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Home > Interviews > Chris Phoenix - 2001

Chris Phoenix Interview December 2001

The following is an interview with Chris Phoenix. Besides possessing a wealth of future sciences knowledge, Chris is a co-moderator and frequent contributor at the sci.nanotech newsgroup, where he is counted among a select few who both understand the issues, and cares enough to debate them. Chris' interest in nanotechnology began when he took Eric Drexler's class "Nanotechnology and Exploratory Engineering" at Stanford University in 1988. He has followed the field continuously since then, attending numerous nanotech conferences, contributing frequently to several on-line discussion lists, and helping to review a major book and a Ph.D. thesis on nanotech. He is also a Senior Associate of the Foresight Institute. After graduating from Stanford with an M.S. in Computer Science in 1991, Chris worked as an embedded software engineer for six years, then changed careers to dyslexia correction. He currently spends his time working on several inventions, writing about nanotech, and researching perceptual changes in dyslexia. Chris is interested in almost everything, especially if it's related to science, technology, biology, or psychology. His hobbies include hang gliding, caving, singing, and stained glass.

Regarding Nanoscale Sciences, here are this year's Questions:

1. Considering where you thought we'd be by 2002, how do you evaluate current technological progress?

We're a little ahead of where I thought we'd be. My estimate of when MNT will arrive continues to get earlier. A year ago, I said 2010; now I think it's closer to 2008.

2. Any surprises, in terms of developments arriving sooner than expected, or totally unexpected findings?

There are a couple of new and important enabling technologies. One is the development of a rigid way to link 1-nm silicon-oxygen crystals. There's another, a sensing technology, that I probably shouldn't talk about yet; but it should make nanoscale assembly much easier.

3. Who are the top 5 major players advancing the state of the art? And the 5 major areas where advances are being made.

I don't know the players. Advances are being made in all areas. Perhaps the most important are the areas that promise short-term financial return, such as buckyball-based drugs and molecular circuits; we're close to products in both those areas, and that will keep industry focused on MNT-related research. Advances that are directly MNT-related don't come in huge steps but in dozens of enabling technologies. Probably the only area where advances are *not* being made is in software to design and run products with 10^20 moving parts. We could start such software now, and if we don't, we'll find that the biggest limit to nanotech is that we don't know how to use it.

4. Besides getting themselves informed about MNT, what proactive steps can the general public take to help us steer clear of the potentially dangerous possibilities [such as the Gray Goo or "runaway" scenario]?

First of all, don't focus on Gray Goo; it sounds scary, but is quite unlikely. To me, the most dangerous possibility (because it's more likely) is that MNT will be underused. Fifty million people die each year, and most of those lives could be saved with MNT. Lifesaving distribution of MNT to disadvantaged people must be balanced with the profit-making necessary to fuel the research, and the regulation necessary to avoid terrorist uses of the technology. I encourage everyone to learn about current economic and political systems, and learn how to convince those systems to use the new capabilities sensibly and beneficially. If we aren't aware of the benefits, we won't ask for them; if we don't ask--in the right way--we won't get them. Without MNT, you and everyone you know will be dead in a few decades.

Don't ignore the downsides; if you think of a bad scenario, let the people at Foresight and IMM know about it, and they'll design their Nanotech Guidelines to avoid it. But they already know about Gray Goo. If you're still worried, lobby your politicians to accept the Guidelines and to promote nanotech research in the free world.

5. Are you seeing as much cooperation among the sciences as you expected? If so, how can it be further improved? If not, how can we get everyone together working synergistically?

It will be another couple of years before we need a lot of cooperation among the sciences. In three or four years we'll probably have all the enabling technologies we need; then we can start building the first MNT factory. We should begin now on the design, but I'm not sure we should distract most scientists from their work; cooperation outside one's field takes a lot of effort.

Planned approaches generally don't work, especially when we don't know quite where we're going, and especially on a large scale. I'm happy with the advances I've seen just from basic research and profit motive. Zyvex is a small company focused on designing and building an assembler, and you can be sure they'll use every breakthrough available. Perhaps we could use more Zyvexes, and maybe a Manhattan Project, but I don't think we should rearrange large fields of science to focus on nanotech.

6. Based upon where we are now, do you anticipate any dramatic breakthroughs in the near future? In 5 years. In 10. In 25.

Between six and ten years from now, I expect we'll see the first eutactic diamondoid assembler capable of copying itself. From there to the first tabletop eutactic factory is only a matter of months--if we have the right software in place. And then we can start building products. Twenty-five years ago, we didn't even have PCs, and the Soviet Union was a huge threat; there's no way to predict what will happen 25 years from now, 15 years after MNT is developed.

7. With the advent of mature MNT, where do you see the most drastic changes occurring ? How can society and industry prepare for it?

I expect MNT to enable human-level AI. This will probably have the biggest effect. I expect MNT will also profoundly affect distribution infrastructures, stir up intellectual property issues more than Napster and software patents did, and perhaps--if it's handled well--greatly reduce global scarcity and greatly increase expected lifespan.

Society can prepare for it by 1) Unlearning the "puritan work ethic" that something that seems too good to be true probably has a catch. 2) Educating themselves about risk/benefit tradeoffs. 3) Creating structures and institutions to deal with the new economics. The Web has several lessons for us here, about openness and economics.

I have a theory that humans will simply ignore any technology they're not prepared to use, and so the change in technological capability will not necessarily produce much stress. So individuals don't necessarily need to prepare for nanotech at all.

Industry will adjust; the more preparation, the less pain; industry should prepare for localized production, a vast array of amazing products, titanic intellectual property struggles, diminished importance of raw materials, new types of regulation, and new types of alliances with governments and with sources of creativity (artists, designers).

8. What event has caused you the greatest concern? and the greatest hope? or is the most contentious?

Greatest concern comes from a contentious issue human cloning. The reaction to human cloning has been irrational and out of all proportion to the actual effects. But the reaction has been widespread and effective, and may even cause the creation of global legal structures to repress unpopular technology. An attempt to relinquish MNT would be extremely bad, and human cloning is giving the technophobes a lot of practice. The aftermath of Sept. 11 gives me a guarded optimism the low-tech nature of the attack makes technology seem more of a solution than a problem, and the lack of significant terrorist follow-up (so far) seems like we can actually hope to control the downsides of powerful technologies, if we put enough effort into it.

9. Do you belive in the tenets of Transhumanism, and the Extropian viewpoint? Are you prepared to become Transhuman?

"Believe in"? Null question. I think the Extropian viewpoint is a good idea, and my viewpoint generally agrees with it.

I certainly look forward to improving myself radically--with some degree of caution, but with no particular limit. The line between human and Transhuman is blurry, and I don't really care when I cross it--I'm sure I will at some point.

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