Thank you for the opportunity to comment on the Royal Society's working group report Nanotechnology: views of Scientists and Engineers.
It is my understanding that this study was undertaken by the Royal Society at the request of H.R.H. Prince Charles, in response to widespread concern about the potential impacts of nanotechnology, both near-term and long-term. Unfortunately, this report considers only near-term developments, while caricaturing and summarily dismissing the most serious long-term issues as "science fiction" and matters of "public misperception."
While it is certainly true that popularizations such as Crichton's novel "Prey" and other scenarios presented in actual science fiction have created distorted perceptions of nanotechnology research as standing at the threshold of creating biosphere-destroying "grey goo" or microbes somehow endowed with artificial intelligence, nevertheless the visionary and unrefuted technical work of Drexler is respected by many technical researchers and does not deserve to be dismissed as nothing more than "a source for the current hype". It might be noted that, if the latter is true, then it is also a source for the current high level of funding and attention given to nanotechnology research.
Serious concerns about the social and ethical implications of nanotechnology revolve around the following general prospects, which do not stem from a single imminent technical innovation in the nanotechnology field:
* Vast increases in the level of performance of many technical systems, including:
- Computer and information systems;
- Artificial intelligence, automation and robotics;
* Issues posed by ultraminiaturization of complex technical systems:
- Surveillance and privacy;
- Covert action, including sabotage and assasination;
* Issues posed by self-replicating systems:
- Potential for vast production and pervasiveness;
- Economic destabilization;
- Military destabilization and arms races;
- Danger of uncontrolled replication;
* Issues posed by manipulation and invasion of human body tissue:
- Potential for abusive and coercive uses;
- Dehumanization and "transhumanism";
* Environmental, health and safety issues posed by new materials and nanoparticulates.
Only the last of these has been given any serious attention in this report. Much more consideration is due to the issues posed to labor, society, and international security.
A particularly unfortunate example of summary dismissal of the very concerns which motivated the call for this study is found in section 3) d), which concludes that "even if the technology to create self-replicating nanobots were to be physically possible, which many doubted, it would not be available until the distant future, perhaps 2080 at least." No justification whatsoever is given for this estimate. On what considerations was it based? I would submit that, while it is indeed doubtful whether artificial self-replicating systems as described by Drexler and others are physically possible, or when they might arrive if so, the question is one that can only be answered by further research aimed specifically at answering it, not by ridicule and gratuitous placement of the prospects into the far future. Given that the Royal Society is currently unable to reach a scientifically-grounded consensus on this question, should it not support funding of appropriate research so that a responsible judgement can be made in the nearest future?
Even if "self-replicating nanobots" do not prove feasible, at least in the foreseeable future, there is little doubt that nanotechnology must lead to profound consequences for society, especially in the field of computers and artificial intelligence. The study group does not seem to have given any consideration to the likely impacts of advanced computer systems capable of replacing human intelligence in economic and military roles. There can be little doubt as to the continuing emergence of such systems, which are macroscopic in scale but enabled by nanoscale technologies, as the progress of "Moore's Law" continues down the path laid out by the ITRS and beyond.
In summary, then, I would urge that the Royal Society, in a further stage of its work, give more explicit consideration to the following:
* Issues of concern to labor, e.g. automation and the replacement of human
* Issues of concern to civil society, e.g. surveillance and body modification and implants;
* Issues of concern to international security and consequences of the potentially less restricted use of technology by the military, including its use of automated and robotic systems, surveillance, and body implants, and potential use of self-replicating systems;
* Uncertainty about the prospects of nanorobotics and self-replicating systems, and the need for focused research in these areas to reduce this uncertainty.
Mark Avrum Gubrud
Center for Superconductivity Research
University of Maryland, College Park MD US