If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.
We've all heard that, and it is basically wise advice. I think it applies to a new report from Nature that says "Desktop fusion is back on the table" -- but does it apply equally well to molecular manufacturing?
Let's take a look at fusion first:
Can the popping of tiny bubbles trigger nuclear fusion, a potential source of almost unlimited energy? This controversial idea is back on the table, because its main proponent has new results that, he claims, will silence critics...
The idea is simple enough. Blast a liquid with waves of ultrasound and tiny bubbles of gas are created, which release a burst of heat and light when they implode. The core of the bubble reaches 15,000 °C, hot enough to wrench molecules apart. Physicists have even suggested that the intense conditions of this sonoluminescence could fuse atomic nuclei together, in the same process that keeps our Sun running...
Desktop fusion would be a wonderful advance, obviously. But I'll believe it when I see it.
Why, you might ask, don't I as easily dismiss the promise of advanced nanotechnology?
Here's how my thinking works:
Many new technologies (e.g. nuclear fusion) offer windfall benefits but few high-level hazards. Some emerging technologies come with very serious risks. In the case of molecular manufacturing (MM), these include economic and social disruption, an unstable arms race, and the potential concentration of overwhelming power in the hands of a few.
Other emerging technologies, such as robotics, genetic engineering, and artificial intelligence (AI), also may bring serious risk. Then why am I not as concerned about those technologies as about MM?
The answer is timing. With robotics and gen eng, the effects are likely to appear more gradually than with MM, that is, spread over a longer span of time. Thus, society will have many years, perhaps decades, to adjust. By contrast, MM could appear quite suddenly.
It is quite possible that strong AI will be just as revolutionary and dangerous as MM, and that its impacts will be equally sudden, but I think it is less clear that AI is as imminent as MM. Others disagree, of course.
Because MM will challenge us with huge risks, and because MM appears to be the earliest revolutionary new technology that will affect us, I have chosen to devote my energy to understanding and raising awareness of these issues.