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Nano and bio death abound

Looks like the peril of nanotechnology and biotechnology is the topic de jour around ye ol' blogosphere these days.

Salon got the existential ball of doom rolling last week by publishing I, Nanobot (abstract: Scientists are on the verge of breaking the carbon barrier -- creating artificial life and changing forever what it means to be human. And we're not ready).

Today KurzweilAI is reporting on how Robert A. Freitas Jr. and Bill Joy are the recipients of this year's Lifeboat Foundation Guardian Award:
[Freitas] has pioneered nanomedicine and analysis of self-replicating nanotechnology. He advocates "an immediate international moratorium, if not outright ban, on all artificial life experiments implemented as nonbiological hardware. In this context, 'artificial life' is defined as autonomous foraging replicators, excluding purely biological implementations (already covered by NIH guidelines tacitly accepted worldwide) and also excluding software simulations which are essential preparatory work and should continue."

Bill Joy wrote "Why the future doesn't need us" in Wired in 2000 and with Guardian 2005 Award winner Ray Kurzweil, he wrote the editorial "Recipe for Destruction" in the New York Times in which they argued against publishing the recipe for the 1918 influenza virus. In 2006, he helped launch a $200 million fund directed at developing defenses against biological viruses.
Not to be outdone, Glenn Harlan Reynolds (who I like) of Tech Central Stupid (which I dislike) has just written Biowarfare and Bioterror: The Future Is Now. Reynolds is mostly reporting on a Technology Review article, Biowar for Dummies (abstract: How hard is it to build your own weapon of mass destruction? We take a crash course in supervirus engineering to find out) by Paul Boutin.

Chiming in on all of this danerous knowledge is Mike Treder of the Center for Responsible Nanotechnology.

Phew, okay, now I'm depressed.

Cross-posted from Sentient Developments.
Published Monday, March 13, 2006 7:24 PM by George
Filed Under: ,



AggressiveProgressive said:

I just posted in the forums about my friend who has similar reservations.  There doesn't really seem to be any good answers that assuage such fears.

I would really like to hear some though.

I am not really worried about "Grey Goo," but there are a variety of other potential hazards out there that are troubling (many of which you mentioned)
March 13, 2006 11:28 PM #

Mr. Farlops said:

Kurzweil, whose advocacy is well known, a few months ago, along with Joy, asked for the "unpublishing" of certain virial genomes for fear of their use in making bioweapons.

Freitas, who's written several works about using nanotechnology in medicine, seems to also to be having reservations and worries.

Reynolds has on a number of occasions in several columns discussed and advocated the advance of nanotechnology. He sits on the board of directors of the Foresight Institute. And think this latest article of his shows that he is not an unquestioning advocate of blind progress on this stuff.

Treder and Phoenix, both advocates, have on many occasions also expressed reservations.

I think this is all a good sign. If even the advocates have worries, maybe we'll muddle through somehow. And they are right to be worried. They've dismissed the unlikely and easily prevented risk of gray goo. But when it comes to the concerns about deliberate abuse, weapon building and totalitarian control, these are much harder to dismiss.

I don't think we will find a perfect answer to these problems. Sometimes it seems to me like we're witnessing a huge scaling of the gun control debate. Instead of guns, it will eventually be possible for people to build bio and nanoweapons of enormous power in their garage. How do you control something like that without turning into a police state?

I don't know if you can have a perfect and stable balance on that question. My guess is it will be like the current controversies of today. We'll argue back and forth, pass some good legislation and some bad legislation and occasionally surprises and disasters will happen.

Thinking about the cheap milling machines, three-dimensional printers and fabricators that Neil Gershenfeld has written a book about recently, I can already imagine these machines being used to cheaply manufacture zip guns  and grenades in war torn areas.

It seems to me that there are several things we should try:

1) We must work as hard and as quickly as possible to bring the developing world up to a standard of living compariable with the post-industrial world. If most of the people of the world are well off, they are more likely to favor pluralistic governments, human rights and political stability. They will have more stake in system.

2) We have to work quickly to resolve most of the political disputes, wars and conflicts that remain in this post-Cold War world. This will make malcontents rare.

3) We have to "copying" civilization to other places aside from earth. Having all your eggs in one basket is risky. Redundancy is good.

Anyone got anything to add to that list?
March 14, 2006 3:29 AM #

AggressiveProgressive said:

Create peace, prosperity, then spread throughout the cosmos... that doesn't sound too hard...

no wonder there are skeptics

It is sad that the spreading throughout the cosmos is probably the easiest one on that list to achieve.
March 14, 2006 8:35 AM #

adidaprean said:

Why do scientists not want to live in America? It is because of people like this. I might as well trade in my microscope for a stone tool, but then again, he probably would be against that to lol.
March 14, 2006 9:38 AM #

Cirocco said:

What's depressing is that Phoenix & Treder really should know better. There's sort of an ongoing debate on the CRN website about 'What Comes Nex' and it's not going anywhere. Mostly, I think, because we can't think outside the need for some Global Emperor, to resolve the current worldwide anarchy (witness the contuining sage of the Toothless Talking Shop and you'll see what I mean).
As for Freitas, I find his proposal disappointing. An immediate global moratorium? Really? I think this moratorium will be hit by the same fate as Kyoto. Some countries simply will not sign, because they perceive it as contrary to their national interest. Hence the returning call for a Majesty for the Planet.

You know, today there's was a very interesting documentary about the future eruption of Yellowstone. If only Freitas, Phoenix, Joy & Co. could see that to escape the fate of planetary doom this vulcano could bring upon us, we need molecular manufacturing and artificial life asap. But I fear they will not. Oh well...
March 14, 2006 9:55 AM #
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About George

Canadian transhumanist philosopher, writer, organizer and activist; Deputy editor of Betterhumans, President of the Toronto Transhumanist Association, Board member for the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies.
World Transhumanist Association Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies Immortality Institute   Methuselah Mouse Prize
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