Nanotech Negativism

For some neo-Luddites, the 21st century--and a host of promising scientific developments--offer little but despair


The ETC CENTURY: Erosion, Technological Transformation and Corporate Concentration in the 21st Century is a neo-Luddite report released earlier this year by the Dag Hammarskjold Foundation and the Rural Advancement Foundation International (RAFI). The author of the report is Roy Pat Mooney, head of RAFI and a long-time anti-biotech activist. The ETC Century broadly argues that the 21st century will see environmental and cultural "erosion" accelerated by rapidly advancing technological progress and growing corporate concentration. The report offers many of the usual off-base Luddite attacks (e.g., biotech crops will create superpests and poison people).

But what is novel about The ETC Century is its attacks on nanotechnology, the attempt to make things on the molecular level with the help of tiny, invisible robotic assemblers called "nanobots." Nanotech, perhaps more than any other possible scientific or technological development, holds forth the promise of a post-scarcity world in which it will be possible to generate endless supplies of whatever humans desire. A UNESCO report in 1996 declared, "Nanotechnology will provide the foundation for all technologies in the new century."

Mooney and other self-declared "progressives" feel that biotech got past them without warning, and they are determined not to let that happen with nanotechnology. That prospect is what has Mooney and the growing global anti-technology movement worried. "Extreme care should be taken that, unlike with biotech, society does not lose control of this technology," writes Mooney.

Mooney usefully tracks the rise of this new technology. He notes that nanotech scientific citations are up from 250 in 1988 to more than 4,000 in 1999. Nanotech-related patents filed annually rose from zero in 1990 to about 140 in 1999; U.S. government spending on nanotech research rose from $116 million in 1998 to $497 million in 2001. Mooney also freely acknowledges the many benefits that a mature nanotechnology might bring to humanity, such as the end of most diseases, the cure for aging, the eradication of air and water pollution, the end of hunger and even agriculture, abundant energy, limitless supplies of consumer goods and so on. (One might wonder: What's the problem? Bring it on already!)

Mooney points to a scenario in which self-replicating nanobots might get out of control and spread exponentially across the landscape destroying everything in their paths. Nanotechnologists such as K. Eric Drexler call this the "grey goo" scenario, in which the biosphere is converted by rampaging nanobots into a grey sludge. But since the inception of nanotechnology theory, analysts have been concerned about this possible problem and have thought of ways to prevent it. For example, nanobots would be constructed so that they could not operate without fuels supplied by their manufacturers.

Software entrepreneur Ray Kurzweil is confident that nanotech defenses against uncontrolled replication will be stronger than the abilities to replicate. Kurzweil cites our current abilities to reduce computer viruses to nuisances, and argues that humans will be even more vigilant against a technology that could kill if uncontrolled. Nanotech theorist Robert Freitas has written a study, Some Limits to Global Ecophagy by Biovorous Nanoreplicators, with Public Policy Recommendations, which concludes that all "scenarios examined appear to permit early detection by vigilant monitoring, thus enabling rapid deployment of effective defensive instrumentalities." Freitas further persuasively argues that dangerous self-replicating nanobots could not emerge from laboratory accidents, but would have be made on purpose using very sophisticated technologies that would take years to develop.

Mooney worries that "given the incredible scenarios proposed for nanotech, [the need for] close governmental supervision would seem to be an understatement." He further predicts that "so-called democratic societies will surrender much of their freedom in return for the 'safe' use of nanotech." In fact, power hungry bureaucratic entrepreneurs will likely cite alarmist reports such as The ETC Century as justification for expanding their authority over technological innovation; indeed, it's as likely that fear of nanotech will inspire authoritarian repression to monitor or prevent the research from proceeding.

In fact, Mooney himself proposes that "progressives" begin agitating for an International Convention for the Evaluation of New Technologies (ICENT). This agency would control nanotechnology and other emerging technological advances in neuroscience and artificial intelligence, robotics, and, of course, biotechnology. The ICENT would create a global political process which would "set the terms and condition under which a new technology might be introduced into society and the environment and the terms and conditions under which the technology might be recalled if later found threatening." The negotiations to establish such a global treaty would begin at the United Nations' RIO +10 Earth Summit which will be held next year in Johannesburg, South Africa. It doesn't take much of an imagination to realize what such a cumbersome and highly politicized process would do to the pace of technological progress. Not even rampaging nanobots would be able to outgrow an expanding U.N. bureaucracy.

In a strange way, Mooney seems wistful for an earlier time in which he and many other believed that ecological and economic collapse to be imminent. Yet he even comes close to celebrating the emancipating possibilities offered by the new technologies that he fears. "We have lived so long by the assumptions of The Limits to Growth, it is hard to contemplate alternative possibilities," he writes, referring to the famous early '70s text by the Club of Rome that predicted depletion of all natural resources. "If nanotech does work, we might console ourselves with the knowledge that we were not really wrong all this time, it is just that The Limits to Growth have been postponed a few billion years," argues Mooney. "If nanotechnology is commercialized successfully, Armageddon may have to be put on the back burner."

Armageddon may indeed be postponed permanently, but only if, with due caution, we leave human genius free to bring the gifts of technological progress to fruition.