Argomenti trattati: nanotecnologia


di J. Storrs Hall
Testo tratto dalla rivista "Extropy", #9, vol.4, n.1, Summer 1992, Los Angeles, CA, USA

The following thoughts appeared on sci.nanotech - the lnternet newsgroup dedicated to discussing nanotechnology in all its aspects, from the social to the highly technical. It was written in response to other postings which are not reproduced here.

A recent letter from Thomas Donaldson to the cryonics list contained the following:


This comment is a tangent more or less unrelated to the others. It has consistently disturbed me that many cryonicists, particularly those using the above phrase or its variations, speak about cryonics in very much the way 19th century born-again Christians might speak about the Millenium. I've heard a lot about nanotechnology, but just what is this Nanotechnology which is supposed to be coming? (The Christians, of course, had a different word for it. But that's OK. Just change the words and what do you have?).

Would Eric Klein or some other exponent of this world view (theology?) explain in simple terms just what this Nanotechnology is? And please note the capital letter: as I said, I already know a lot about the uncapitalized form.

For instance, I had a very strange experience not long ago. Someone who (I think) is a Believer claimed that when Nanotechnology came, the tiny critters could be used to cure cancer. When I pointed out that almost the same thing, and to the same effect, was happening now by experimental treatments in which Iymphocytes were modified and cultured up in large number to attack a patient's cancer, he seemed not to notice, shrugging it off with the statement that Nanotechnology will do much more.

This is a good question, and one that deserves a lot of thought. A major reason for that is precisely to keep our meme complex trimmed of the pseudo-religious memes that commonly attach themselves to any similar vision.
It is vital to distinguish between a vision, which "Nanotechnology" certainly is, and a Faith, which it is not (and which we must constantly guard it from becoming). A vision, in the sense I'm using it here, is a picture of some wonderful future development for which the visionary has some reasonable grounds of belief. I'm using "Faith" to mean a belief system, like a religion, that is adhered to without any reasonable evidence that it is true or possible.
Now "faith" is often used to denote any belief by people wishing to denigrate that belief. For example, I'm occasionally accused of having a "faith in technological progress". I do believe that technological progress tends to make things better for people in general. Detractors from this point of view exhibit any number of social problems and remind us that technology hasn't solved them. This might be a valid argument if I had a Faith of the religious variety; i.e. that technology would solve all problems. Of course it won't--and indeed it does create some new problems: If you cure a disease that was killing half the population (e.g. the Black Plague) you must now find a way to feed all lhese people you didn't have to worry about before.
Thus one of the most obvious distinguishing characteristics between visions and Faiths is that the object of faith is held to be a panacea. Most religious paradises and many ideological utopias fall into this category: "Once we get to X, there simply won't be anything wrong."
It is all too easy to take a vision and hang this meme onto it, which makes it much less useful for either predicting or designing the future. For example, take the vision which some people had around the turn of the century of universal ownership of motorcars. This is a good vision; we as a society and as individuals are considerably better off than we would be without them. However, it would have been silly to imagine the result as idyllic.
The same is true of nanotechnology. If you think our legal system is a mess now, imagine it after any one, much less all, of the nanotech developments that could greatly affect our way of life. Imagine the scale of industrial accidents or terrorism, much less out-and-out war. It's virtually certain that if we do manage to increase our intelligence, we'll increase the complexity of everyday life more than enough to make up for it. Even if I can buy a newly manufactured body totally free f rom disease, I dread waking up the morning after the warranty runs out.
The next religious meme that we need to look out for is that of believing that one's vision is unique, or the best, or other characterization that causes you to dismiss alternatives without serious consideration. It is easy to see howthis meme is advantageous to a belief system in the fierce competition of a memetic ecology; it is also easy to see how unlikely it is actually to be true. This meme finds its ultimate expression in religious wars.
Note that if one is actually working to develop something, some mechanism like this is necessary to focus the effort; but one should focus the effort because the effort needs to be focused to be effective, ratherthan from an erroneous belief that all alternatives are bad.
Now one can imagine self-reproducing robots using computer and mechanical technology not greatly different from what currently exists; and molecular man ipu lation without self -reproducing robots. One can imagine many of the effects we anticipate, being done by biomolecular engineering, others by extensions of conventional chemistry, Al being achieved by ingenious innovations in software instead of simulating brains, etc.
Another view is that nanotechnology is simply a name for any technique or group of techniques that manipulates matter at the molecular level. In this view nanotechnology is unique because it is allinclusive. The trouble with this definition is that it allows one to call anything nanotechnology, e.g. chemistry. If so, then we have nanotechnology now, and it doesn't do all the things we claim. A reasonable definition of nanotechnology must include the notion of a broad and general abilityto design, build, and control molecular mechanisms across a very wide range of possibilities.
A third and final memetic attachment that makes a Faith out of a vision is some hook that relates directly to belief and propagation: "Not only should you believe th is simply because it is true, but you'll go to Hell if you don't. Furthermore, it's a sin notto try to convince others of this belief." In ideological faiths, this meme expresses itself in the social castigation of the Politically Incorrect.
It isconvenientto give namestothese three memes (remember that a meme corresponds to a gene, i.e. it is the smallest unit of idea replication that is identifiably separable from the overall meme complex). We'll call them Panacea, Incomparability, and Apostasy, respectively.
Nanotechnology seems mercifully free of Apostasy at the moment: No one seems to be claiming it's any kind of sin to disbelieve the Word of Saint Eric. There is some tendency, unfortunately, for nanotechnology as a set of popular ideas, to accrete a bit of Panacea and/or Incomparability. It is our responsibility to continue to scrub nanotechnology to keep it free of them.
Nevertheless, I do believe that it is reasonable to put a fair amount of faith, in the simple uncapitalized sense of the word, in the ability of advancing technology in general to solve a broad range of welldefined physical problems, among them the cure and/or prevention of certain diseases, or indeed the aging process itself. Such a belief is reasonable not only, or even primanly, because we can posit particular mechanisms for the solutions, but because we have a long history of scientific and technological success for just such problems.