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« How soon? | Main | C-R-Newsletter #19 »

May 25, 2004


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Janessa Ravenwood

On the off chance you actually managed to convince any of the powers that be to back (and fund) your proposal you would likely be accelerating the very scenario you don't want. As soon as news of this program got out it it would SPUR - not deter - nationalist MNT development programs. Thus your worst-case scenario would become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Brett Bellmore

And, on the principle that two can keep a secret, if one of them is dead, a multi-national orgaization doesn't strike me as the best way to maintain secrecy.

Karl Gallagher

I think this is completely impractical given the nature of today's political environment. Keep in mind that according to Freedom House "free" nations are a minority in the United Nations.

Developers in an international project will have pressure from their home states to aid them in developing MNT by leaking data and/or sabotaging the international program. Excluding specific nations from the project only gives them more incentive to set up a domestic MNT program.

Countries will limit their sovereignty when it benefits them, but no country will agree to give up something that could lead to their destruction. Look at nuclear weapons--South Africa only gave them up when they were the biggest power in their region with no chance of being attacked. No country that fears for its survival will renounce MNT.

So Canada and Belgium may join the international development project and have no domestic one, but China and Pakistan will have labs at home working full speed.

Mr. Farlops

I agree with the others on this one. It seems unlikely, in the near future, that we are going to see any more international cooperation or openness on molecular nanotechnology than already exists.

There probably won't be some clear dividing line like the Einstein-Szilard Letter but, some country somewhere is going to start a secret weapons research program, if it hasn't already started. Officials in the Pentagon have already expressed interest in the military potential of nanotechnology. The question then becomes who gets there first?

Many other potential rivals are obvious, like China, India or Russia. Others are not so obvious like Brazil, Japan or even South Africa. But it seems likely that the United States will be first to build molecular assemblers. We've got the money. We've got the stability. We've got the mature educational and industrial base. We've got the enormous military budget, a significant portion of which is still classified.

Luckily, despite Iraq and Afghanistan, we are not engaged in global war. So far most countries with ambitions for invasion have been contained. Although one only has to think of tensions between Pakistan and India or China and Taiwan or the Middle East or Africa to see the danger.

And the announcement of an assembler breakthrough is going to be a shock no matter how calm the world is at the moment.

Instead of trying to secure some unlikely program of international cooperation on assembler development, the CRN should focus instead on regulation and damage control after the assembler breakthrough has happened. Assuming the United States gets there first, what do we do to keep everyone calm and prevent an arms race from occuring?

Michael Anissimov

Personally, I would prefer that nanotechnology is developed with the assistance of compassionate smarter-than-human intelligences, rather than by mere human beings. We currently possess vision-amplifiers (microscopes), calculation and visualization amplifiers (computer software and displays), dexterity-amplifiers (piezoelectric crystals), but we lack effective intelligence and empathy amplifiers. The cognitive circuitry underlying the functions of intelligence and empathy are more complicated than what underlies the functions of vision, calculation, or visualization. But it seems extremely dangerous to proceed without these necessary qualities being amplified within us, no matter the technological difficulty. It seems that the wisest distribution of resources would include projects designed specifically to enhance human intelligence/kindness or create AIs with human-surpassing intelligence/kindness. We need minds with a similar maturity advantage over human adults as adults have over toddlers, or moreso.

But again, this might not be feasible in the near term. We might be constrained to choose a set of people from the subspecies Homo sapiens. Which human beings are eligible to manage and distribute a technology that rivals the power of magic from fantasy novels? Certainly not any government or large corporation I know of. Human governments and large corporations have very poor track records in responsible use of power. Communication between preexisting world powers is hampered by political baggage, the continuous reshuffling of elected officials, and the regular shifting of the global power structure. Plus, the integrity of the leaders of the world powers is highly questionable, as is their familarity with the policy questions behind nanotechnology. I doubt that any military general or Head of State anywhere in the world is familiar with the technical basics behind nanotechnology. Serious thought about safe administration of self-replicating nanofactories is totally out of the question for those unfamiliar with the basics.

CRN's dream of unifying a hyper-cooperative international body of preexisting governments to develop and administer nanofactories is completely out of the question. This goal is one to be accomplished in decades or centuries, not 5-10 years. True understanding of the risk of nanotechnology could improve the situation, but few people will understand until nanofactories are already widely distributed. Notice I say few people - not *no* people. There are those aware of the risks, who have thought about the issues at great length, in addition to possessing the technical knowledge to make actual headway towards the goal. But they number in the hundreds or dozens, not thousands or millions, and lack the present-day power of governments and large corporations. But what if the inventors of the first nanofactories were non-governmental, non-corporate scientists and researchers? It might be possible for them to use the technology to bootstrap an effective administrative infrastructure without requiring the cooperation of governments or large corporations. Amazingly, this might actually make it possible for the integrity and awareness requirements for top-level nanofactory administrators to be met, in the near term of 5-10 years rather than at some point in the indefinite future.

Notice that I say "might". Nanotechnology might initially be developed by an unscrupulous research team, which could then go on to apply the technology in destructive or reckless ways. But there is also the possibility that it could be developed by an ethical, non-governmental research team with high standards, adequate knowledge of administrative options, and a professional paranoia absent in the leaders of world governments, corporations, and militaries. In the latter case, a dedicated, small team of nano-engineers would have the task of bootstrapping an administrative infrastructure that 1) ensures the benefits of nanotechnology are widely available, 2) prevents the development of unrestricted nanofactories, 3) restricts the synthesis of dangerous products. In addition, these objectives must be accomplished before another entity develops unrestricted nanofactories with the ability to construct life-threatening or species-threatening products. The desirable deadline for this goal would ideally be one year, at most two years, after the initial development of nanofactories.

Chris Phoenix, CRN

Wow--a surprising amount of unanimity that international cooperation is 1) impossible and 2) a bad idea to try for.

This will make us think hard about what we're recommending.

The idea of a small group of well-intentioned developers sounds nice, but I'm not at all sure it would work in practice. It's hard to administer a planet! And successful revolutions by people who don't know how to govern tend to be very bloody.

Will the U.S. get there first? Maybe, and I think it's one of the more hopeful/stable scenarios (though that's not saying much). But don't count too much on our scientific prowess and budget. We have some very bad nano-policy based on bad science that strongly discourages work in the area.

So what other possibilities are there?


Mike Deering

Current politically inspired nano-policy may depress commercial public research and development, and probably is their purpose, but will have no effect on government highly classified research. It is apparent that the government has recognized the potential of nano/bio/A.I. technology, which is not surprising. These people are not dumb. The U.S. government has more untraceable resources to devote to this than anyone else in the world. Unless something very bizarre happens, like a breakthrough in recursive self improvement in artificial intelligence by an independent researcher, the government will have all of these Singularity technologies before anyone else even knows they exist.


On the compassion of AI:
"...if an artificially intelligent life form examines the way that we treat other 'lower' life forms, it may reach conclusions about the way that it should treat us. Think about that the next time you're digging into a steak."
-Doug Mulhall interviewed in Nanomagazine

This is an interesting question, but probably not limited to nano at all. What can people do about the seeming inevitability of some one grabbing such awesome power? I'm cheering for a global movement to teach kids that life and people are more beautiful if allowed to flourish on their own, without efforts to exert control. That goes for our interpersonal relationships and the world arround us. (Perhaps the kids should be left alone to their nanotech then, too? bah...)

Healing, especially from past control is another matter and perhaps the next step. (ie don't tell me that most of the world can't feed itself, there's a historical reason for why that is today, namely colonialism)

I know that such efforts will have trouble competing with the super power of big money, etc. but I suspect that such power is inevitably a deal with the devil. We can do what we can, some of us here contesting the paradigm of control, others of us living in Pakistan doing the same. I trust they are out there. Freedom loving people (not the freedom to control others, either) are everywhere, though perhaps in varying numbers.

Ok, no more philosophical rambling, but obviously this is a philosophical question. Government bans obviously won't work and leftist authoritarians seeking to out-control technocrats don't stand a chance. Other tactics will have to be developed. Or I guess we could all just join a hive-consciousness and learn to like it, huh? Oh don't I look forward to being the squeeky wheel in that set-up.

John Michelsen

>Wow--a surprising amount of unanimity that international cooperation is
>1) impossible and 2) a bad idea to try for.
>This will make us think hard about what we're recommending.
> Chris

Wow Chris, I never thought it would sink in for you that worldwide
international cooperation has some serious problems. I had just about
written you guys off as completely naive.

But as usual you are overstating the case. International cooperation is
certainly not impossible. The impossible part is cooperating with
nations that are sworn to your destruction.

There is a hard nucleus of nations that historically have lived or died
by the side of the US. There are nations that have been good allies.
There are nations that have been weak allies. There are neutral
nations, slightly hostile nations, strongly hostile nations. Nations
that are insane. Nations that switch back and forth between several of
the above. Nations that pretend they are our friends then stab us in
the back. Nations that seem to be enemies and yet are secretly our
true friends.

International cooperation is definitly not a bad idea to try for. We
would be foolhardy in the extreme to be *truely* unilateral, to shun
the opinions of everyone in the world. Fortunately that is not
necessary. Despite the rhetoric of some bad politicians we currently
head up a quite large coalition of nations.

Necessity is the mother of invention. When our future truely depends
upon the actions of those countries we call allies, we will see who
our friends are. We will cast out those who are untrustworthy, and
embrace as family those in whose trust we put our lives. We will
build new institutions to replace those tattered by lies and treachery.

Ultimately we will be badly damaged by our enemies. Even now it is
only a matter of time before nukes or chemicals or bugs kill millions of
our citizens. It will happen because we fear what it would take to
prevent it. After it happens we will bend our will to make sure it never
happens again. There will be those who scream that we go too far. There
will be those who rage we don't go far enough. But events will dictate
our ultimate response, not plans laid years before.

Before the War on Terror, what was it that prepared our minds and hearts
for what we would have to do? The Left likes to think that Vietnam was
our best teacher, where we turned tail and ran, reneged our promises and
left that small flame of democracy to be smashed by the iron fist of
totalitarianism. We learned from those experiences yes, but the natural
result of "cut and run" was not the lesson. On this 60th anniversary of
D-Day we look to a different outcome.

Please Chris, study what has worked before.

Chris Phoenix, CRN

"Has serious problems?" Yes, we have known that from the beginning. That's different from "Is a bad idea to even try." Which is yet again different from "Is a bad idea to even propose."

We are in fact studying what has worked before. For example, we're advising a group in Arizona that's doing a research project on this, and you can be sure we'll look carefully at whatever they find.

I don't think we've ever suggested trying to cooperate with nations sworn to our destruction.


Karl Gallagher

Chris, the impression I had of your international development plan was that you wanted every nation to be invited, otherwise they'd start a national program. The UN includes several countries that want to destroy us, starting with North Korea and Iran. If you had a membership restriction on your concept it should probably be stated explicitly.

Chris Phoenix, CRN

Any nation that has a serious chance of doing it any time soon... I'm not too worried about North Korea. I don't know enough about Iran to say 1) whether they have a serious chance of doing it before anyone else (though the government is writing about it, see http://nanodot.org/article.pl?sid=01/11/08/162208 ) and 2) whether they're likely to be committed to destroy the U.S. by the time they get it.

I do think it's very important for, say, China and Russia and the U.S. to find some way other than competitive development leading to arms race leading to war.

The idea is that a well-designed international program would make nations want to divert resources to it instead of nationalistic programs, and possibly cooperate in verification schemes. Is this possible? I don't know. But there are several strong arguments in favor.

1) Accelerating development by even a few months could save millions of lives and vastly improve our global standard of living while reducing environmental footprint.

2) If a nano arms race is as dangerous as it appears, then any sane country would want to find *any* alternative to it.

It's a good thing that the sane countries also tend to be the creative and scientifically advanced countries.


Chris Phoenix, CRN

I just realized, I gave the wrong impression in what I just wrote. It's not that *only* the countries that have a good chance of getting it first would be invited. That policy would perhaps help to avoid arms races. But it wouldn't be enough to keep the populations of uninvited countries from fueling a black market that would make the most dangerous forms of the technology available to the poorest and angriest people.

So what we're picturing is more like:

The leading scientific/technical countries work together to develop an international nanofactory, in a structure that lets them feel safe from nationalistic attack/defense dynamics.

Any other country that wants to join is allowed to, even if they only contribute a token. But contributions will not only be technical--there'll be a lot of policy and sociological work necessary as well.

If the project starts to look successful, any government that doesn't join will be viewed with increasing suspicion by the rest. And rightly so. Either 1) the government is quite oppressive and doesn't want the people to have good stuff or 2) the country is so nationalistic that they're willing to destabilize the world. Or--I know someone will say this--they simply don't trust the deal (as some African nations have rejected various forms of GMO food). Which will depend heavily on how the deal is structured. Which we don't know yet.

Realize that this is only a broad outline, and it does not conceal nefarious plans but rather is simply based on a belief that nationalistic MNT development will lead to disaster. If there's a better plan that avoids an arms race, please suggest it.


John Michelsen

It would defeat the purpose of your plan if one of the nations in your international program
turned around and gave the technology to terrorists, would it not? Or gave it to nations,
who gave it to nations, who gave it to terrorists. The chain can be fairly long, and still screw up your plans.

So which nations are untrustworthy? For instance, which nations are responsible for the
current mess we are in now with WMD's? Lets see, China gave the bomb to Pakistan, who
gave it to North Korea, Iran, Libya, etc. Russia is helping out Iran with its nuclear plants.
France built a reactor for Iraq. Syrians were recently discovered involved with the explosions
in NK. The webs of intrigue are endless.

If you are correct Chris, about the immanence of MNT, the War on Terror could easily be
still going on at the same time. How much do you know about the proliferation of WMD
by Russia, China, and even the Europeans?


Raymond L Phoenix

At the risk of being misunderstood, I'd like to ask if someone would please address this question relative to the current situation on the "space race". Although it has taken decades to establish the lines of communication, we now have some meaningful cooperation between countries. In addition, we have increasing private investment which, I'm sure, will be somewhat constrained by existing international agreements. And, so far, the rogue states are somewhat "locked out" of the process. Many of the policy issues for nanotech seem to me to have parallels with space. Agree? Disagree?

As separate questions, are parts of nanotech easier to do in space? Could the first nanofactory be built there? Would that make life simpler because earth-bound duplication of the factories would be impossible or at least much more difficult?

As an additional benefit, maybe what we build in space would have a better chance of being seen as "what humans built for humanity", rather than "what was built by our country/company/faction/terrorist group for our own purposes".

Chris Phoenix, CRN

There's no reason I can see why nanofactories would have a harder time working on earth than in space.

Can someone who knows more about space policy answer that question about the space race? I think it's a good one. I'll just note that development of molecular manufacturing is getting cheaper very rapidly--unlike space access.


Chris Phoenix, CRN

John: I see only a few possibilities:

1) Virtually no one has access to nanofactories. (Probably not sustainable, and doesn't help us solve problems during the interval.)

2) Everyone, including terrorists, has access to unrestricted nanofactories right from the start. I don't think this is survivable. I might be wrong. I hope I'm wrong. But I think the nastiest people would "win" by destroying us, then destroy each other.

3) For a time, only restricted nanofactories are available, administered by a very small and secure group. This might easily lend itself to abuse, but looks like it gives us the most time to adjust to the new capabilities.

4) Some wild card scenario: hard-takeoff AI, mass psychological reprogramming (either voluntary or involuntary), some existential risk (including nano-arms race) coming home to roost, etc.

In scenario 3, national governments (considered as entire entities) wouldn't have access to unrestricted nanofactories, so would be unable to give them away. This may seem unrealistic, but I'm not so sure. If there were a way to arrange it so that no one's finger was hovering close to "the button," would any mainstream nation reject this in favor of moving everyone's finger closer? OK, maybe they would, if they had a sufficiently belligerent ideology...


Karl Gallagher

Answering Raymond's question, from the perspective of an RLV startup vet:

There isn't a space race going on currently, because there's no goal. Space Station is staggering along as a combination status symbol/welfare program. Commercial ventures put up satellites as dictated by market opportunities. The rogue states aren't locked out by anything other than the lack of capital to build rockets, any one of them could put something in orbit if they had the capability (North Korea made an attempt). Various private investments have been made, but the constraint is much more lack of market than laws, national or international.

In short, I don't see much parallel with the nanotech issues discussed here. A new space project can't cause that much damage and is easy to see coming. Somebody like Scaled Composites can build a rocket and fly it, but if it had enough capability to be a danger the feds would be all over it. Tests are visible to the whole world. Regulation is ad hoc and not coordinated internationally. An attempt was made to impose a CRN-style international regime over space flight (the Moon Treaty) but it was rejected by everyone who could actually build a spaceship.

Hmmm--Chris & Mike, go read up on the Moon Treaty. (brief search) Or call Drexler, he was one of the lobbyists against it. I think your international regulation proposal is pushing the same negative reaction buttons the Moon Treaty did.

Chris Phoenix, CRN

I asked Eric about this, and he said, "He's right that some of the same negatives apply, but the positive motivations are much different, shifting the balance to favor some sort of international framework."


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