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Current Results of Our Research

These pages, marked with GREEN headings, are published for comment and criticism. These are not our final findings; some of these opinions will probably change.   LOG OF UPDATES 

CRN Research: Overview of Current Findings   

bulletTimeline for Molecular Manufacturing   
bulletProducts of Molecular Manufacturing
bulletBenefits of Molecular Manufacturing
bulletDangers of Molecular Manufacturing  
bulletNo Simple Solutions
bulletAdministration Options
bulletThe Need for Early Development
bulletThe Need for International Development
bulletThirty Essential Nanotechnology Studies
bulletStudy #26     YOU ARE HERE

Thirty Essential Nanotechnology Studies - #26

Overview of all studies: Because of the largely unexpected transformational power of molecular manufacturing, it is urgent to understand the issues raised. To date, there has not been anything approaching an adequate study of these issues. CRN's recommended series of thirty essential studies is organized into five sections, covering fundamental theory, possible technological capabilities, bootstrapping potential, product capabilities, and policy questions. Several preliminary conclusions are stated, and because our understanding points to a crisis, a parallel process of conducting the studies is urged. 

CRN is actively looking for researchers interested in performing or assisting with this work. Please contact CRN Research Director Chris Phoenix if you would like more information or if you have comments on the proposed studies.

Study #26 What are the disaster/disruption scenarios?
  Determine which of the following scenarios are plausible, and if so, whether they are survivable or preventable.
Subquestion Massive war?
Preliminary answer Highly plausible. A nano arms race appears almost inevitable, and would probably be unstable as discussed in the military capabilities study (#20).
A nano-enabled war would probably be lethal to many civilians. As pointed out by Tom McCarthy, "Military planners will seek a target that is large enough to find and hit, and that cannot be easily replaced. The natural choice, given the circumstances, will be civilian populations." Both full-scale war and unconventional/terroristic war will target civilians, who will be nearly impossible to defend without major lifestyle changes. It would be easy to deploy enough antipersonnel weapons to make the earth unsurvivable by unprotected humans.
Subquestion Economic meltdown?
Preliminary answer It's easy to imagine a nanofactory package that allows completely self-sufficient living, off grid and without money, while retaining modern first-world comfort levels. However, a modest amount of advertising would make this unattractive to most people.
As discussed elsewhere, we can expect a large fraction of jobs in a wide range of areas related to manufacturing, extraction, and supply to disappear. This problem is already appearing with increased automation and efficiency, but could rapidly get worse.
  The factors that lead to economic meltdown also provide increased self-sufficiency, so it ought to be survivable in the absence of oppressive policy (maintaining artificial scarcity while removing sources of income). Secondary effects from social disruption may be problematic but ought to be survivable.
  Attempts to subsidize dead-end jobs will probably be harmful in the long run. Some amount of economic disruption should be expected. Social engineering to reduce the stigma of unemployment (why should unearned income be good for the rich and bad for the poor?) and policy to allow displaced workers to share in the benefits of the new technology will be helpful.
Subquestion Runaway self-replication?
Preliminary answer Also known as the 'grey goo' scenario, this is perhaps the earliest and most famous concern related to molecular manufacturing. Contrary to early statements by Drexler, this could not happen accidentally; manufacturing systems, even early lab versions, will not remotely have the capability to become self-contained free-range self-replicators. However, the deliberate combination of a very small nanofactory, a very small chemical plant to convert organic chemicals into feedstock, and some robotics, could be a substantial nuisance or even threat. Eventually, the technology will develop to the point where it will be easy to make a device that requires active cleanup to avoid widespread environmental damage. The prevalence of computer viruses implies that creating such devices will be attractive to certain personality types, and eventually within their capability.
  So, although runaway self-replication is not a first-rank concern, eventually it will need to be studied, and some combination of prevention and cleanup capability probably will have to be implemented. In theory, this could pose an existential threat.
Subquestion Dangerous software?
Preliminary answer An arms race (either military or corporate—in fact, conducted by any organization) could involve the development of increasingly capable AIs for the purpose of manipulating or coercing people. Note that this does not require full general intelligence. A variety of manipulative techniques (on either human psychology or other complex systems) can be imagined using only specialized data-processing.
  Some theorists believe that a self-improving AI could pose an existential threat: almost any command would cause unexpected and massively disruptive side effects. We do not know whether this is plausible. But nanotech development will certainly be an enabling technology for powerful AI, though we may face this problem even before nanotech is developed. Robert Freitas cites some of these concerns going back decades in Kinematic Self-Replicating Machines. Already, enough infrastructure is computer-controlled to make a cyberspace attack potentially very destructive. As more products become computer-integrated, a software attack could shut down, damage, or subvert increasingly crucial functions.
  The variety of possible impacts on human psychology, computer-integrated infrastructure, and other systems (e.g. the effect of computer trading on the stock market) implies that this whole area should be extensively and creatively studied.
Subquestion Moral or social meltdown?
Preliminary answer The availability of new products and lifestyles may cause disruption in social fabric, especially in conservative societies that may actively resist change. This may inspire a backlash, possibly including force. It is likely to destroy some cultures. Broader effects are unknown.
Subquestion Environmental devastation by overproduction?
Preliminary answer It would be easy to build enough nano-litter to cause serious pollution problems. Small nano-built devices in particular will be difficult to collect after use. It will also be easy to consume enough energy to change microclimate and even global climate.
Overpopulation is probably not a concern, even in the event of extreme life/health extension. The more people use high technology, the fewer children they seem to have.
Subquestion Health impacts from nano-built products?
Preliminary answer Not enough is yet known about the lifecycle and potential toxicity issues of products (or by-products) from molecular manufacturing to give a good answer. Some of these concerns may fall into familiar categories of chemical waste disposal and thus are fairly well explored, but the massive volume of materials that could be produced in exponentially proliferating nanofactories could complicate the problems enormously.
Conclusion Several plausible disaster scenarios appear to pose existential threats to the human race.
Other studies 1. Is mechanically guided chemistry a viable basis for a manufacturing technology?
2. To what extent is molecular manufacturing counterintuitive and underappreciated in a way that causes underestimation of its importance?
What is the performance and potential of diamondoid machine-phase chemical manufacturing and products?
4. What is the performance and potential of biological programmable manufacturing and products?
5. What is the performance and potential of nucleic acid manufacturing and products?
6. What other chemistries and options should be studied?
What applicable sensing, manipulation, and fabrication tools exist?
8. What will be required to develop diamondoid machine-phase chemical manufacturing and products?
9. What will be required to develop biological programmable manufacturing and products?
10. What will be required to develop nucleic acid manufacturing and products?
11. How rapidly will the cost of development decrease?
12. How could an effective development program be structured?
What is the probable capability of the manufacturing system?
14. How capable will the products be?
15. What will the products cost?
16. How rapidly could products be designed?
Which of today's products will the system make more accessible or cheaper?
18. What new products will the system make accessible?
19. What impact will the system have on production and distribution?
20. What effect will molecular manufacturing have on military and government capability and planning, considering the implications of arms races and unbalanced development?
21. What effect will this have on macro- and microeconomics?
22. How can proliferation and use of nanofactories and their products be limited?
23. What effect will this have on policing?
24. What beneficial or desirable effects could this have?
25. What effect could this have on civil rights and liberties?
27. What effect could this have on geopolitics?
28. What policies toward development of molecular manufacturing does all this suggest?
29. What policies toward administration of molecular manufacturing does all this suggest?
30. How can appropriate policy be made and implemented?
Studies should begin immediately. The situation is extremely urgent. The stakes are unprecedented, and the world is unprepared. The basic findings of these studies should be verified as rapidly as possible (months, not years). Policy preparation and planning for implementation, likely including a crash development program, should begin immediately.

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