13 December 2007

Committee Futurism--Can It Go From Entertainment to Useful Prediction?

Via Brian Wang, the Nano Tomorrows 8 scenario vision of the near future of nanotechnology, open source replicators, and cheap molecular assembly is available at nanowerk. I recommend reading the scenarios and spending some time considering the many bifurcations and permutations that are possible--starting today. The list of participants is impressive, and in a different format these participants may have produced much different (and perhaps more realistic) scenarios.
The economic, security, military, and environmental implications of molecular manufacturing are extreme. Unfortunately, conflicting definitions of nanotechnology and blurry distinctions between significantly different fields have complicated the effort to understand those differences and to develop sensible, effective policy for each.

The risks of today's nanoscale technologies cannot be treated the same as the risks of longer-term molecular manufacturing. It is a mistake to put them together in one basket for policy consideration—each is important to address, but they offer different problems and will require far different solutions. As used today, the term nanotechnology usually refers to a broad collection of mostly disconnected fields. Essentially, anything sufficiently small and interesting can be called nanotechnology. Much of it is harmless. For the rest, much of the harm is of familiar and limited quality. Molecular manufacturing, by contrast, will bring unfamiliar risks and new classes of problems.

Desktop nanofactories will use vast arrays of tiny machines to fasten single molecules together quickly and precisely, allowing engineers, designers, and potentially anyone else to make powerful products at the touch of a button. Although such a contraption has been envisioned in some detail for almost two decades, and although the basic concept goes back to 1959, when the physicist Richard Feynman first articulated it, it’s only in recent years that technology has advanced to the point where we can begin to see the practical steps that might bring it into reality.

Begin at Scenario 1, and move through the links, and decide for yourself whether in this case, "committee-futurism" is lighting the way, or merely obscuring the way.

Scenario 7, describing the breakup of the modern Chinese Empire--leading to regional nuclear wars--is one of the more realistic scenarios. Still, by neglecting China's long history of warlordism--by being stuck too long in the concept of the nation-state--the scenario ends where it should be just beginning.

The dominance of contemporary nation-states is unlikely to persist in the presence of ubiquitous molecular manufacturing. Other forms of social, economic, and military organisation will come together in the wake.

Of course, a scenario is only as good as the prognosticators behind it. As impressive as the list of participants is, if an influential project member is too lacking in useful real world experience to have realistic internal models of national, international, and trans-national determining characteristics, the resulting predictions will appear hopelessly naive. Each participant has his own pet project--his own quasi-ideological mind infant. Such blind spots, combined with personal ignorance, can steer a prognosticator spectacularly wrong--as in the final scenario. That is what happens when the quest for "social justice" is confused with hardheaded technological prognostics.

The scenarios deal tantalizingly with actions of non-state actors, but too often focus narrowly, yet still out of focus, on stereotyped concepts of nation-states. It is the interaction of non-state actors with evolving nation-states that will be salient. Neither component is approached realistically or vibrantly enough.

The take-home message from these scenarios, is that they are more than trivial entertainment. Most of the predictions are certainly wrong (like most predictions of the future)--sometimes amazingly wrong--but they are useful for stimulating ideas. Congratulations to the participants for taking part in a necessary and exciting project.


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