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This paper builds on concepts introduced in my paper, "Three Systems Of Ethics For Diverse Applications," available at no charge from this web site.
Any organization has an explicit or implicit code of ethics: rules that its members are expected to follow. We expect merchants to be honest, policemen to be honorable, and librarians to be informative. There are at least three ethical systems that are commonly used to administer different types of resources. Defending against loss is best achieved by Guardian ethics, which include the use of force and deception. Resources that can be traded to mutual benefit are best administered with Commercial ethics, which include honesty and efficiency. Things that can be freely duplicated, producing unlimited benefit, are best handled with Information ethics, which maximize the accessibility and utility of such resources.
Nanotechnology presents a wide range of problems and opportunities:
not just diverse issues, but different kinds of issues. Many
of these issues have arisen already, with older technologies and institutions.
This paper provides a brief overview of the problems and benefits created by nanotechnology, and substantiates the claim that a variety of ethical systems will be necessary to deal appropriately with the range of issues raised by nanotech. It begins by discussing the power of nanotechnology as a technology, then surveys the risks, commercial opportunities, and abundance that may be created by nanotech, and concludes by restating the need for the deliberate development of collaboration between diverse organizations with radically different ethics.
The Capabilities of Nanotechnology
Nanotechnology has several meanings. The National Science Foundation defines nanotech as, "Research and technology development at the atomic, molecular or macromolecular levels, in the length scale of approximately 1 - 100 nanometer range, to provide a fundamental understanding of phenomena and materials at the nanoscale and to create and use structures, devices and systems that have novel properties and functions because of their small and/or intermediate size." By this definition, some kinds of nanotechnology exist already. Computer manufacturers are exploring new types of circuits built with individual molecules, and other technologies too numerous to list are being developed or already in use.
Rapid prototyping is the production of 3D parts using a sort of 3D printer. Parts can be made of plastic, metal, or other substances, and can be quite intricate. Efforts are currently under way at the macro-scale to build rapid prototyping systems that can use a variety of materials to build complete products, not just parts. We should expect rapid prototyping to develop at least as rapidly as 2D color printing. It's easy to forget how rapidly inkjet printers have developed from grainy black-and-white to photo-quality color. Even if rapid prototyping does not become economically viable for home use, it will certainly find a niche in industry that will fuel its continued development.
At least one rapid prototyping capability, dip-pen nanolithography (DPN), is being developed at the nanoscale. DPN can be done with a desktop machine, and can deposit a wide variety of materials. It seems clear that, to at least some extent, we will be able to build structures with nanometer-scale parts. Nanoscale motors and structures have already been tested in the lab. There is no evidence that a nanoscale machine would violate any laws of physics; the only question is how well we can engineer such a thing, and how long it will take to invent and develop a particular device.
Certain visionary organizations such as Foresight Institute assert that we will be able to build entire robot systems at the nanometer or even atomic scale. Such a system could be used to build a rapid-prototyping machine capable of duplicating its own construction. Again, there is no evidence that such a thing is impossible, though it would certainly take a huge engineering effort to design and build the first working model. However, such an effort might pay off; a molecular manufacturing system would have several advantages over conventional bulk manufacturing processes. For one thing, because atoms are all the same size, it would be able to produce exact, not just approximate, copies of any design it was given. The first system could build ten, and each of them could build ten... the user of such a device could quickly produce an unlimited amount of manufacturing capability. It should be noted that many small manufacturing systems could be combined into a convergent-assembly factory, where parts are assembled by automation to make larger parts; this is the preferred design, since a large factory is easier to use (and easier to keep track of) than billions of tiny "assemblers".
Even if a desktop-scale, convergent-assembly, rapid-prototyping nanofactory is too difficult to build in the near term, the combination of rapid prototyping and nanometer-scale technology will enable a wide range of new product designs with an unprecedented ease of manufacture. However, the complexity of a desktop-scale nanofactory is probably less than that of a large commercial software package, and the return on investment is far greater. If one projects any of several technology curves, it appears likely that we will be building machine-scale molecules, or molecule-scale machines, within a few decades. For the sake of argument, this paper will assume the development of a self-duplicating desktop nanotech factory. The path of technology development may not lead in this direction, but some technology of equivalent power will certainly be developed within the lifespan of most readers.
Nanotech will also have a large impact on the most mundane products. Carbon nanotubes (Buckytubes) are many times as strong as steel, and can also be used as wires, computer switches, chemical sensors, heat conductors, and for storing hydrogen. Silicon nanocrystals do interesting things to light; they can be used for biotech research, optical computing, and to make more efficient light bulbs. Nano-sized aluminum powder makes a better rocket fuel. Zeolites, materials with nano-sized holes, are useful in all sorts of industrial processes. The list goes on and on--every time we study something at the nanometer scale, we find new effects that are often amazingly useful, both for new products and in existing products. Even if we ignore the nano-robot scenarios, we will see unprecedented improvement in many of our current technologies, including computers and weapons. Even the conservative opinions about nanotechnology sound like a new industrial revolution.
Reducing the Risks of Nanotechnology: Guardian Systems
In 2002, researchers used DNA purchased over the Internet to build fully infectious polio virus. A nanotech-based rapid-prototyping or manufacturing capability, whether available in the home or by mail order, would be able to build things more intricate and functional than a simple virus. Nanometer-scale computer circuitry will probably be one of the first products; this enables all sorts of computing, communication, and surveillance devices. If the technology is based on biochemistry, then medicines, drugs, and poisons may be available; indeed, a wide range of custom-designed chemicals. If the technology is based on rigid machine parts, then a wide range of shapes and manipulations will be possible; it has already been demonstrated that a cavity in plastic can act as a "binding site" to trap chemicals, so even a purely mechanical nanotechnology should be able to interact with biochemical systems to some extent.
Today's supercomputers can be used for tasks of military significance, such as simulating nuclear explosions and cracking codes. In fact, sufficiently powerful computers are considered a munition (armament), and their export is controlled. Certain software, including some common encryption software, is also considered a munition. But the supercomputers of today are the desktop computers of tomorrow and the palmtops of the day after, and nanotechnology will certainly allow the building of computers that are immensely powerful by today's standards. These computers may be integrated with devices of varying degrees of sophistication; but a near-magical surveillance technology could be packaged into a device too small to see. Even the mundane types of nanotech products may need to be controlled.
The more extravagant suggestions, such as "gray goo," can get quite scary. Gray goo is a kind of nanodevice that takes in biomass and turns it into copies of the gray goo device. In theory, if such a device were not countered, it could "eat" the biosphere. Fortunately, the design of such a device would be quite difficult. Furthermore, devices of the gray goo class would have no commercial or even military use, since more specialized non-replicating devices would be far more efficient. It is thus highly unlikely that anyone would build a gray goo, or device that could run amok and become gray goo, by accident, and military or commercial organizations would have little interest in building such a thing on purpose. However, the prevalence of computer viruses indicates that some people build things like this for fun.
If approached with pessimism, nanotech appears far too dangerous to
be allowed to develop to anywhere near its full potential. However,
a naive approach to limiting nanotech R&D, such as "relinquishment,"
is flawed for at least two reasons. First, it will almost certainly
be impossible to prevent the development of nanotechnology somewhere in
the world. China, Europe, and Japan all have thriving nanotechnology
programs, and the rapid advance of "enabling technologies" such as biotech,
MEMS, and scanning-probe microscopy (SPM) ensures that nanotech R&D
efforts will be far easier in the near future than they are today.
If the spread of nanotech ability cannot be prevented, then the resulting problems must be dealt with piecemeal. Some sort of watch will have to be kept, on an ongoing basis, to reduce the number of criminals, terrorists, and hobbyists building dangerous nanodevices, and to clean up problems when they do occur. A deployment of nasty stuff such as "time bomb dust" or "gray goo" might have to be dealt with quickly, forcefully, and invasively. Thus a nanotech police organization would need broad powers to exert force on random people or property. It is crucial that such an organization be incorruptible. Several of the Guardian ethics, such as "Shun trading" and "Be exclusive," are designed to minimize corruption. Others, such as "Exert prowess," "Take vengeance," and "Deceive for the sake of the task," are uncomfortable to many people but probably necessary.
When facing a new and rapidly improving technology, it is tempting to
think that a guardian organization would need to adapt rapidly. However,
there is a good reason why Guardian ethics include "Adhere to tradition"
and "Be fatalistic." An organization that allows itself to change
too quickly may lose focus. In addition, if the guardians are too
quick to try new things, they may create cures worse than the diseases.
Nanotech For Profit: Commercial Systems
"Be thrifty. Be optimistic. Be efficient. Be industrious. Be honest." No, it's not the Boy Scout Oath; it's a few of the Commercial ethics. Commercial organizations will work very hard to give people what they want--or what they will pay for, which is frequently the same thing. If a product needs to be developed to satisfy a market, some company somewhere will probably be working on it. Money can be a great incentive.
Commercial organizations must compete, but they are not allowed to use force--that is reserved for Guardian organizations. So they try to make their products better, and sell to more people. They are willing to invest in developing products, and making them easier to use, and making consumers aware of them. They are accustomed to collaborating and innovating, and to making and keeping contracts. Nanotechnology encompasses hundreds of new technologies, many of them quite specialized and quite useful. The development of all this potential requires an incentive, and commercial organizations will use the incentive of money to bring the benefits of nanotech to a wide swath of the population. Without the commercial system, many applications of nanotech would not be developed nearly as quickly, if at all.
In fact, the benefits of capitalism are so well established that it
would be redundant to spend more time on them here. I will, however,
mention some limitations. Motivated by money, corporations do not
tend to consider factors that cannot be quantified. Some industries
are notorious for creating environmental or health problems, simply because
it is profitable to do so. In addition, money tends to flow where
it can achieve a quick return on investment; venture capitalists won't
invest in a project that takes longer than a few years. Long-term
benefits, like hidden costs, are largely ignored by the commercial mindset.
Another limitation of Commercial ethics is that there is no obligation--none!--toward
people who can't afford to pay for a product or service that they need.
Again, this is not bad, as long as there are non-commercial organizations
that can take up the slack. A philanthropic money-grubbing corporation
is a contradiction in terms--it would become ineffective through making
unprofitable choices. What this means is that commercial organizations
should do what they do best, developing and selling products with a relatively
short planning horizon, but they should not claim ownership of everything.
A society based entirely on commercial ethics would have some people starving
in the streets, and most of us would not want to live there. The
solution is not to nationalize commercial entities. Societies that
have tried that have seen their economies stagnate or implode. The
solution is to maintain thriving commercial entities, caring only about
the bottom line, in balance with other entities using other ethics.
Unlimited Benefits of Nanotechnology: Information Systems
The invention of writing allowed information to be stored for later use, and even copied verbatim. The printing press made the copying process much easier, giving many more people access to the information. Computers, with networks and word processors, have reached another level. The cost of copying information is virtually zero. You can write a book yourself, then email it to all your friends or put it on a web site for the whole world to see. You can do the same thing for recipes, music, and drawings. With some training, you can even write a better word processing program so that all your friends--or the whole world--will find it easier to write books. There are programs to help you write that word processing program, and there are people working to improve those programs. The whole system can be improved exponentially, as long as people are willing to "give away" their work. It may seem strange at first, but many people are willing to do just that. Microsoft operating systems cost hundreds of dollars. The Linux operating system is absolutely free. How can this be? What induced the thousands of Linux programmers to work without pay?
A look at the Information ethics gives a clear answer to that question.
It's only a matter of time until the manufacture of products becomes as cheap as the copying of files. Nanotechnology will help this process along, because the first practical self-duplicating factory will almost certainly be designed on the nanometer scale. A tabletop model might weigh two pounds, and use methanol as a raw material. The amount of methanol required to produce a new factory would cost less than a dollar, and a well-designed factory could process that much material in an hour or so. Once one such factory exists, it and its copies can be used to make an unlimited number of tabletop factories, cheap enough to give away. Building a new product would be as simple as emailing its blueprint to the factory--which might be sitting beside your computer.
If nanotech factories were ubiquitous, then their products would be
readily available. The only limits would be raw materials--which
would be completely renewable--and licensing fees for the products.
If a product design were created and given away, as Linux was given away,
anyone who wanted or needed one could have it. Any product that could
alleviate poverty or suffering would be instantly available to everyone.
Of course this would only be possible if the factories were not restricted to prevent their making free products. Commercial entities, of course, would have a strong interest in preventing competition from products that people didn't have to pay for. And Guardian entities would be sweating over the malicious uses that an unrestricted factory could be put to. A completely uncontrolled factory looks like a very bad idea for several reasons, including intellectual property violations and dangerous products. A completely controlled factory is a bad idea for one very simple reason: total control would prevent the alleviation of vast amounts of human suffering, and the creation of an undreamed-of level of prosperity. Some sort of compromise must be reached.
Diverse Ethics Require Diverse Organizations
The esprit de corps of an army is radically different from the corporate
culture of a company, and both are different from the "hacker ethic" of
an Open Source project. A quick look at the following table of ethics
(extracted from "Three Systems Of Ethics For Diverse Applications";
see references in that paper) shows why this must be so. The ethical
use of force, coercion, and secrecy requires a very different mindset from
the honesty and cooperation required for proper trading. Information
ethics are just as dissimilar: no one would throw open a store, or a fortress,
and invite everyone to enter and take what they wanted, but Information
ethics are designed to do just that.
It should be clear that no person, or organization, can simultaneously follow all of these ethics. Attempting to switch systems would be disastrous; the organization would become schizophrenic and no one, including the members, would know what to expect from it. Even maintaining several branches within the same organization would be difficult; leading a Guardian organization is very different from leading a Commercial or Information one. Any problem sufficiently complex to require more than one system of ethics cannot be solved by a single organization. The solution requires several organizations working together, with clear lines of responsibility so that the organizations do not attempt to extend themselves into territory they are not competent to deal with.
A successful organization will usually attempt to extend its influence, to grow larger and deal with more issues. In general, Guardian groups are threatened by change, and want to control everything; Commercial groups want to own and use everything, even things that cannot be priced; and Information groups want everything to be free, even secrets and private property. When new issues arise, it sometimes takes time to decide what kind of organization should deal with them. For example, companies in America used to use force to end strikes, sending in violent people to beat up the striking workers. This is a clear violation of Commercial ethics, but it took some time before the use of force by companies was curbed. When a new issue arises that requires action from all three types of organizations, it will require great care to avoid misapplication of ethics. There is a very real risk of creating, in Jane Jacobs' words, a "monstrous moral hybrid" which, by applying the wrong ethics to a situation, will make wasteful or destructive choices.
Building a Nanotech Society: A Balance of Power
As described above, nanotechnology will present a large range of new problems and new opportunities. Commercial and Information groups cannot be trusted to take appropriate precautions in every case, so a Guardian approach is sometimes necessary. Likewise, Guardian and Information ethics do not create money, so Commercial organizations must be involved to pay for large parts of the development and deployment of the technology. Finally, although Guardian ethics include "Dispense largesse," neither Guardian nor Commercial organizations can be expected to create and distribute the almost limitless benefits that will become possible from vastly improved materials and manufacturing.
Ideally, each organization involved in nanotechnology would be aware of its own ethics and the ethics of the organizations it interacts with, and make good decisions about which problems to tackle and which problems to leave for someone else. In practice, of course, organizations are usually not so self-aware, and even when they are, short-sighted self interest may tempt them to expand into areas where they have no competence. In the end, an organization that overreaches itself will find that its plans don't work; it will make ineffective and antisocial decisions, and it will be out-competed by its fellow organizations and attacked by those it has encroached on. However, such a process may take much time and cause much destruction; consider the long-delayed fall of the Soviet Union, due in large part to its application of Guardian ethics to commerce and information. Nanotechnology will develop too quickly for such slow adjustments. If an organization manages to usurp power in an area where it does not belong, and hold that power for even a few years, it may create an imbalance that tempts a radical and destructive solution.
For example, if no institution takes responsibility for forcibly preventing the worst abuses of the new technology, commercial liability will act to reduce the risks of any given design, and this may prevent disaster for a while. But as nanotech becomes more accessible, more pervasive, and more powerful, eventually a security hole or design flaw will cause a breakdown, a vulnerability that can be exploited, or an unexpected use as a weapon. Likewise, if no institution is allowed to distribute nanotech-related information and products freely, clandestine and foreign institutions will spring up to do the job, creating a massive exchange of "pirate" designs and a security liability. If commercial activity is overly restricted by Guardian interests, a black market will form.
None of the three ethical systems contains the commandment, "Be aware
of the limitations of your ethics." Most organizations that attempt
to deal with nanotech will not know why they act as they do or why they
cannot successfully address certain problems. If not constrained
externally, they will try and fail, perhaps creating significant waste
or even tragedy. Yet the organization that normally does the constraining,
the government, is itself limited in its ethics and its understanding of
them. The design of our government includes many provisions, such
as free interstate trade, that promote commercial activity. It even
includes some, such as the patent system, that promote sharing of information
(although with a commercially significant incentive that limits the utility
of the information). A century ago, the Information ethic could be
found largely in the scientific research community, which did not interact
directly with commercial activities. More recently, however, the
patent system appears to be supporting commerce more than information,
by granting a flood of poorly-evaluated patents; furthermore, scientific
research has also become more closely tied to commercial endeavor.
The phrase, "Information economy," is a clear symptom of attempting
to mix two ethical systems. Companies that tried to make money in
the Information Economy were doomed from the start. One after another,
they found that they could get a large number of users as long as the "customers"
were not paying them any money; the customer base grew exponentially, as
might be expected in an unlimited-sum system. Yet when the companies
began charging fees, most of the users went elsewhere. We may suspect
that many of these users felt that charging fees for what had been a free
service was unethical. In terms of Information ethics, it is in fact
improper to charge fees. The companies that succeeded, such as Amazon.com,
were the ones that offered a traditional Commercial service, using the
vast potential of the Internet simply as a communication channel.
A Specific Proposal
The Internet was originally created by a governmental agency. As it grew, it was supported by funding and technology from many sources, including Guardian (government), Commercial (corporate web sites and private users paying ISPs), and Information (hobbyist programmers, responsible among other things for creating the Internet Protocol). The Internet is an infrastructure, usable by any group. A comparable nanotechnology infrastructure could provide a project that all three types of groups could contribute to. Guardians could regulate, Commerce could charge tolls, and Information groups could enhance both the infrastructure and the products available through it.
As explained above, a tabletop factory appears to be quite possible with moderately sophisticated nanotech. Such a factory could form the core of a nanotech delivery infrastructure. Depending on the cost of the factory, it could either be available in service bureaus or in individual homes. It would be able to produce an immense range of incredibly useful products at very low cost. The benefits to society would be almost incalculable: the financial and environmental costs of manufacturing and transportation would disappear, and new products would be available far more quickly, and customized for each user.
Once a nanofactory can be built, people will demand access to it; it is too useful to pass up. If a legitimate one is not provided, people will obtain black market devices of comparable functionality. Such devices would presumably be uncontrolled, short-circuiting any attempt to regulate, tax, or charge royalties on any product they produced. Since a small nanofactory can make a bigger one, and a large one can make thousands of duplicates, smuggling would be impossible to prevent. It is in the interests of both Guardian and Commercial organizations to supply nanofactories, as capable and flexible as possible, to the entire population, to minimize the black market and the illicit information distribution networks. This flexibility must include the ability to build certain products with minimal royalties or taxes--preferably zero added cost, because anything else will only encourage illicit factories. Of course, the factories cannot be completely flexible. Certain weapons, drugs, and dangerous nanobots should be prohibited, and all commercial intellectual property should be controlled according to the wishes of the owner. However, aside from these limitations, Information workers should be given free rein to design and give away any product. This will greatly reduce the pressure for illicit factories.
Free availability of freely designed products will not eliminate commercial value; "Promote comfort and convenience" is a Commercial ethic, but not an Information ethic. We see this in practice--it is well known that Linux is more difficult for the average user than, say, Microsoft Windows. Products of Information are likely to be highly functional, but not especially easy to use or stylish--except for the type of people who produced them. Still, the activities of Information-producing groups will serve as a release for needs the Commercial groups are failing to fill. They will also serve as a source of innovation that will be usable by both Commercial and Guardian groups, which will certainly have their hands full trying to keep up with the rapidly advancing technology. Branding, advertising, and spreading "fear, uncertainty, and doubt" about free products are other ways that Commercial entities can make their products desirable.
Regulation would be necessary regardless of who was designing the products.
Some classes of product, of course, will not require much scrutiny.
In summary, the creation and wide distribution of nanotech factories appears to maximize the benefits of nanotechnology while providing opportunities to minimize the risks. Guardian/regulatory, Commercial, and Information/creative organizations will all be able to pursue their goals through this infrastructure, which will provide substantial benefits to society while short-circuiting many illicit uses of advanced nanotech-based manufacturing. It is not too soon to begin designing the procedures, organizations, and technologies that will be required to make this infrastructure work and give everyone access to it.
ReferencesNSF Nanotech Definition: http://www.nsf.gov/home/crssprgm/nano/omb_nifty50.htm
Catching file sharers... http://www.pbs.org/cringely/pulpit/pulpit20020919.html
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