CT551--Week 3--Lecture notes

Promise and Peril

Bill Joy finds much to be alarmed about when he looks at the way things are changing. He is less concerned with the reaction to technology than with the threat posed to humanity by unfettered innovation in the realms of genetic engineering, robotics, and nanotechnology. These technologies promise (to some) and threaten (to others) to change us beyond all recognition, make us nearly immortal, displace us or domesticate us, or even destroy us. They may "spawn whole new classes of accidents and abuses" and enable individuals to create disasters on a scale that was once available only to nations. The potential costs of these technologies frighten him so much that he argues in favor of relinquishing even their development, much less their actual use.

Brown and Duguid are more optimistic. Joy, they say, far too blithely assumes that very large obstacles in the development of genetic engineering, robotics, and nanotechnology will be overcome in short order. He focuses on hype and oversimplifications (and indeed, the "grey goo" problem is no longer taken seriously at all). He also ignores the role of society, which has shown itself quite capable of controlling the development of technologies in the past.

In the context of robotics, read Brad Templeton's piece on autonomous vehicles. Do you see threats in the prospects? Or promises?


Remember Mesthene as you read Kurzweil's essay. Kurzweil is renowned as a technological optimist, but here he shows that he is quite aware that even though a technology may promise enormous benefits, it will also bring hazards. And both benefits and hazards will arrive far faster than we expect, perhaps faster than we can handle. ("Technological change is exponential," and it is driven by "the economic imperative.") Should we therefore attempt, as Joy urges, to stop particularly worrisome technologies in their tracks? Kurzweil doesn't think that is very likely to succeed; in fact, he thinks we need to be more tolerant of risk so that we can develop defensive technologies (such as defenses against bioterrorism). Yet this does not mean that we should be reckless. His list of reasonable restrictions on the development of nanotechnology would not stop the technology. Nor would it interfere with the development of defenses against misuses of the technology.


The material on nanotechnology in the Taking Sides book reviews both the pluses and the minuses. Both sides recognize that there are risks, but John Balbus, Richard Denison, Karen Florini, and Scott Walsh of Environmental Defense argue that much more needs to be done to assess those risks before nanotechnology-based products are put on the market. Mike Treder, on the other hand, argues that the benefits of nanotechnology are great enough to be worth pursuing despite the risks. He thinks that trying to control all the risks may lead to abusive restrictions and even wind up exacerbating the hazards. Some people think he may be a little too optimistic, but Jenny Hogan, "Why Fighting Nanotech Is Anti-Globalization's New Cause," New Scientist (December 20, 2003), charges that much of the resistance to nanotechnology, is motivated less by concern over the safety of nanotechnology than by its status as the "next big thing" that supports the power of the rich nations and corporations over the poor. Some critics support "socially responsible developments of technologies useful to the poor and marginalized" and target their efforts at "international governance issues and corporate power."

Many technologies in fact do concentrate economic, productive, and destructive power in the hands of large organizations such as corporations and government agencies (e.g., the military) who do not necessarily have the best interests of individuals or the global community in mind. Nanotechnology may do this too, at least initially, but according to Peter A. Singer, Fabio Salamanca-Buentello, and Abdallah S. Daar, "Harnessing Nanotechnology to Improve Global Equity," Issues in Science and Technology (Summer 2005), it holds such great potential for improving the economic condition of developing countries that wealthy nations should help them develop it for their needs.

Talk of using nanotechnology to make desktop factories that can churn out consumer goods may be overblown. But the past few years have seen great progress relating to 3D printers or "fabbers." Where they used to cost $20,000 and up, you can now buy them in kit form for about $3,000 and in assembled form for about $4,000. One Cornell professor sees a potential revolution. Once they are affordable and widespread, they may lead to the death of many small-parts manufacturing businesses and the creation of new businesses of a different form.


Questions for Discussion

1. Kurzweil thinks that it is reasonable to restrain the development of a technology in ways that minimize the chances of negative consequences. Do such restraints also seem likely to retard the appearance of more positive consequences? Use the work on the mind-computer interface as an example. Consider also Mattel's Mindflex toy.

2. Is technology likely to change us beyond all recognition? Visit the home page for the Humanity+ (previously the World Transhumanist Association)and consider their vision for the future of humanity. What is there in it that appeals? What is there in it that frightens? Why?

3. What businesses does the "fabber" revolution threaten most? What groups of people are likely to complain most loudly? Who seems likely to benefit the most?