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Home > Nanotechnology Columns > Center for Responsible Nanotechnology > What Did We Learn?

Mike Treder
Center for Responsible Nanotechnology

Throughout 2007, the Center for Responsible Nanotechnology worked on assembling a series of eight scenarios depicting a variety of near-term futures in which molecular manufacturing becomes a reality. What sort of insights can we gain from looking at the set of scenarios as a whole?

January 25th, 2008

What Did We Learn?

This month's column is by Jamais Cascio, CRN's Director of Impacts Analysis...

As enjoyable as it can be to construct future histories and stories of what the coming years might hold, the goal of a scenario planning process is to help people make better decisions by giving them a sense of the implications of different choices.

Throughout 2007, the Center for Responsible Nanotechnology worked on assembling a set of scenarios depicting a variety of near-term futures in which molecular manufacturing a nanoscale technology allowing atomically-precise, exponential production of physical objects becomes a reality. The eight different scenarios we completed [1] offer a range of viewpoints about how such an advent of molecular manufacturing might occur. As we've noted elsewhere [2], we chose a near-term setting not because we thought it would be the most likely, but because we thought it would be both the most disruptive to the status quo and the most amenable to a foresight process (i.e., not already subject to too many other changes to make useful scenarios impossible). Nonetheless, we believe that these near-term scenarios provide lessons applicable to longer-range possibilities as well.

While the individual scenarios trigger their own particular conclusions, several insights arise from looking at the set of scenarios as a whole.

The first is that the powerful and transformative new manufacturing methods enabled by advanced nanotechnology are likely to be foreshadowed and potentially delayed by other, simpler, kinds of productive technologies. Although these earlier forms of manufacturing technologies, such as bioengineering and fabbing systems, don't lead directly to nanofactories, they can establish the niches that nanofactories would later fill. This suggests that some of the markets, networks, and social changes expected to play a prominent role in a mature nanofactory scenario may in fact come to exist with these "niche precursor" technologies. As these earlier systems are likely to be less inherently disruptive than nanomanufacturing, they may allow societies and economies to adjust more readily when nanofactories do appear. However, if these earlier systems grow in capacity and drop in price quickly (following the traditional digital development curve), they may reduce the incentives to pour investment money into more complex molecular manufacturing systems, delaying (but not preventing) their appearance.

The second insight is that the development of molecular manufacturing seems closely tied to the forces for global instability, and that this instability can directly shape how states and other actors deploy advanced nanotechnologies. In our scenarios, economic fragility (enhanced by international competition and interdependence), pandemic disease, environmental crises, existing military-political rivalries, and the like end up playing a dominant role in the investment, development, and application choices leading to nanomanufacturing. This is more than shifting markets shaping outcomes, or transient military demands triggering research. Because molecular manufacturing has such a broad "general purpose" potential, reshaping all manner of pre-MM technology paradigms, it appears likely that nearly any large-scale crisis could accelerate its development. This poses particular risks, as mounting global instabilities may encourage states, corporations, and sub-national groups to use access to early molecular manufacturing to achieve or press a momentary strategic advantage.

The third insight is that the advent of molecular manufacturing may enhance non-traditional forms of warfare more than conventional military force, posing new problems for traditional armed states, but not immediately reshaping global balances of power. One of the key surprises emerging from the scenarios was the relative lack of large-scale transnational violence [3]. We had anticipated that war between nano-armed states (or quick strikes by newly nano-armed against states without molecular manufacturing capacity) would be a recurring feature of these scenarios; to the contrary, the workshop participants found it difficult to construct narratives leading to that outcome. It's likely that this is due in part to a general reluctance to start a war, even if only in an imagined future. It's also likely (and in this author's view, more likely) that the capabilities of early-generation molecular manufacturing technologies neither sufficiently upset nuclear deterrence to remove that condition, nor significantly alter the existing constraints on conventional warfare (i.e., personnel, logistics, and domestic politics). The only form of warfare clearly enhanced by the advent of molecular manufacturing is "fourth generation warfare:" acts of sabotage and infrastructure attacks, terrorism against people and institutions, and guerilla conflicts. In this sense, the advent of molecular manufacturing seems to enhance an already-existing trend.

We recognize that the eight scenarios developed by the Center for Responsible Nanotechnology Task Force [4] don't represent every possible story of the advent of molecular manufacturing. They do, however, represent the combined efforts of a cross-disciplinary, international team deeply familiar with the potential capabilities of advanced nanotechnology, and ready to explore possible outcomes wherever the logic of the narrative takes them. While we are certain that the real-world advent of molecular manufacturing will not be identical to any of these scenarios as we've noted many times, scenarios are not predictions we believe that the scenario workshops have given us a clearer vision of the kinds of drivers and events that will surround the technology's eventual development. Ideally, this will help us make the necessary choices and recommendations needed to avoid the more disastrous outcomes, and to steer towards a world we would like to live in.


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