"Nanotechnology: The Future is Coming Sooner Than You Think" is the title of a report [PDF] published this month by Representative Jim Saxton (R-NJ), Ranking Member of the Joint Economic Committee, United States Congress. The paper, authored by Dr. Joseph Kennedy, Adjunct Professor at Georgetown University, says:
Enhanced abilities to understand and manipulate matter at the molecular and atomic levels promise a wave of significant new technologies over the next five decades. Dramatic breakthroughs will occur in diverse areas such as medicine, communications, computing, energy, and robotics. These changes will generate large amounts of wealth and force wrenching changes in existing markets and institutions.
And that's just the beginning of a surprisingly stark assessment of nanotechnology's transformative potential. The first section opens with this paragraph:
In 1970 Alvin Toffler, noted technologist and futurist, argued that the acceleration of technological and social change was likely to challenge the capacity of both individuals and institutions to understand and to adapt to it. Although the world has changed a great deal since then, few would argue that the pace of change has had the discontinuous effects that Toffler predicted. However, rapid advances in a number of fields, collectively known as nanotechnology, make it possible that Mr. Toffler’s future has merely been delayed. In fact, some futurists now talk about an unspecified date sometime around the middle of this century when, because of the accelerating pace of technology, life will be radically different than at any prior time.
Yes, it is "The Singularity" that's being alluded to there. In a later section, the report describes it this way:
Every exponential curve eventually reaches a point where the growth rate becomes almost infinite. This point is often called the Singularity. If technology continues to advance at exponential rates, what happens after 2020? Technology is likely to continue, but at this stage some observers forecast a period at which scientific advances aggressively assume their own momentum and accelerate at unprecedented levels, enabling products that today seem like science fiction. Beyond the Singularity, human society is incomparably different from what it is today. Several assumptions seem to drive predictions of a Singularity. The first is that continued material demands and competitive pressures will continue to drive technology forward. Second, at some point artificial intelligence advances to a point where computers enhance and accelerate scientific discovery and technological change. In other words, intelligent machines start to produce discoveries that are too complex for humans. Finally, there is an assumption that solutions to most of today’s problems including material scarcity, human health, and environmental degradation can be solved by technology, if not by us, then by the computers we eventually develop.
It is remarkable to find officials at this level of the U.S. government, or any large government, openly discussing dramatic possibilities that most often are dismissed as science fiction. However, the report does caution about making an uncritical assumption that suddenly "everything will change":
Looking forward, science is likely to continue outrunning expectations, at least in the medium-term. Although science may advance rapidly, technology and daily life are likely to change at a much slower pace for several reasons. First, it takes time for scientific discoveries to become embedded into new products, especially when the market for those products is uncertain. Second, both individuals and institutions can exhibit a great deal of resistance to change. Because new technology often requires significant organizational change and cost in order to have its full effect, this can delay the social impact of new discoveries. For example, computer technology did not have a noticeable effect on economic productivity until it became widely integrated into business offices and, ultimately, business processes. It took firms over a decade to go from replacing the typewriters in their office pools to rearranging their entire supply chains to take advantage of the Internet.
That sounds similar to the points we made last week about the uncertainty of "overnight" changes. Nevertheless, the Congressional report does say:
Whether or not one believes in the Singularity, it is difficult to overestimate nanotechnology’s likely implications for society. For one thing, advances in just the last five years have proceeded much faster than even the best experts had predicted.
CRN's concern is that this accelerated pace of development is likely to make molecular manufacturing technology achievable faster than almost anyone foresees. And if we are not prepared for the consequences -- if the advent of desktop nanofactories catches us by surprise -- then we will not have time to debate, design, and implement sensible and responsible policy for its use.
We should not, however, count on the U.S. National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI) to do this for us. As the report says on page 12:
The NNI is clearly geared toward developing the technology on a broad front, correctly seeing it as the source of tremendous benefits to society. Its mission is not to see whether we should go forward with research and development. It is to go forth boldly, while trying to discover and deal with possible risks.
Much of the rest of the 21-page paper focuses on adequately dealing with health and safety risks of materials containing nanoparticles. Although that is a serious concern, other issues that could and should be addressed in this report -- such as economic disruption from a rapid replacement of manufacturing infrastructure, or the potential for an unstable arms race driven by nano-weapons proliferation -- are either marginalized or not even addressed. That's a disappointment. However, the fact that some of the issues we care about are beginning to be discussed in high places is encouraging.