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Prometheus

Over at CRN, Chris Phoenix posted a very nice piece about the reception Foresight gave to introduce me as President. He mentions that I am broadening Foresight’s focus to include AI as well as nanotechnology in the picture we see of transformative technologies on the horizon. But he ends with an interesting twist:

But I’ll be watching closely to see how Foresight handles molecular manufacturing. Will Josh be able to redirect Foresight away from its current focus on “Advancing Beneficial Nanotechnology” to address the negative implications as well? I asked him today about Foresight’s earlier slogan, “Good for people, good for the planet,” and he did not like it. So maybe Foresight will be moving toward a more balanced view of the perils as well as the promise of molecular manufacturing. If they don’t, CRN will just have to do our best to balance the picture.

Foresight’s new motto is “Preparing for future technologies.” This may sound familiar because it was Foresight’s motto quite some time ago. When Foresight was founded, the word “nanotechnology” meant a radical, transformative technology that implied things from nanofactories to affordable space travel. The word has undergone a lot of inflation since then, but the future technologies worth special attention by futurist institutions like Foresight (and CRN) remain the radical ones.

CRN deserves a lot of credit for understanding exactly this potentially transformative character of nanotech and doing yeoman’s work in helping submit these facts to a candid world. We do, however, seem to have a minor philosophical difference of approach.

By far the greatest danger I see associated with nanotechnology is that it won’t be developed soon enough, and may not be developed by the right people (which will be a consequence of its not being developed fast enough by the people who have had a chance to do so for a couple of decades now). The consequences of nanotech being developed by inimical entities is probably entirely commensurate with the reasons some people may have for being queasy about its being developed at all, so let me focus on the problems I see with it being developed late, albeit by the same clement entities we hope do in fact develop it.

The first argument is medical: My life was arguably saved at age 2 by a stint in an oxygen tent which would not have been available in earlier times. My father’s life was definitely saved about 20 years ago by the use of a then brand-new heart/lung machine which hadn’t been available a year earlier. New technology saves lives, it feeds the hungry, it allows people to live healthier, more comfortable, more productive, and ultimately more satisfying lives.

The second reason is, to me anyway, even more compelling. Compare the life of the medieval serf to the life you live now. Would you want a life expectancy of 30, to be illiterate, superstitious, malnourished, never travel more than 5 miles from where you were born, and do hard physical labor all your life, with no retirement? Could you explain to the serf what the differences would be like? If the serf really understood, how much would he risk to change places with you?

On the other hand, nanotech (and AI) will be disruptive in proportion to their impact. People are worried about this, and with some reason. To some extent, the introduction of nanotech will be like the introduction of fire.

Of all the technologies the ancients had, fire was seen as the one that made them most like the gods. Remember the story of Prometheus, the god who gave fire to man and was condemned to eternal torture for his pains.

Suppose Homo Habilis had set up study panels and spent hour upon learned hour discussing the pros and cons of using fire. Suppose, indeed, that HH had actually gotten all the problems, downsides, accidents, and so forth exactly right. Would they have then proceeded to adopt fire?

Not unless they had a vision, ranging from how good hot stew tastes to what an Apollo moon rocket is like, of what fire could do positively for them. But such a vision, in anything even close to resembling truthful form, would have been so fantastic as to seem incomprehensible. They could imagine being burned up because that is the sort of thing that does happen with natural, uncontrolled, forest fires. But the opposite vision — such as worldwide commerce in combustion-driven machines — was simply beyond their ken.

No matter how much they studied, they would never have gotten the overall picture close to right. They would have gotten much closer on the dangers than the benefits, though.

To me, the bottom line is clear. There is simply no doubt that they did the right thing to go ahead and develop the ability to control and use fire. Understanding the benefits of a really radical technology is much harder than understanding the dangers. But it’s worth it, even if all you can do is try it and see what you get.

4 Responses to “Prometheus”

  1. Says:

    JoSH, in our field Prometheus is respected not so much as the bringer of fire, but as the a pioneer is regenerating organs.

  2. Says:

    Bravo! Someone finally voiced how I feel about CRN spreading gloom and doom about the most promising new technologies of the age. While I respect Chris Phoenix for his insights into nanomanufacturing and anti-aging, I feel his organization’s focus on the dangers just gives the “statists”** the excuse they are looking for to try to increase their control over others.

    ** “statists” vs. “dynamicists” described in Virginia Postrel’s book “The Future and Its Enemies”.

  3. Says:

    See my response to Josh’s post:
    http://crnano.typepad.com/crnblog/2009/03/the-dangers-of-prometheus.html

    Chris Phoenix, CRN

  4. Says:

    remember the titanic !
    just build me a lifeboat first please…

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