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Nanotech Scenario Series

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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    YOU ARE HERE

bullet Timeline for Molecular Manufacturing   
bulletProducts of Molecular Manufacturing
bulletBenefits of Molecular Manufacturing
bulletDangers of Molecular Manufacturing  
bulletNo Simple Solutions 
bulletAdministration Options
bulletThe Need for Early Development   
bulletThe Need for International Development
bulletThirty Essential Nanotechnology Studies   

An Overview of CRN's Current Findings

Molecular manufacturing is coming soon.  (MORE) Molecular manufacturing is the use of programmable chemistry to build exponential manufacturing systems and high-performance products. There are several ways this can be achieved, each with its own benefits and drawbacks. This technology is coming soonalmost certainly within 20 years, and perhaps in less than a decade. When it arrives, it will come quickly. Molecular manufacturing can be built into a self-contained, tabletop factory that makes cheap products efficiently at molecular scale. The time from the first assembler to a flood of powerful and complex products may be less than a year. The potential benefits of such a technology are immense. Unfortunately, the risks are also immense.
Products will be more powerful and developed faster. (MORE) Even a primitive diamond-building nanofactory can create products vastly more powerful than today's versions. Electrical power can be converted to motion, and vice-versa, with one-tenth the power loss and about 108 (100,000,000) times more compactly. Computers can be a billion times smaller and use a million times less power. Materials can be about 100 times stronger than steel. This means that most human-scale products would consist almost entirely of empty space, reducing material requirements and cost. Most of the rest of the product would be structural, easy to design. Even the simplest products could be software-controlled at no extra hardware cost. Manufacturing of prototypes would be quite rapida few minutes to a few hours. Because manufacturing and prototyping are the same process, a successful prototype design could immediately be distributed for widespread use. A designer working with a few basic predesigned blocks could design, build, and test a simple product in less than a day. Products with complex interfaces to humans or to their surroundings—information appliances, automobiles, aerospace hardware, medical devices—would be limited by the time required to develop their software and test their functionality. However, in some fields the high time and money cost of manufacture slows other parts of the development cycle; this effect would disappear. An explosion of new, useful products could rapidly follow the widespread availability of a nanofactory.
Advanced nanotech can be very beneficial. (MORE) Manufacturing with nanotechnology can solve many of the world's current problems. Water shortage is a serious and growing problem. Most water is used for industry and agriculture; both of these requirements would be greatly reduced by products made by molecular manufacturing. Infectious disease is a continuing scourge in many parts of the world. Simple products like pipes, filters, and mosquito nets can greatly reduce this problem. Information and communication are valuable, but lacking in many places. Computers and display devices would become stunningly cheap. Electrical power is still not available in many areas. The efficient, cheap building of light, strong structures, electrical equipment, and power storage devices would allow the use of solar thermal power as a primary and abundant energy source. Environmental degradation is a serious problem worldwide. High-tech products can allow people to live with much less environmental impact. Many areas of the world cannot rapidly bootstrap a 20th century manufacturing infrastructure. Molecular manufacturing can be self-contained and clean; a single packing crate or suitcase could contain all equipment required for a village-scale industrial revolution. Finally, MNT will provide cheap and advanced equipment for medical research and health care, making improved medicine widely available. Much social unrest can be traced directly to material poverty, ill health, and ignorance. MNT can contribute to great reductions in all of these problems, and in the associated human suffering.
Advanced nanotech could be very dangerous. (MORE) Molecular nanotechnology will be a significant breakthrough, comparable perhaps to the Industrial Revolution—but compressed into a few years. This has the potential to disrupt many aspects of society and politics. The power of the technology may cause two competing nations to enter a disruptive and unstable arms race. Weapons and surveillance devices could be made small, cheap, powerful, and very numerous. Cheap manufacturing and duplication of designs could lead to economic upheaval. Overuse of inexpensive products could cause widespread environmental damage. Attempts to control these and other risks may lead to abusive restrictions, or create demand for a black market that would be very risky and almost impossible to stop; small nanofactories will be very easy to smuggle, and fully dangerous. There are numerous severe risks—including several different kinds of risk—that cannot all be prevented with the same approach. Simple, one-track solutions cannot work. The right answer is unlikely to evolve without careful planning.
Simplistic regulation won't work. (MORE) Molecular nanotechnology manufacturing creates several severe risks, and each risk tempts a simple and extreme solution. However, a patchwork of extreme solutions will be both destructive and ineffective. For example, Bill Joy and others have proposed halting nanotechnology research entirely. This would not actually work; instead, it would relocate the research to less responsible venues. The risks might be delayed by a few years, but would be far worse when they appeared because the technology would be even less controllable. To take another example, economic upheaval might be prevented by strict commercial licensing of all uses of the technology. This has two problems. First, digital protection schemes for commercial products have often proved quite easy to crack. Second, if the technology is so restricted that it cannot disrupt existing economic systems, continuing poverty will kill millions of people each year, fueling backlash, social unrest, espionage, and independent development. Each risk must be reduced by some means that does not exacerbate others. This will not be easy, and will require creative and sensitive solutions.
There are several approaches that may help.  (MORE) Once molecular manufacturing is developed, it will have to be administered. There are several approaches that might help. CRN is not advocating any of these approaches at this point; we don't know enough about how the technology will be developed or in what context. We also have to point out that we don't think any one approach will be enough. Any effective program will require a balance of several different kinds of administration. Some possibilities include built-in technical restrictions in personal nanofactories; intellectual property reform; and international cooperation or monitoring of various kinds. Despite the difficulties and complexities, we believe that a solution can be found to preserve most of the potential benefits while avoiding the most severe risks.
MNT should probably be developed soon. (MORE) Early development of molecular nanotechnology increases some risks, but reduces others; overall, we think it's safest to develop as soon as possible. This is a preliminary conclusion, and we may change our opinion, but there are solid reasons for taking this position. The development of MNT seems inevitable sooner or later. If development is delayed, it will rapidly become easier and cheaper, thus harder to control. Also, it's probably the case that early development will allow more time to develop MNT-based protective technologies—which may be necessary to cope with some dangerous MNT-based technologies. Finally, if it's done right, molecular manufacturing could save millions of lives per year and greatly decrease the environmental damage we're already doing. The costs of delay (opportunity costs) are significant, and may even outweigh the risks of development.
MNT should probably be developed internationally. (MORE) Even at this early stage, we can make some recommendations about how the technology of molecular manufacturing should be developed. Without some controls, advanced nanotechnology will probably be extremely dangerous—but desirable to many people. In addition, manufacturing systems will probably be portable and easy to duplicate. This means that it will be quite hard to control the use of the technology if unrestricted versions ever become widely available. On the other hand, overly restrictive policy will encourage uncontrolled release. It seems likely that an early, closely guarded, international development program is probably the approach that retains the most control in the long run. CRN will continue working to clarify this issue and make specific recommendations.
CRN has listed 30 essential studies that should begin immediately. (MORE) Because of the largely unexpected transformational power of molecular manufacturing, it is urgent to understand the issues raised. To date, there has not been anything approaching an adequate study of these issues. CRN's recommended series of thirty essential studies is organized into five sections, covering fundamental theory, possible technological capabilities, bootstrapping potential, product capabilities, and policy questions. Several preliminary conclusions are stated, and because our understanding points to a crisis, a parallel process of conducting the studies is urged. 

Submit your criticism, please!

What makes you think you can make a difference?

We don't know that we can. But people are starting to talk about the consequences of advanced nanotechnology, and we believe we have some insights that are worth listening to. We will research and publish our ideas, then work to educate the people—including the public and various policy makers—who have an interest in the consequences of technology. We believe we have to try.

But isn't this all just science fiction?

No. A detailed, technical book, Nanosystems, has demonstrated that these things are possible. In more than a decade, no one has found a significant mistake in the book, and a lot of research has supported it. Molecular nanotech doesn't exist today, but technology is rapidly approaching the point where it will be easy to do—at least relative to other large engineering projects like spacecraft or advanced weaponry. At that point, the flexibility, efficiency, and precision of the technology will make a development program clearly desirable—and almost inevitable.

Next Page: Timeline for Molecular Manufacturing 

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