Two related items caught my eye today.
First, the UN has published its latest "World Demographic Trends" report. Jamais Cascio at WorldChanging wrote a nice summary, including a few highlights:
- Current world population stands at 6.5 billion people, and should reach 7 billion by 2012.
- Population should peak at 8.9 billion in 2050, assuming both that fertility rates continue to fall slowly in the developing world, and that efforts to stem the growth of the HIV/AIDS epidemic are successful.
- Of that 8.9 billion, 7.7 billion will be residents of what is now the developing world. The question of how many of those nations will still be considered part of the "less developed region" is unasked.
- The proportion of the world's population 60 years old or older was 8 percent in 1950, is 10 percent in 2005, and is projected to be 21 percent in 2050. This is absent any radical shifts in longevity-related medical technologies.
As usual, the highest rates of population growth are projected for many of the poorest countries -- which leads to the second item that got my attention.
An editorial posted at SciDev.Net entitled "Helping the poor: the real challenge of nanotech" reiterates many of the issues discussed at the Expert Group Meeting I attended two weeks ago in Trieste, Italy. For example, they write:
Investment in nanotechnology as an entry ticket to the global economy will inevitably tend to focus, at least if left to the market place, on those areas in which the potential financial return is high. But this creates the risk that other areas, where the main benefit will be in the social return, are placed much lower down the priority list.
Although this editorial refers only to the incremental (but still important and valuable) developments expected from current nanoscale technologies and does not address molecular manufacturing (MM), we agree with their point about social returns.
A technology as revolutionary as MM will offer trillions of dollars of abundance -- but it also could provoke a vicious scramble to own everything; it will enable rapid invention of wondrous products (many of which could be of great help to the world's poor) -- but it also may enable weapons development fast enough to destabilize any arms race; it could easily provide networked computers for everyone in the world -- or, just as easily, it could be used to manufacture networked cameras so governments can watch our every move; it could make lifesaving medical robots -- and untraceable weapons of mass destruction.
The current debate around nanotechnology is all too frequently polarised into two opposing camps. On the one hand are those scientists, engineers and investors who are keen to promote the field as a source of new products and processes, promising that these will lead to changes as revolutionary as those triggered by the explosion of information and communications technologies in recent decades. On the other are environmentalist critics and others who warn that the potential health and environmental hazards of nanotechnology remain unknown — some even demanding a moratorium on new developments in the area.
Too often, such a one-dimensional debate between proponents and opponents of a new technology deflects attention from a third issue: what steps can be taken to ensure that the technology develops in a way that lets it meet its full potential to address the needs of the poor across the world.
We agree that a balanced perspective is essential. And we encourage efforts to bring more voices to the table, representing all sectors of world society.
As far back as the discovery of fire-making, technology has brought both opportunities and threats. But now, as science and engineering race toward truly world-changing innovations, we must study, understand and address the potential dangers in advance -- and at the same time we must be smart about pursuing both economic gains and social gains.
Albert Einstein said, "The problems that exist in the world today cannot be solved by the level of thinking that created them." Advanced nanotechnology -- exponential general-purpose manufacturing -- will present problems that do not have simple solutions. Indeed, they may require not only new levels of thinking, but whole new systems of stakeholder representation, consensus-building, decision-making, and perhaps even global administration.