Challenges of surviving, sustaining, and flourishing in a nano-enabled future look suspiciously like challenges we face today, only with much higher stakes. Although "past results may not be an indication of future performance," our track record is not all that good.
1. Avoid situation where initial lead in developing molecular manufacturing (MM) is quickly lost to late-comer(s) with superior resources, leading to potential for out-of-control arms race and/or world domination -- In any exponential curve, nearly all action occurs at the very end; if latecomers have competing, simultaneous crash Nanhattan-programs, none may get necessary lead time to sterilize other programs worldwide. And anyway, would we trust anyone but ascetic Buddhists to do so unmegalomaniacally?
2. Prevent further concentration of power, brought about by MM, into members of elite political and military institutions -- Unless channelled democratically (somehow), MM seems likely to do nothing other than exacerbate the current dynamic.
3. Avert massive job dislocation, global economic disruption, and social chaos (super accelerated "creative destruction") brought about by local, customized, cheap, powerful product manufacturing -- Revolutionary industrial advances historically impact large numbers of people negatively at first, then gradually provide increasing benefits to most, but on a scale of many decades. This time it could happen in just a few years.
4. Convert industrial capacity into supply of basic survival necessities for every human (with surplus split among producers?) -- There has been enough industrial capacity to supply basic survival necessities and thus, fully develop our world's intellectual capital, for a few decades. It hasn't happened, though.
Tough challenges. Precarious hazards.
The preliminary conclusion of CRN's research to date is that molecular manufacturing capacity will have to be regulated, perhaps on the international level. There are several approaches that might help. Note that we are not officially advocating any of these approaches yet; we don't know enough about how the technology will be developed or in what context.
We also have to point out that we don't think any single approach will be sufficient. An effective program will require a balance of several different kinds of administration. Some possibilities include built-in technical restrictions in portable nanofactories; intellectual property reform; and international cooperation or monitoring of various kinds. Despite the difficulties and complexities, we believe a solution can be found (albeit difficult to implement) to preserve most of the potential benefits while averting the most severe risks.
In addition, our early research indicates that developing MM technology sooner, rather than delaying it, may be helpful in avoiding some of the more serious hazards, as well as in bringing needed humanitarian benefits. This does increase some risks, but reduces others; overall, we think it's safest to develop MM as soon as possible.
Without some controls, advanced nanotechnology could be extremely dangerous -- but desirable to many people. In addition, manufacturing systems probably will be portable and easy to duplicate. This means it will be quite hard to control the use of the technology if unrestricted versions become widely available. On the other hand, overly restrictive policy will encourage uncontrolled release. It seems likely that an early, closely guarded, cooperative international development program is probably the approach that retains the most control in the long run. How to achieve this in an effective, responsible and democratic manner is yet to be determined.
Knowing that we have many more questions than answers, that the challenges we face are similar to those we have not yet solved (but with higher stakes), and that the transformational impacts of molecular manufacturing could occur quickly and with little warning, we believe comprehensive and thorough study of these issues is urgent.
The longer we wait, the greater the risk.