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Home > Directory > Miscellaneous > The Potential Dangers of MNT - A Debate

The Potential Dangers of MNT - A Debate


Below you will find a debate about the possible dangers associated with Molecular Nanotechnology.

Comments preceded by the ">" and in italics are from the author that originated the debate, in this case Jim Johansen.
"...." indicates a portion of the commentary was omitted, either as out of context, or for brevity sakes.
[ed] indicates editorial correction


The original Argument: "Better technology - molecular nanotechnology - leads to a population explosion, which may lead to catastrophic damage to the ecosystem."

From: Jim Johansen Ph.D. (drfirelip@aol.com)
Subject: Healthcare advances-greatest threat
Date: 2002-04-03 10:10:40 PST

I have read a great deal of discussion about the potential dangers of the development of MNT. It seems to me that the greatest danger lies in the development of improved healthcare technology. Unless we assume that humanity will find or create non-Terran habitats, which is not a particularly attractive option for many of us, any development that leads to increases in population will be ultimately catastrophic. It has been argued that nanotechnology will allow greater resources to be available to all people, such that a much larger population can be supported. Do we really want such a world? What about the rest of this beautiful creation we call home. Yes, we will be able to clean up waste better and develop cleaner industry, but these improvements just slow the eventual damage wrought by sheer numbers. It seems to me that proponents of increased populations are either uninformed or entirely speciocentric. Through technology perhaps we can make enough stuff for everybody for the short term, but is it ethical to continue to extend human life and create methods for removing what little non-human control is left over our specie's population and evolution. Since few if any human societies have demonstrated the ability to self regulate its population, it seem far more likely that we will face the horror of an unending sea of humanity and human byproducts rather than the gray ooze or a fullerene forest. I do not suggest that much can be done to mitigate this potential threat since the free market and our government unrelentingly drive medical developments forward. My point is just that Nanotechnology's greatest threat is the same as what some would say are its greatest benefits. Perhaps some of the insightful people who devote so much energy to worrying about nanotech waste and misuse, should help educate their less foresightful friends so that we can develop a culture that will allow us to live in a stable ecosystem again. I am a proponent of MNT development, but every time i see someone talk about the wonderful healthcare benefits, i cringe. From a narrow, personal perspective, i want those healthcare advances too, but that is just me being greedy. I can live with that selfishness: after all, self-preservation is a strong instinct, but i can not call such advances "good".


From: Larry Burford (lburford@acad.udallas.edu)
Date: 2002-04-04 17:06:46 PST

> Since few if any human societies have demonstrated the ability to self regulate its population

*ALL* human societies that have advanced beyond simple wood burning technologies have positively demonstrated the ability to self regulate their populations. In fact even the most primitive societies show this ability more often than not, despite having no access to advanced birth control technology. The WHO published a number of reports starting in the 60's speculating about how this puzzling fact was possible. As always, the experts disagree. But it is clear that the birth rate follows the death rate in human societies (after a brief lag).

Nanotechnology will give us complete control over our reproductive functions. And the material abundance that comes from nanotechnology will allow essentially everyone to live a longer, healthier life. This means death rates will go way down. Which means birth rates will go way down (after a brief lag). We may actually be facing just the opposite of the problem you worry about here - a massive decline in population. Immortality may be our only hope of survival as a species. Invulnerability would also be a big help.

> it seem far more likely that we will face the horror of an unending sea of humanity and human byproducts rather than the gray ooze or a fullerene forest.

BTW, the Earth is really not very crowded now. Run the numbers for yourself. Six billion people, divided into "families" of six people and given a quarter acre plot of land (typical American suburban lot, includes street in front and alley in back) for each family would all fit within an area slightly larger than Afganistan. The rest of the planet would be totally devoid of human life. Give each family 25 acres [ed] and you are still only talking an area equal to 100 Afganistans - maybe the equivalent of Russia and China combined. Not that you could or should, but it shows our problems in a different light.

Nanotech can really make some big differences in our quality of life. If the difference turns out to be negative it will probably not be because of a runaway population.


From: Fraser Orr (ifo@xnet.com)
Date: 2002-04-05 17:36:50 PST

> I have read a great deal of discussion about the potential dangers of the development of MNT. It seems to me that the greatest danger lies in the development of improved healthcare technology. Unless we assume that humanity will find or create non-Terran habitats, which is not a particularly attractive option for many of us, any development that leads to increases in population will be ultimately catastrophic.

I completely disagree with this viewpoint. I had hoped it would be another ten to twenty years before this luddite view came up about nanotech, but unfortunately it is here already.

Your viewpoint is based on the flawed assumption that life extension will necessarily overstrain the resources of the earth, but that is the exact opposite of our historical evidence. The fact is that as medical technology has improved the lives and longevity of humans for the past several millennia, the commensurate development of other technologies has greatly expanded the capacity of the earth to sustain large populations.

This is especially so with nanotechnology. It will give us the ability to use our resources many orders of magnitude more efficiently. Consequently life extension will not strangle the carrying capacity of the earth, on the contrary.

Consider the Sahara desert. It has a population of but a few million today. Imagine I built a building, called the UberCondos. This building was 1 mile high, and covered the whole area of the Sahara desert (3.5 million sq miles.) Now imagine I built this building into condos, each allocating 2000 sq ft per person, and 10 ft ceilings. Imagine I also allocated 50% space to residential, and 50% to commercial (so the UberCondo residents had a place to work.) By this calculation we could accommodate 13 trillion people in the UberCondos, or two thousand times the current earth population. Furthermore, if we coated the roof with solar cells at 50% efficiency (which nanotech may very well produce) we can generate 1.5 e15 KW.hr per month, or about 400KW.hr per family of four per month. Which, assuming much more efficient use of electricity may very well be enough. (In the US in 1999 it was about four times that. I suspect that nanotech will easily be able to quarter our energy needs per capita.)

Take a smaller area, say the Los Angeles metro area (about 35,000 sq miles) a similar building could more than house the whole world's population and provide it with adequate energy.

Note also, that in a nanotech world you probably need less space per capita as well as less energy. After all, with a utility fog filled house, one room is your den, your kitchen, your bathroom and your bedroom.

Some have said that exponential growth will always outstrip the resources of the earth, and that is true, except when per capital resource use is also declining exponentially.

> It has been argued that nanotechnology will allow greater resources to be available to all people, such that a much larger population can be supported. Do we really want such a world? What about the rest of this beautiful creation we call home. Yes, we will be able to clean up waste better and develop cleaner industry, but these improvements just slow the eventual damage wrought by sheer numbers.

That is pure speculation. I'm afraid the arithmetic doesn't back you up. On the contrary, we could have a more beautiful home planet, with a vastly higher carrying capacity. (You might not like the big ugly building I built on the Sahara, but you are perfectly at liberty to go visit the rest of the earth, au natural. In fact, who would complain in Los Angeles Metro was one big condo, it is practically that already, and you free up the rest of the world. Consider, for example, a food synthesizer, recently discussed here. Such a device alone would enable nearly all present farm land to be returned to it's "natural" state.)

> It seems to me that proponents of increased populations are either uninformed or entirely speciocentric.

"Speciocentric"? Hardly, UberCondos would suck for desert snakes, but all the other animals would be much better off. (Particularly cows and sheep who would not be kept in vile conditions, and painfully killed to feed the bellies of poorer nations.) We are not uninformed, on the contrary we do the math.

> Through technology perhaps we can make enough stuff for everybody for the short term, but is it ethical to continue to extend human life and create methods for removing what little non-human control is left over our specie's population and evolution.

Ethical? Every system of ethics I know of puts the preservation of human life as a very high and important ethic. How can anyone suggest that it is more ethical to let people die wrinkled, sick and insane of painful old age, than to find cures and let them live on in a world of plenty? I think it is your ethical compass that is off.

> Since few if any human societies have demonstrated the ability to self regulate its population, it seem far more likely that we will face the horror of an unending sea of humanity and human byproducts rather than the gray ooze or a fullerene forest.

Nonsense. Every human society has regulated its population. If it gets beyond the level of sustainability, people die. Further, the wealthier a society is, the more apt it is to control its population growth. Technology increases wealth, and consequently controls outrageous population growth.

You are right that governments cannot generally speaking control population growth, but frankly governments aren't really very good at anything.

....

> Perhaps some of the insightful people who devote so much energy to worrying about nanotech waste and misuse, should help educate their less foresightful friends so that we can develop a culture that will allow us to live in a stable ecosystem again.

There is no such thing as a stable ecosystem (in the sense of one that stays the same.) However, nanotechnology will be very good for the "environment." How sad that the people who really care about the environment direct their rage against technology, for technology is the solution to the problem they perceive.

> I am a proponent of MNT development, but every time i see someone talk about the wonderful healthcare benefits, i cringe. From a narrow, personal perspective, i want those healthcare advances too, but that is just me being greedy. I can live with that selfishness: after all, self-preservation is a strong instinct, but i can not call such advances "good".

You think trying to live a long, happy, healthy life is selfish? I respectfully disagree.


From: Jim Johansen (drfirelip@aol.com)
Date: 2002-04-08 00:06:57 PST

I believe that the point was missed here. i am not suggesting that MNT be stopped or slowed. I am just attempting to place a different perspective on the potential risks. There is no doubt that the development of anything approaching the discussed promise of MNT will mitigate some of the damage caused by an increasing population. At the same time, there is no doubt that greatly advanced medical technology will remove some of the threats to our current population level which could significantly reduce our numbers.

Much of what is discussed in this forum, The Foresight Foundation, etc. involves the definition of good vs. bad technological developments. Creating a run-away new life form is generally considered a bad thing while medical advances are considered good things. I suggest that this is a very sticky question with no clear resolution. Nanotechnology represents a means of creating a better tool set. The fundamental issues have not changed; only the degree of power we as humans can expect to wield over our surroundings. I intend to play a role in the development of these tools, even those for medical applications, but i would not dream of deluding myself into believing that what i am doing is particularly noble. It is simply my chosen work. To me, tools are ethically neutral, it is only in how they are used. If we use our new tools in a manner that displaces the other species on this planet, i personally have a problem with that. That is what we have done thus far and there is no reason to expect that we will behave any differently with our better tools. Is it really any better for us to act in a way that causes the extinction of another species, than for us to creation of a new life form which causes our species to die out. I do not expect this question to be answered in this forum, but i suggest that such a question is assumed to be obvious. it is not! not all people believe that humanity is any better than any other living thing. In a non-speciocentric mindset, many of the proposed advances look like dangers and many of the "dangers" look like possible replacements for the biological population controls that such advances would seek to eliminate.

[It seems necessary to note that, from a non-speciocentric mindset, advances in medical technology (e.g. resulting from nanobiotech) would not only enable preservation of human life, but also of other species - animal, vegitable, or even the hypothetically self-replicating minerals. As you pointed out, its not the tools that are good or bad, but how they are used. Steve Lenhert - moderator]

As our moderator has pointed out, this is not the venue for discussing whether or not human population should grow to fill every available habitat or whether it should be reduced to a small fraction of present numbers. There are intelligent and reasonable people who can argue both extremes. I raised this point in hopes that discussions on the dangers of nanotechnology can become more balanced.

There are a great many people who have absolutely no desire for themselves or their progeny to leave this planet and who think that Earth is horribly overpopulated now. They are not misinformed! This is as valid and scientifically justifiable a position as any other. It merely represents fundamental differences in personal values. To unquestioningly label medical advances as "good", ignores and belittles this minority viewpoint. Our society and financial systems are set up to depend on population and economic growth. That is what has brought us to this dawn. As this new age unfolds, hopefully we can find a better way.

A stable ecosystem is not stagnant, rather its dynamism allows continued life and evolution for most of the life-forms involved. As humans we have not known such a state of existence in a very long time. We are metastable at best. Without something akin to nanotechnology, we are certainly scheduled for an eventual burnout. Perhaps the nanotech revolution will enable such synchronicity, but not without a fundamental change in our core values. In the mean time, we, in this forum, should be very cautious about ethical judgements regarding future developments and realize that the internet community and beyond, are composed of people who have many different viewpoints, not all of which are centered exclusively on humanity.


Each Author retains their copyright. Reprinted with permission.


For brevity and continuity sakes, some comments have been omitted. See the thread Healthcare advances-greatest threat for the ongoing argument.

In a debate such as this, only time will separate right from wrong, with many shades of grey flavoring the actual outcome. What I intuit from speaking to each of the authors is that they share a common concern about the future of humanity, but differ in their ideas of how advanced science will effect the course we travel, and the things we each need to do now to help insure a positive result. What I am hopeful for is that more and more well intentioned people around the world will find ways to get involved in the debate, on this and other emergent technologies. "Society must evolve with technology. ... I hope that some real examinations of core values will result." Jim Johansen. I agree - wholeheartedly, and with emphasis.

Rocky Rawstern
rocky@future-is-here.com
Editor Nanotechnology-Now.com

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