The Proceedings of the 1989 NanoCon Northwest regional
nanotechnology conference, with K. Eric Drexler as Guest of Honor.
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NANOCON PROCEEDINGS page 8
V. SOCIAL ISSUES PANEL
Introduction by Greg Bear
I will reintroduce the panel in case any of the faces are unfamiliar.
John Cramer, Physicist; Gregory Benford, Nuclear Physicist and competitor;
Eric Drexler, whom I am sure we all know; and Doug Batey, lawyer -- I am
glad you are a lawyer, because that is what we are going to be getting into
on this panel.
I heard early on that we should concentrate on the next 20 to 30 years for
the social implications of nanotechnology. But I would like the panel instead
to focus on the next 20 or 30 years after definite applications of nanotechnology
are on-line. That would be a more expansive topic. I don't want to, though
I would love to, move off too much into the metaphysical issues because
the science fictions writers will do that on their own time. I would like
to hear from the the audience, but I think we will start with the panelists
A. Doug Batey
It's a little hard to know where to begin. I suppose from a legal perspective,
there are always issues involved in new technologies, even when the technologies
are not revolutionary, as nanotechnology is. There are always issues involved
in fitting new technologies inside our existing legal framework. I suppose
a good example would be the computer software issues involving the adaptations
of copyright law to protect the rights of programmers, who had written the
programs and wanted to use the legal system to protect their ownership rights
so they can receive their economic return. Those kinds of issues will be
apparent within nanotechnology. I think those legal issues are more conventional,
and with its usual fits and starts, I believe the legal system will be able
to adapt to most of those issues, at least the initial types of issues that
would come up, such as protecting the rights of inventors of particular
molecular machines. There are always issues involving the finer details
of fitting new technologies into an existing legal system. But, I don't
see those kinds of issues as being particularly troublesome, at least in
the initial stages of the inventions and processes that would come out of
nanotechnology. I think that later, perhaps with more revolutionary issues
involving human personalities, for example -- which starts to verge on the
metaphysical -- that is one area where the legal system will have a lot
more difficulty with those kinds of issues. The reason it does is that our
legal system is reactive and evolutionary and moves at a fairly slow pace
and has trouble working with revolutionary advances which affect the "warp
and woof" of our society. The issue from a legal perspective that I
see is perhaps the most immediate threat to nanotechnology is that it not
only brings perceived benefits that are fairly obvious, but also perceived
risks that are less obvious and also, I think, harder to predict.
Those risks, which could affect the structure of our society, could also
involve individual governments and perhaps even risks to human life on this
planet. These are the kinds of risks that, at some level, will blend the
legal and political system together. Our system is going to have trouble
addressing these in a rational way, and I think we have all seen this in
some other technologies in the past 45 years, beginning with nuclear energy
and the subsequent regulation of that technology. I think that the risk
to nanotechnology is the direct regulation of the research and the growth
of the technology. That is certainly a possibility. I think probably, almost
inevitably, there will be some regulation of at least the use of that technology.
G. BEAR: Is that desirable?
I have never been convinced that direct regulation
of research or types of research is desirable. For one thing, I don't believe
you will be able to prevent that kind of research. You may be able to prevent
it, perhaps, for a while in a particular country, but if the technology
grows slowly and in an evolutionary fashion, well, we have all read in the
history of science of inventions that have been made almost simultaneously.
We have almost reached the point where highly competent scientists working
in a given area will invariably lead to somebody discovering something.
If you tried in one country to limit areas of research, I think somebody
else, some place else, would do it anyway. That is my particular bias as
to why it is not good to directly regulate research.
I do think it is almost inevitable that there will be some degree of governmental
regulation of the effects and the use of nanotechnology based on what I
read in Engines
of Creation and some of the things I have heard at this conference.
The effects of some of the results of nanotechnology could be so revolutionary
-- one potential threat is self-replicating machines in the environment,
which could be viewed as a first cut at germ-warfare.
Another is that it's not a visible technology, in the sense that a particular
molecular machine is not something someone is going to trip over as they
are walking down the street -- it's invisible. It could invade your body
without your knowledge, and so on. Those are the reasons I think that when
this technology is close to or at a point of realization, there will be
some degree of governmental regulation. I would be very surprised if there
J. CRAMER: But there are already things like that
running about and there is nothing the government can do about it.
G. BEAR: That is an interesting question. John (Cramer).
B. John Cramer
I did want to say something about the social impact of nanotechnology. It
seems to me that there are two fundamental underpinnings to society that
are going to be radically changed by the introduction of nanotechnology.
One of them has to do with time constants. We are accustomed to having a
certain amount of time between dealing with one problem before having to
deal with the next problem. Probably the time constants have been getting
shorter during the 20th century, but they seem to be changing at a rate
that we can accommodate. I am afraid that what is going to happen with the
advent of nanotechnology is the problems and the decisions and the crises
are going to come at a pace which is ten to a hundred times faster than
is the case now and none of the governmental or judgmental procedures that
we use are equipped to deal with a pace of change which is accelerated like
To put it a slightly different way, if one thinks of all the different organizations
that exist to deal with change, the one that deals with change with the
shortest time constant is the military. In a battlefield, the changes are
coming thick and fast and the people have to deal with them. It seems to
me that there is going to be a tendency for military takeovers in an environment
where change comes as fast as it is likely to do with nanotechnology. I
think that one has to think about that in advance, rather than simply letting
The second thing is that our economics is based on certain things that are
valuable and other things that are not valuable. Those relationships are
going to be turned on their head. One reason gold is valuable because it
is in short supply,while dirt is cheap. The things that we think are valuable
now in many cases will not be valuable when nanotechnology comes along.
Probably other things that we consider relatively free and easy, might turn
out to be in much shorter supply. That means that all of our economic institutions
will be turned on their heads. There will be depressions and recessions
and god-knows-what at rates that are hard even to contemplate. I think that
we are not at all well prepared for events like that.
A third area which is interesting is that our society is sort of based of
the fact that eventually people die and are replaced by other people. It
has been said that in physics when there is a paradigm change it is because
an old generation of physicists has died off and been replaced by a new
generation of physicists that adopt the new paradigm. If physicists live
forever, it would be a lot harder to introduce a new paradigm.
Another aspect of this is that our congress is based on the seniority system.
The longer you have been in congress, the longer you have held your seat,
the more power you have. If you analyze congress, as I have for the American
Physical Society, you will understand that committee chairmen are where
the action is. The committee chairmen and their staffs are where everything
is decided, not your regular representative who is usually powerless unless
he has been in congress for at least 10 years. One must realize that by
life extension, which is very likely to come from nanotechnology, one is
going to be in the situation where many of these institutions which are
based on the expectation of normal replacement of people over periods of
time on the order of 20 years, are not going to work anymore. We are going
to find ourselves in a lot of logjams when institutions that formerly worked
well are suddenly troubled by very big problems. I do not have any solutions,
all I can do is pose the problem. I will now pass it on to Greg (Benford)
who will give us the solution.
C. Greg Benford
I notice that when going to a public park there are no statues erected to
those people who define problems. You see, problems are always easier to
notice. I was remarking to Greg Bear that Newton had said he had seen further
because he stood on the shoulders of giants; with nanotechnology, there
is some propensity to believe that we have seen further because we are looking
over the heads of pygmies. That kind of attitude is not going to get you
far because, remember, all small crank groups look alike at a distance.
If you believe in the future adamantly, you're not exactly in small company
in the state of California.
For six months, I have been thinking and worrying about what we should do
about nanotechnology in the near term, as well as how to figure out what
it is going to look like. My bias is that we are going to deal over that
time scale (20 to 30 years) with protein machines acting on existing organisms:
biotech, really, rather than nanotech. With that in mind, you can certainly
envision products. Nanotechnology is going to be product driven. It therefore
might pay you to think of a way to make money out of it, which certainly
is possible. You could imagine an organism that lives in your mouth and
fights decay; you would still have to brush your teeth to get the large
stuff out, but "nanodentists" are a great product, because everybody
could use it.
Similarly, if you wanted to scour the surfaces of buildings that have been
covered with the products of oil and coal burning technology, then something
that simply eats carbon deposits is a good idea. You might see a building
completely covered by a large amorphous skin which slowly reveals the original
building. You might see a business called "NANOTECH DOES WINDOWS";
in fact you might sell "self-doing" windows: "Buy this Window,
it cleans itself forever; it likes to eat stuff that falls on it."
It's fun to make up products like that and it might be fun to use them.
Notice there is the obvious runaway scenario; you are going to see stories
like that in science fiction magazines. What happens if you can't get the
things to stop eating the building, or what happens if it gets off the building
and runs in the streets and devours the tar? But that is the old fashion
I tried to think specifically of what would be the actual impact, not of
nanotechnology, or biotechnology, because this is still coming, but what
about the fact that we are promulgating the idea? Will that have an affect
on society itself? Because what are we trying to do: I think it is something
almost as unprecedented as nanotechnology -- to truly think through an emerging
technology. But the process of thinking through it, of going around and
giving supper club talks, of giving graduation talks, may perturb society
in a demonstrable way.
I tried to think of a real example and I think I have found one. I think
that if you communicate the quasi-evangelical certainty that nanotechnology
will arrive on the scale of a half-century, you will drive very strongly,
and very soon, a very large increase in the entire cryonics program. Make
a lot of people believe that they will be brought back by this method, and
they are going to start freezing themselves at an increasing rate. I think
the effect has already begun. It is the only reason I can deduce for the
spectacular things that have occurred in southern California during the
last twelve months surrounding Alcor Corporation. If you want to think about
the legal problems of nanotechnology, think about the legal problems of
the cryonics people and scale them up. I have been thinking about writing
a novel on it.
I have two comments to make: One, beware that you are right now
driving social change. The cryonicists are
being given much more of an audience, in part because they have been given
a plausible program to depict and they now have a "bible" (Engines
of Creation) that they can put in your hands. That is going to
be exciting. Cryonicists are starting to freeze people at the rate of one
every two months. Consider that only about 45 people have been frozen in
the entire history of the movement, which started back in 1964. The first
one who was frozen is still frozen, by the way (actually the second: the
first was embalmed). About 20-some are still frozen, but at the current
rate of freezing the number is going to increase very rapidly.
I think that you should acknowledge the fact that if you truly do
convince people of the inevitability of this technology, then you are going
to change society in non-linear ways before the technology exists.
That has never been done before either. Society changes on the basis of
expectations. The stock market of ideas is a market place of ideas. That
may be your biggest impact in the next two decades. You should consider
that. You should consider what you wish to say to the public in order to
drive that. For you see, now people are watching you. You cannot get out
of the spotlight. That may be the best message to give you at this time.
Be careful about what you dream about the future -- it may happen. And you
may be stuck with it.
D. Eric Drexler
I would like to start by agreeing with most of what has already been said.
That covers an awful lot of the ground that needs to be covered. Observe
that the reason to bother with exploratory engineering is precisely what
Greg Benford says: to have future technologies have an impact on society
today in terms of planning of R&D and, I think more importantly, in
terms of people's decisions in their lives and the plans they make for public
John Cramer has pointed out the importance of learning to deal with more
rapid change. If you expect to see a period of extremely rapid change in
the future, it is very wise to hideaway plans years ahead of time so when
you are thinking through those changes, you are in effect "practicing."
John mentioned the military as an institution that responds to change rapidly;
large parts of the way they do that is through planning and training exercises
that constantly are trying to anticipate what sorts of things might happen,
knowing full well that the detailed plans they make will, of course, be
broken. It is said that no plan survives contact with battle. Nonetheless,
planning and trying to anticipate what sorts of tactics are effective can
lead to better, more effective responses when rapid changes hit and decisions
must be made.
What we are looking for on "the other side" of the development
of genuine nanotechnology (which is to say, nanotechnology based on general
assemblers giving thorough and inexpensive control of the structure of matter)
includes, as I said, computers with raw computational power in the range
of a trillion times what we have today. Probable consequences are true artificial
intelligence and the ability to build on a very large scale and that includes
the ability to build on a large scale in space, including interstellar space.
I suspect that 30 years after we have assemblers, we will have some technological
sphere of influence extending at least 25 light years in space, and I can
sketch for you, if you like, a few of the key capabilities that would make
that kind of transportation into interstellar space feasible. All that is
unprecedented. We are agreed that life extension will have important effects
on human institutions, especially the government. It would not perhaps be
too early, if you are concerned about the succession of members of Congress,
to establish the principle of rotation in office, so people do not have
to die to be moved out to some place else.
The problem with physicists is: are you sweeping away the old paradigm entirely?
Because if you have a pluralistic society and if you have the sort of capabilities
we are talking about, I think it important that one allow for the divergence
of paradigms. Had this happened earlier, one could imagine the old classical
physicists still grousing around about quantum mechanics and not really
accepting it and consequently chewing over their old arguments for why one
shouldn't accept it, but nonetheless the new generation of quantum physicists
would arise, so there would essentially be a schism in physics, with two
different research programs going on.
So pluralism, I think, is an answer to a lot
of the questions that will come up. When people ask what will society be
like after the introduction of nanotechnology, I think we can say, and I
hope this will be in the order of a self-fulfilling prophecy, that the society
will not be like any one thing. There will be places where people are using
these technologies in ways to build societies that are incomprehensible
to us; there will be other places where people will say: "This corner
of the continent is not zoned for advanced nanotechnology. If you would
like to visit suburbia as it was in the 20th century, well here it is!"
G. BEAR: "Suburbia National Park."
So having a future in which it is possible to have
that sort of diversity, the fundamental problem will be explicitly
a military or police problem: that is, how does one establish a world that
is defensively stable? By which I mean that things are generally
quiet and peaceful on a defensive basis, and where the technological base
is nanotechnology. I think that trying to find a way to make the transition
from a world without nanotechnology to a world with it, that is both peaceful
and diverse, is a great challenge. I hope that things we say in public about
nanotechnology are focused on that central problem, because it is people's
perceptions and plans and policies that are formulated that are going to
determine whether we can manage this transition in a way that gets us to
that kind of world. And that is going to depend upon their attitudes, understandings,
expectations, and what they think are the real problems.
E. Greg Bear
I would like to add a few qualifications and notions of my own. As a writer
I think of plots -- such as someone having a hell of a time with what could
be a very good thing. If you have a problem with longevity so that as people
get older they are actually setting up their brain systems so that they
cannot change, then people who take the longevity road might be forced to
mental/brain alterations -- that is, to alter their personalities and/or
their memories in such a way that they do not act as a definite brake on
society for a longer period than is naturally healthy. If you have senators
who have been in office for 30 years, but they are in fact 500 years old,
and they haven't changed their paradigms from the time they were 35 years
old, which is the time when paradigms in private lives start setting in
pretty solidly, then that could be a real problem.
Let's consider this from the analog problem solving sense. What is going
to happen in the short term when garbage and radioactive waste dumps become
valuable resources? That is going to have an enormous economic impact.
I am working on a novel now that is going to have a lot of implicit and
implied nanotechnology, and one of the things that is happening in the novel
is that Third World countries are having a hell of a time with their manufacturing
base, because nanotechnology is somewhat proprietary, they are not really
in on it, and they cannot manufacture raw materials cheaply enough to replace
what the industrialized and garbage-dump-filled countries are doing by "mining"
their own wastes. A definite problem for those countries that are not going
to be on the upward swing right away. This technology is not going to happen
all over the world at once. I can almost guarantee that. It is going to
be proprietary. Given that, you are going to have "have-nots."
"Have-nots", as we have learned to our chagrin for the last 50
years, have a real impact on the "haves."
If you have religious reactions to these particular changes, how long will
these reactions last and how catastrophic will they be? I suspect they will
last on the order of one to two centuries and in certain nations they will
be catastrophic indeed. There will be instances of extreme reactionary governments
coming into power that forbid nanotechnology, which remove those nations
from the world for a period of time and cause them to go crazy. At that
point they are either absorbed by the nations around them, or they come
back on track after a period of 30 years, but meanwhile all the nations
around them will be that much more careful, because these returning nations
will have access to the terrorist side of nanotechnology. They will be able
to find unscrupulous people to do the kind of things that they want to do,
even if they can't have the industrial base. They can still have the equivalent
of a "gray-goo" plague set upon people they do not like for religious,
ideological or economic reasons. Religious resistance is something that
really hasn't been considered at this point.
What about religious or philosophical resistance in the "enlightened"
countries? If someone comes to a "cryotorium" and breaks into
it and destroys all the freezers, what are they going to be charged with?
E. DREXLER: Murder.
G. BEAR: Murder? These people were declared dead!
E. DREXLER: It was a big mistake.
But again, these people were declared dead. It
will be years before such acts will be considered murder. Remember the cops
themselves tried to open the cryotorium to perform an autopsy. I can almost
bet, given the scenario, that these things will happen. I am not saying
that the impact of these occurrences will necessary be enormous, but they
will have an equivalent effect on society to the race riots of the 60's.
These are "small irritations" that cause enormous changes, which
is what happens in pluralistic societies. "Small irritations",
such as terrorism or racial outbreaks, are what cause major changes in society.
What if the legal system in the future refuses to allow resurrection? Because
they may have to reeducate these people; they may have an economic system
that is shaky after years of ups and downs reacting to the effects of nanotechnology.
They don't want somebody who isn't completely "on-line" and certainly
they don't want on the order of 50,000 or more individuals coming in, in
the year in which a cure for death is found. They don't want that to happen,
so they simply pass a law: these people were declared dead, they are still
dead, you can freeze them for as long as you want, but you cannot bring
There will be industrial resistance to nanotechnology. There may have to
be a boot-strap, concentrated project to get the focus of world industry
on this issue, and government may be the agency to do this. My new novel,
Queen of Angels which I am currently finishing, gives just such a
scenario. Starting about 20 years from now, industrialized nations decide
they need to get a push on nanotechnology. They decide on a big project,
a project to focus all the industrial nations, it will require nanotechnology
to get it done: it will be a star-probe: 150 ton (roughly) unmanned, interstellar
vessel to Alpha Centauri. All the research and development that goes into
this project can then be applied freely to international nanotechnological
That is possibly one way we will see this development happen. However, more
likely we will see small industry doing small things and gradually building
up, like the computer industry.
Let's go to the audience and get their reactions and their thoughts.
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