in the cold war.

Nuclear war was obviously too dangerous to attempt - the question is whether the same will be true of nanotech and MM. Nanowar has a much larger range of possibilities - on both offense and defense. The temptation to use it in just a few small ways - spiraling upward to extremely dangerous uses - may be irresistable. That creates more uncertainty of the ultimate outcome and survivability.

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