The Proceedings of the 1989 NanoCon Northwest regional nanotechnology conference, with K. Eric Drexler as Guest of Honor.

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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 first.

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 weren't.

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 that.

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 it happen.

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 problem.

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 policy.

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? Malicious mischief?

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 them back.

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 development.

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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