Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Nano Ethics

Just because it's small doesn't mean we can ignore it ...

The Center for Responsible Nanotechnology (CRN) wants us to get ready for the biggest change to come along since the Industrial Revolution.

If you think that change is already here in the form of computers or the Internet, think again. Those things are so 20th century. CRN (website at crnano.org) is concerned about the impact of "molecular manufacturing" -- the use of nanotechnology to produce not just very small objects, but large scale ones like appliances and even cars.

They foresee a near future in which every home has its own "fab" -- a device between the size of a microwave and a refrigerator that will be able to churn out copies of everything from tableware to cell phones, and at a fraction of the current cost.

Fabs Will Be Fabulous

These machines will even be able to make copies of themselves, so eventually they will be inexpensive as well. And if that sounds fantastic, consider that the first crude generation of such devices is here already in the form of 3D printers that can create complicated physical objects from computer designs. (Check out the many examples at Shapeways.com.)

At first take the whole idea sounds wonderful. But the people at CRN have devoted themselves to seeing the potential dark flip side of this revolution. They pose questions like these:
  • What happens to the world economy when virtually all production jobs are suddenly eliminated?
  • Will manufactured goods become less valuable than raw materials?
  • Will companies that own product designs prosecute those who copy them, the way music companies go after pirates? (Already a problem with 3D printers.)
  • What happens when terrorists gain the ability to replicate thousands of copies of a weapon, or to engineer a deadly virus? (Again, happening already.)

These issues and many more are thoughtfully presented in a series of scenarios they have developed, and
which they have published online. They explore the possible time-line for the advent of molecular manufacturing, who the key players might be, and how the many impacts of violent change could play out, both for good and ill.

About CRN

The Center for Responsible Nanotechnology is a think tank founded by Mike Treder and Chris Phoenix. Treder is a biologist who also serves as Managing Director of the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies. Phoenix studied nanotechnology at Stanford University while obtaining a degree in computer science.

Starting as a series of discussions between the two, they built CRN into a "virtual organization" with a substantial board of directors and an active schedule of presentations made to conferences around the world. Their aim is to influence those in responsible positions so they will be able to seize the opportunities of the new technology while avoiding the pitfalls.

One thing they do not question, however, is that the change will come. Once the possibility is there, someone somewhere will bring it into being. Ready or not, it's only a matter of when, and how.