This post was originally intended as a reply to a thread on memestreams about Bill Joy, and in the process of writing it sort of became its own topic of discussion.
I just got finished reading a few articles from Bill Joy including, "why the future doesn't need us" (search memestreams for those threads)...On some key points I agree with Mr. Joy. I agree that we are on the cusp of a potentially catastrophic era in human history. I agree that ethics is not always enough of a guiding principle in the scientific research. And I agree that in the short term limits on the spread of knowledge may be needed to avoid disaster, but I would stress that this can only be a short term solution to the problems ahead; reliance on secrecy as long term defense will be disastrous.
Joy makes a statement that we have not yet reached the point of no return in nano-technology research. This is the primary point at which I disagree with him. I feel that we passed the point of no return in 1959 when Feynman wrote his now famous There's plenty of room at the bottom. The idea was first conceived, and the meme began to spread. It is now to the point where it has taken hold and we can not waste valuable time arguing about whether or not we should continue with our research. I believe the research will continue with or without those of us that feel that ethics must be of supreme consideration in the development of potentially dangerous technologies.
I very much like his idea of a hippocratic oath for technologist, engineers, and scientists; though I don't believe this goes far enough.
If people believe, as I do, that nano-technology is in our future, then we must prepare for its consequences. As I have expressed on a number of occasions, only those in control of the technology can shape its future.
In the 1940's when the United States was the only nuclear power, did policy makers believe simple containment of knowledge for the creation of nuclear weapons would stop nuclear proliferation? If policy makers believed this was an absolute solution then history has clearly shown them wrong.
Restricting the spread of knowledge does not stop others from developing that knowledge independently; this is what policy makers must come to understand.
All that is needed to insure the eventual acquisition of a given knowledge is the continued belief in its utility.
Re-read that last sentence as it is the central point that I am trying to make. The spreading of a meme of this sort is all that is needed to inspire others to attain the knowledge for themselves. Thus other safeguards must be in place to insure the safe and ethical use of this knowledge.
Something needs to be said for keeping such knowledge secret. It does work to slow the spread of knowledge but ultimately can not stop it. That is to say, while there is a continued belief in the utility of such knowledge it will eventually be attained by others. However the important thing to remember is that so long as it is secret it will have to be realized by others...
Joy points out some very serious concerns about these and other emerging technologies; concerns that I feel must be addressed. However, when addressing them for the long term future we can-not rely on such empty hopes as keeping knowledge secret.
There are three choices that I see to avert the disasters Joy describes:
The most obvious, and I feel the most fool hearty of these options is to legislate the problems away; to make future research into these fields illegal. So long as perception of nano-technology continues to be that it is useful and potentially beneficial there will always be a demand for it. As we make all research in this area outlawed, we will find that only outlaws are researching nano-technology. And outlaws with nano-technology is the very disaster we are trying to avoid in the first place.
If we cannot stop research, the second option is to combat the now wide-spread meme that this knowledge has continued utility. In other words, stop the desire for such research. To me this does not seem to be much of a realistic approach to the solution. Not only would you need to convince the world that we should abandon all the potential that nano-technology provides, but it also would require that we ensure no future generations would give rebirth to the idea that nano-technology has utility enough to warrant research. The human desire for knowledge and progress is not something easily suppressed. Should we attempt to suppress this desire, and make such research unethical in societies eyes I fear the people who we fail to reach, and now the only people researching nano-technology, will be on the fringes of ethical society. Again, people on the fringe of ethical society, people that have ignored ethical guidelines are the last people we want to control this new technology.
The final choice we have is to actively engage in the development of these technologies and in so doing influence the direction, and perception of its utility in the future.
At first this argument may seem to contradict itself but history has seen similar arguments upheld over the nuclear bomb. The threat then was that Nazi scientists would create the bomb and the world would fall under the rule of Nazi Germany. This inspired scientists from all over the world to build the first atomic weapons, the first weapons of mass destruction.
In the near future we will be faced with the threat that people will desire to use these technologies for greatly destructive purposes. If we know nothing of these technologies, how then will we defend ourselves. Against an army of one man armed with nano-technology we stand no chance unless we too are masters of this knowledge as well.
The alternative to development is to suppress this knowledge, but are we willing or even capable of suppressing the desire for research in these fields across the globe, in laboratories, in universities, and in the very minds of scientists. If we decide that this goal is not possible we must make ourselves as knowledgeable in these new fields as we can. This I feel is our only chance for survival.
With that said, I only advocate research in these fields as a way to control their uses because I feel that it is important, as Joy says, to ensure that research in these fields continues with ethics, not scientific accomplishment, as the primary guide.
In the end we may not have a choice:
Some have argued that nano-technology is too dangerous to attempt, and that humanity's need for such progress is not sufficient enough to warrant its continued development. Few have made the argument that nano-technology is vitally important to the continued survival of the human species as we see it today. I would now like to give you a picture of a world in which nano-technology is successfully suppressed and we never develop it.
With each new generation of humans comes growth in our populations. With these larger populations more resources will be needed to sustain our species, and our society. First of all, non-renewable resources will be completely consumed, leaving us only with the renewable resources that our planet can provide, already we see this possible in our lifetimes. As our population will grow less and less of the natural resources will be left un-touched by human intervention, and little by little we will be reduced into a world with far too many mouths to feed. Starvation will be rampant, wars will be fought over scarce resources, plague from ever evolving disease that has more and more become immune to traditional bulk technologies used in medicines today, until eventually masses of people will die.
If we are lucky these waves of population growth and death will be enough to provide for regular intervals of prosperity and relative economic equality. This was seen in Europe after the black plague wiped out millions. However as our population grows back, the world will once again be faced with the most desperate choices of a society and economy based on material scarcity. We will be once again at risk of extinction by disease, warfare (bulk technology can kill us all as well remember), and simple exhaustion of the resources that we have on this planet. Even if we manage to continually dodge the bullet of over population, what sort of a world will this be to live in?
The alternative is to solve the material scarcity problem. I believe that nano-tech has the possibility of accomplishing this. I agree with Bill Joy and others that the risks are many and great, but the choice I see is to either embrace nano-technology and averting the clear disaster that material scarcity brings, or we can abandon our efforts and live with a dystopia that is potentially more horrific.
To conclude this, I would like to reiterate my central point, that if an idea is still seen as useful, then that idea will be realized eventually. The idea of nano-technology is not going away any time soon, so we better stop screaming about the falling sky and start discussing real solutions to the challenges ahead.