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Foresight Activities > Foresight Conferences > The 1st Adv. Nanotech. Conf. > Abstracts

Radical Technologies, Radical Transformations

Mark Avrum Gubrud*

Physics Dept., University of Maryland
College Park, MD 20742-4111 USA

This is an abstract for a presentation given at the
1st Conference on Advanced Nanotechnology:
Research, Applications, and Policy


Drexler (1986) introduced a vision of advanced nanotechnology (ANT) and advanced artificial intelligence (AAI) that clearly looms as a disruption of the constraints within which the military-security, economic and moral institutions of the modern world have evolved. Because the development of nanotechnology as it is currently unfolding is not so immediately disruptive, this vision has been scorned by many scientists, journalists and policymakers, while beneath the surface, it has served as the main driver of interest in and concern about the field. Accordingly, there has been much casual discussion, but relatively little serious analysis of the radical implications of radical tech, yet it is clear that ANT and AAI threaten to destabilize existing social arrangements, and hence require us to think about profound transformations:

  • A confrontation between hostile, noncooperating military powers armed with weapons made by ANT and AAI is unlikely to be stable. The nanotechnic world will require an integrated international security system to replace deterrence and sovereign self-defense.
  • ANT and AAI which reproduces all economically valuable human capabilities will accordingly debase the exchange value of human labor and reduce opportunities for advancement through hard work and initiative. Severe economic and political crises are likely. The political economy of capitalism and wage labor cannot be sustained.
  • ANT and AAI confront the human species with existential threats in addition to war and economic chaos. The possible use of these technologies to "improve" humanity, or to replace human beings with technological systems, challenges us to rethink our relationship with our creations, and our valuation of ourselves and each other. The threat that such technologies may achieve autonomy and escape human control, challenges us to reassert control of our machines, our social institutions, ourselves and our future.

I will focus primarily on the first of these interconnected challenges, because it is the most immediate and dangerous. Building on ideas discussed in Gubrud (1997), I will show why a confrontation between military powers using ANT and AAI must be avoided. A strategy for its avoidance would rely on verifiable arms control and collective security arrangements in preference to unilateral exploitation of military technical opportunities and unilateral exercise of military power. The most critical issues at the present time are the development of space weapons and killer robots. The United States is currently leading these developments and should reconsider that policy in light of its long-term implications. Beyond arms control, it will be necessary for the world's military institutions to work together to forge a global alliance for peace and security.

I will also discuss, briefly, the challenge of transforming an economic system based on competition between humans into one that can sustain humanity in the presence of a transcendent technology, and the challenge posed by that technology itself and by the failure to remember that we created technology not for its own sake, but to serve human beings.


*Corresponding Address:
Mark Avrum Gubrud
Center for Superconductivity Research
Physics Dept., University of Maryland
College Park, MD 20742-4111 USA
Phone: 301-405-7673 Fax: 301-314-9541

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