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Home > Nanotechnology Columns > Center for Responsible Nanotechnology > Sudden Step or Gradual Rise?

Mike Treder
Center for Responsible Nanotechnology

Abstract:
Two competing views of near-future technological change vie for ascendancy. The first is that although scientific breakthroughs will continue to occur and new applications of cutting-edge technologies will bring changes to society, overall those impacts -- while remarkable -- will remain evolutionary, not revolutionary. The second view is that a discontinuity of some kind is coming. Whether from genetic engineering, artificial intelligence, or nanotechnology, the extent of change that occurs will be so transformative that society -- and perhaps humans themselves -- cannot be the same afterward.

July 16th, 2007

Sudden Step or Gradual Rise?

Two apparently conflicting views of near-future technological change compete for ascendancy.

One view, held by what appears to be the majority of scientists, politicians, business leaders and other commentators, is that although big scientific breakthroughs will continue to occur and new applications of cutting-edge technologies will push significant changes on and into society, overall those impacts -- while remarkable -- will remain evolutionary, not revolutionary.

The other view, supported by a fairly small fraction of observers, is that a discontinuity of some kind is coming. These people, many of them researchers, educators, or entrepreneurs, contend that an ever accelerating rate of scientific, technological, and societal change could result in a disruptive break in "business as usual." Whether it is genetic engineering, artificial intelligence, or nanotechnology that acts as the catalyst, the extent of change that occurs will be so transformative that society -- and perhaps humans themselves -- cannot be the same afterward.

What I propose is that those two positions, while seeming to contradict one another, can both be accepted as correct, at least in some respects.

Few would argue that rapid technological progress is almost certain to continue. Some in the second group described above will say that the pace of change could soon increase to the point that change itself will be the disruptive force; we've been hearing about this idea since the publication of Alvin Toffler's Future Shock, if not before, and today "singularitarians" like Ray Kurzweil press its merits. But for now, let's stipulate a relatively steady upward climb in technical progress as projected by the first group described above.

So, how do we reconcile an evolutionary perspective of change with the revolutionary expectations of less conventional future analysts? An approach toward integrating both views into a single cohesive outlook begins with distinguishing between rates of technical progress and corresponding levels of societal change. I submit that these should not be confused; moreover, if both are plotted on a graph, it's not necessary to expect them to look the same. Impacts of technical advances can vary significantly, from negligible to extreme.

For example, the Internet was around for a long time before it began to have any appreciable effects on society. It was only after the development of the World Wide Web in the 1990s that more than a handful of people were affected by the Internet. The technical background for today's web-dependent society existed far in advance of its eventually pervasive influence. It took a catalyst -- in this case, Tim Berners-Lee's invention of the Web -- to yield the huge changes we now observe.

Technical Progress vs. Social Impacts


Looking ahead, can we identify near-future catalysts that might bring truly revolutionary or disruptive change?

  • Significant improvements in software development and sophisticated user interfaces could produce a level of virtual reality that is close to indistinguishable from the real world.

  • A combination of advanced neurotechnology and powerful supercomputing conceivably could enable consciousness uploading, in which a replica of an individual human mind would be recapitulated in cyberspace.

  • Breakthroughs in computer programming could give rise to true artificial intelligence; if one or more such systems are capable of recursive self-improvement, this could lead to a superintelligence far surpassing human comprehension.

  • In nanotechnology, the long anticipated development of exponential general-purpose molecular manufacturing could present tremendous opportunities for societal benefits while simultaneously bringing grave dangers such as economic meltdown, environmental havoc, or an unstable arms race.


In each of the four scenarios above, a steady rate of technical progress produces a specific advance that catalyzes sudden, dramatic, potentially disruptive change. Is it possible to determine which of these might occur earliest? Could there be other such catalysts, perhaps unforeseen today, that will radically transform our world?

As to the first question, my organization, the Center for Responsible Nanotechnology, believes that of all these emerging technologies, molecular manufacturing has the greatest potential for triggering massive changes in the shortest amount of time. We might be wrong, and other big developments may take place even earlier, but that's our considered viewpoint. The only sensible answer for the second question would appear to be "maybe."

It is still a point of argument, of course, whether any discontinuous change will occur at all. But it should be clear that the potential for huge societal impacts cannot necessarily be predicted by assessing comparatively steady rates of technical progress.

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