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Results of Our Ongoing 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

bullet Timeline for Molecular Manufacturing   
bulletProducts of Molecular Manufacturing
bulletBenefits of Molecular Manufacturing
bulletDangers of Molecular Manufacturing  
bulletNo Simple Solutions
bulletAdministration Options
bullet Possible Technical Restrictions
bulletThe Need for International Control
bulletThe Need for Immediate Action   YOU ARE HERE
bulletA Solution that Balances Many Interests
bulletThe Need for Early Development   
bulletThe Need for International Development
bulletThirty Essential Nanotechnology Studies

The Need for Immediate, Well-Planned Action

Overview:  Molecular manufacturing will arrive suddenly, perhaps within the next ten years, and almost certainly within the next twenty. If it takes the world by surprise, we will not have systems in place that can deal with it effectively. No single organization or mindset can create a full and appropriate policy—and inappropriate policy will only make things worse. A combination of separate policy efforts will get in each other's way, and the risks will slip through the cracks. By the time this technological capability arrives, we must have accomplished several things that each will take significant time. First, we must understand the risks. Second, make policy. Third, design institutions. Fourth, create the institutions—at all levels including international levels, where things move slowly. This could easily take twenty years. If advanced nanotechnology could arrive in ten or fifteen years, then we'd better get to work.

A lot must be done before MNT arrives. As described on our Timeline page, we expect molecular manufacturing to arrive less than twenty years from now—possibly less than ten. This is not much time to prepare, given the amount of work to be done. First, the risks have to be understood. Then we need to work out a series of plans for dealing with each risk—a task made much harder by the fact that measures to reduce one risk may increase another. Then all this information has to be delivered, convincingly, to the people who make the policy. There are a lot of them, in many different organizations. Then organizations have to be designed to administer the policy. Then the organizations have to be created. Each of these steps will take time. And this isn't a complete list. Technological measures will have to be carefully invented and developed. Public opinion, and then public support, will be necessary at several stages. Nations must learn to cooperate in ways that have not yet been tried. Ten years, or even twenty years, is not a long time in which to accomplish all this.
Good solutions can't evolve by accident. As explained on our No Simple Solutions page, we do not see any way that simplistic regulation can work. A regulation may make a dent in one risk, but will increase others, doing more harm than good overall. An accretion of simplistic regulations will also do more harm than good. If solutions are not developed until problems are staring us in the face, we will not have time to make good decisions. Some of the risks are severe enough, or scary enough, to cause people and governments to panic. Panic and time pressure will tend to produce a patchwork of simple, knee-jerk solutions. It is extremely unlikely that a good set of solutions will evolve under these circumstances, and it is also unlikely that bad solutions will be able to prevent bad consequences.
Problems, solutions, and organizations come in several flavors. Problems come in several different flavors. There are zero-sum problems, as when two children fight over who gets the bigger piece of cake, or two countries fight over who gets a single piece of ground. There are positive-sum problems, as when a seller tries to figure out how much to charge for a product to maximize profits. And there are unlimited-sum problems, where a resource can be used without using it up, and the problem is how to maximize the benefit that people obtain from it. (Economists call a resource that can't be used up a "non-rivalrous good.") Naturally, these problems require different styles of solutions. In fact, at least three very different systems of ethics have evolved to deal with these three kinds of problems. Jane Jacobs identified two of them in Systems of Survival. CRN has extended this, identifying a third recently evolved system and applying the three systems to MNT in this paper. The point here is that if problems come in diverse flavors, solutions must also come in diverse flavors. Any single organization, with a single code of ethics, will have a limited outlook and will be fundamentally unable to solve all the problems of anything as big as MNT. 
Policy-making will require finesse. MNT creates about a dozen separate risks, many of which are paradoxical. If products are too cheap, economies will collapse. If they are too expensive, people will starve needlessly—and rebel. Lack of restrictions will allow all sorts of abuses, but overly harsh restrictions are an abuse. Any attempt to solve any of these risks must consider the consequences of the chosen policy in relation to the other risks. Extreme policies will almost certainly do more harm than good—and an extreme policy can't be fixed by adding more policies—and once enacted, extreme policies tend to be very hard to get rid of. Policy-making will require much finesse. It will also require cooperation from quite a few flavors of organizations that don't even understand each other very well. Otherwise, risks will slip through the cracks left open by competing policies.
Policy must encompass humanitarian, economic, and security concerns. Failing to take advantage of MNT would allow massive humanitarian and environmental catastrophe. Molecular manufacturing is inherently unlimited-sum: capital costs and manufacturing costs are essentially zero. In several ways, the current Western industrial lifestyle is not ecologically sustainable: we burn fossil fuel, consume groundwater, dump toxic chemicals, and strip the oceans of life. In other parts of the world, millions of people die each year of preventable causes like malnutrition and malaria, or live in grinding poverty due to lack of an industrial base—all of which would be correctable with widespread use of molecular manufacturing. If MNT is not used freely to alleviate these problems, they may grow until they destabilize the globe.
  On the other hand, completely free and unrestricted use of MNT creates other problems. For one thing, it would destroy the current economic model, and a sudden economic disruption would destabilize other aspects of society. Capitalism is a very useful system, perhaps the best possible system for solving positive-sum problems. We should not throw it away until we have something to replace it. It will not be easy to decide what should be freely available and what should be subject to billing or royalties. Even the simple suggestion that under some circumstances personal nanofactories should be usable without paying their designers will surely meet with furious opposition. A separate problem is how to collect the royalties where royalties are appropriate. Unrestricted molecular manufacturing would allow duplication of designs or even direct copying of blueprint files. The entertainment industry in the United States is currently struggling with these issues, and is not doing a very effective or elegant job. Some bad laws have already been passed, and the conflict shows no signs of resolution. This conflict between the competing ethics of Commerce and Information must be resolved before MNT arrives.
  For several reasons, it is important to balance security with humanitarian, environmental, and economic issues. First, completely unrestricted molecular manufacturing makes the whole world insecure. Second, as long as nations exist, they will feel a need to defend themselves from attack—and sometimes to attack others. MNT could be destabilizing unless it's handled carefully. It will take a lot of work to design and create a system that is more useful for developing defenses than sneak attacks—and even more work to create a system that mutual enemies can use and trust.
Creating organizations will require time and finesse. It's too early yet to say what institutional designs will be required, but we can make some guesses. They have to be international, or at least coordinated internationally. They have to have enforcement powers. They have to allow and promote the use of MNT in several different ways, without allowing any of the major risks to occur. This implies the need for several flavors of institutions cooperating. Nations must be able to research and prepare defenses and deterrents, without being able to deploy the most dangerous weapons that could be globally destabilizing. Commerce should continue, though it may find itself competing with non-monetary systems for some purposes. Humanitarian relief must be given as soon as the means become available. MNT weaponry non-proliferation measures must be implemented. Each of these functions probably requires a separate institution, but the institutions must work together smoothly. Once designed, the institutions must be funded, created, and staffed. 
  It is vital that such administration of MNT be widely supported. Many powerful groups exist, capable of sabotaging or corrupting the process if they do not like it. MNT will provide great abundance, enough to satisfy everyone's long-term interests—but short-sighted greed could make the whole process fall apart. Small-minded ideology could also cause problems: a "not invented here" syndrome could lead a group to exclude itself from the process. Expert diplomacy will be absolutely necessary. Clear understanding of the stakes and issues will also be necessary—there are places where compromise is possible, and other places where compromise past a certain point would invite disaster. It will take time to achieve buy-in from all the necessary groups.
Education will take significant time. Before any international process can begin, the people involved must be educated. This will be a long process in itself. People who have not studied molecular nanotechnology generally will not have a clear understanding of how quickly it can arrive, and how much difference it can make. CRN is working to create technical materials to clarify the issues, and popular explanations for education. But it may take years to create these materials. More years to get a foot in the door at high levels of policy-making. Still more years for policy-makers to comprehend the new ideas—probably calling for independent three-year studies along the way. After that, the diplomacy can begin. When the diplomacy is done, the necessary institutions can finally start organizing themselves, which will take another year or two. Even if MNT is twenty years away, we don't know if there will be enough time. If it's ten years away—well, we'd better hope we have some smart, flexible people running the show.

Submit your criticism, please!

Aah, you're just a bunch of Chicken Littles.

Next question?

Even if you think up something that could work, how will you get everyone to agree to it?

We don't have to get everyone to agree with us. If enough people adopt the same solutions, and know why their own self-interest requires global agreement, they will find ways to make sure that the rest fall in line.

That sounds ominous.

We know. And we aren't very comfortable with the idea of a supreme global administration, even with checks and balances, accountability, democracy, and everything else that can protect people from powerful governments. But we're even less comfortable with the idea of nano-anarchy. This is the best alternative we could come up with. Please, if you can think of something better, we'll listen. Contact us.

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Title Page: Overview of Current Findings

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