Friday, 02 November, 2001

The Dark Side of Nanotechnology

Small Times has published a thought-provoking piece on the "Dark Side" of nanotechnology, which can be terrifying if you've spent too many years reading horror novels and spy thrillers.  First, two items of background.

Item 1:  The nanotechnology field has been a model of open source research and free flow of information.  People in the field have been working on what until recently was almost pure fantasy.  They've been playing a game in which "the more the merrier" applied.  But now, with carbon nanotubes and other nanotech products nearing reality, some researchers are clamming up--undoubtedly at the request of their employers.  Open access is fine when you're talking fantasy, but things are different when there are billions of dollars at stake.

Item 2:  If nanotechnology is really capable of producing tiny programmable self-replicating autonomous machines, then there is the real possibility of targeting those machines at a particular ethnic or cultural group.  I think that this is a bit of a stretch--as I've mentioned before (seeOct. 19, 2000), such systems would require software that's orders of magnitude more complex than anything ever attempted.  Nonetheless, even a badly botched "mistake" could do some serious damage. 

There is discussion now about classifying some nanotechnology research, but to quote Glenn Reynolds ("a law professor and longtime nanotech expert at the University of Tennessee") from the article:  "The genies not just out of the bottle.  The bottles broken."  Which brings me to the topic I will introduce at our next Future Tuesday discussion.

Given the very real possibility (in the near future) of a small group of people having the ability to literally wipe out civilization--perhaps the entire human race--how can we prevent it from happening?  The article alludes to the possibility of "good nanotech" that would fight the bad bugs in much the same way that the computer industry has fought computer viruses.  I don't think it's a fair comparison because a computer virus is typically targeted at a specific hardware and software configuration and requires either active participation by the victim, or a security vulnerability in the system.  A nano-bug targeted at humans would require no such opportunity, and can't as easily be eradicated.  There's no human biological equivalent of a shutdown, reformat, and reinstall.