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Fine-grained relinquishment of nanotechnology

Writing in CIO Magazine on the "Promise and Peril of the 21st Century", Ray Kurzweil warns "As technology accelerates toward the full realization of genetic engineering, nanotechnology and, ultimately, robotics (collectively known as GNR), we will see the same intertwined potentials [the double-edged sword of technology]: a feast of creativity resulting from human intelligence expanded manyfold, combined with grave new dangers. We need to devise our strategies now to reap the promise while we manage the peril."

Ray Kurzweil writes further:

People often go through three stages in examining the impact of future technology: awe and wonderment at its potential to overcome age-old problems; then a sense of dread at a new set of dangers that accompany the new technology; followed, finally and hopefully, by the realization that the only viable and responsible path is to set a careful course that can realize the benefits while managing the risks.

… I do think that relinquishment at the right level needs to be part of our ethical response to the dangers of 21st-century technologies. One constructive example of that is the proposed ethical guideline by the Foresight Institute, founded by K. Eric Drexler (creator in the 1980s of the conceptual foundations of molecular manufacturing) and Christine Peterson. It states that nanotechnologists agree to forgo the development of physical entities that can self-replicate in a natural environment. Another proposal would create what nanotechnologist Ralph Merkle calls a "broadcast architecture," in which physical entities would have to obtain the codes for self-replication from a centralized secure server, which would guard against undesirable replication.

FUTURE DANGERS FROM NEW technologies may appear alarming when considered in the context of today's unprepared world. The reality is that the sophistication and power of our defensive technologies and knowledge will grow along with the dangers. …

… broad pursuit of relinquishment will only distract us from the vital task in front of us: to rapidly develop ethical and legal standards and defensive technologies that will be essential to our security. This is a race, and there is no alternative.

… I believe that maintaining an open system for incremental scientific and technological progress, in which each step is subject to market acceptance, will provide the most constructive environment for technology to embody widespread human values. Attempts to control these technologies through highly restrictive regulation or in dark government programs, along with inevitable underground development, would create an unstable environment in which the dangerous applications would likely become dominant.

2 Responses to “Fine-grained relinquishment of nanotechnology”

  1. Morgaine Says:

    Beginning of the era of commonsense?

    Hooray, well said Ray!!!! :-) I've been waiting for the voice of sanity to start making itself heard in the community for several years now, and I was starting to lose hope.

    Ray Kurzweil is not just that guy for whom there are insufficient superlatives in a whole range of technical and visionary areas, he's also a pretty good diplomat, and he knows how to broach nicely the delicate subject that activities that have been in vogue here in recent years are actually distractions rather than being helpful, without spelling it out in black and white.

    I'm just an engineer who likes things to be done well and who recognizes a hopelessly inadequate solution when I see one — like for example the decidedly unfunny attempt to safeguard our future through political action when such controls do nothing to stop even the most feeble attack.

    The key problem with that approach is that no amount of political maneuvering short of a global police state is going to stop nanotech development across several hundred countries and at potentially millions of development sites. If extremely strong coercive control measures are put into effect, they will at most impede the good guys. Hundreds of unaligned or counteraligned countries will exercise their sovereignty and ignore the "attempted technical imperialism" of the US and allies. Thousands of organized crime groups will do their usual nasty things out of the public limelight, and millions of independent developers will simply take exception to being branded criminals (file sharing comes to mind) and will potter along doing their own little bit towards progress. There's no stopping it. So why waste time and why create false impressions in a direction that cannot be effective, and may even be dangerous? That's not a diplomatic statement of the mismatch of problem and touted political solutions, but at least it's short. :-)

    Listen to Ray. He focuses his ideas for positive action into areas such as "defensive technologies" which can provide real safeguards, whereas guidelines and laws and political action cannot and so he grants them faint praise. I love it. :-)

    Ray's a fine engineer and a diplomat. Listen to him, please.

    [And after commenting on the article, let's work on some decent defenses. It's our families, homes and planet that are at stake, and nobody else is going to protect our local environments if we don't.]

  2. Anonymous Coward Says:

    Positive headlines are more helpful

    What a great negative heading, "Fine-Grained Relinquishment of Nanotechnology". Bill Joy would want more but I'm sure he's pretty happy with this.

    Who needs external detractors when the internal negative forces are doing just fine all by themselves? (I know I'm being unduly harsh about a single turn of phrase …. sorry, just trying to combat negativism. :-) )

    The article was not really about relinquishment at all, except in the sense of highlighting its inadequacy and making clear why only minimal relinquishment is tolerable. If you analyse what's really being said behind the very effectively written forms then you'll see that the concept of relinquishment (even minimal) is hinted at being largely a distraction and completely ineffectual. Ray Kurzweil's excellent article showed the general direction towards more constructive solutions.

    Be positive in news headings. Fear is not helpful in science and engineering.

    ["These technologies are advancing on hundreds of fronts, rendering relinquishment completely ineffectual as a strategy." - Ray Kurzweil.]

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