Over the past few days, we've looked at the strong possibility of severe economic and social disruption resulting from the development of general-purpose molecular manufacturing, as well as the increased likelihood of a new arms race and devastating acts of war.
Approached with pessimism, nanotechnology appears far too dangerous to be allowed to progress to anywhere near its full potential. It’s tempting to just say no, to urge that we shut Pandora’s Box and halt further development.
The possibility of technological relinquishment was made famous by computer scientist Bill Joy in his article, "Why the Future Doesn’t Need Us". Joy saw great danger to the continued existence of the human race from nanotechnology (as well as from robotics and genetics). He advocated an enforced global relinquishment of so-called "dangerous technologies," which essentially would require an end to further development of almost all new technology.
Although Joy’s call met with some support from environmental activists and a few others, the overwhelming consensus reaction was highly skeptical of both the feasibility and the advisability of such a shutdown. For one thing, it will almost certainly be impossible to prevent the development of molecular manufacturing technology somewhere in the world. China, Europe, and Japan all have thriving nanotechnology programs, and the rapid advance of enabling technologies such as biotechnology, MEMS, and scanning-probe microscopy ensures that nanotechnology research and development efforts will be much easier in the near future than they are today.
Perhaps the strongest argument against relinquishment is the loss or delay of immense benefits. The great promise of molecular manufacturing is the potential to reduce stress on the environment, to alleviate most shortages, to raise living standards worldwide, to eradicate nearly all poverty, starvation, and homelessness. Molecular manufacturing can greatly aid in providing clean drinking water, effective sanitation, and protection from many infectious diseases. Clean, cheap, and efficient manufacturing; medical breakthroughs; immensely powerful computers; easier access to space -- all these benefits are simply too good to pass up.
Tomorrow we'll discuss the urgency factor.