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

Human rights implications of extremely cheap molecular manufacturing

Chris Phoenix*

Center for Responsible Nanotechnology
Miami, FL 33196 USA

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


Molecular manufacturing implies the ability to create self-contained manufacturing systems capable of fabricating duplicate factories without human labor input. This in turn implies extremely cheap manufacturing: the cost of the factory may be comparable to the cost of its component materials. The products, built from molecular components, can be many orders of magnitude more compact than today's best efforts, further reducing the cost per function. The human implications of this have not been adequately considered.

If manufacturing is sufficiently cheap, then it becomes feasible to build and distribute personal devices to everyone on the planet. Distributed manufacturing would reduce transportation cost and time. Embedded supercomputers and sensors would allow automation of fairly complex functions. Networked computers and medical diagnostic devices could weigh less than a gram, implying a total manufacturing cost of a few million dollars for full-population production.

The potential benefits of universal availability of computers and medical diagnostics are obvious. The UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that everyone should have various forms of legal protection; the ability to document personal events would support this goal. Health is another human right, and continuous personal medical monitoring would go a long way toward maintaining health. In some areas, products as small and simple as water filters will also help. Networked computers could improve education.

However, the power of these devices could be misused. Computers could be monitored, reducing or eliminating the right to privacy. Medical diagnostics could similarly be abused, especially if data is gathered full-time and reported in real time. Remote monitoring and tracking of identity, location, and emotional state would not be difficult. This information would be so useful to any police force that there would probably be pressure from some quarters to make this mandatory. Medical psychiatric intervention, using only moderately more advanced technology, could allow remote control of people's emotional state.

Even without implanted monitors, the ability to cheaply manufacture billions of networked video cameras would allow full recording of people and events. Enough computer resources to store, process, and analyze the information would also be cheap. Programs already exist that can analyze a video feed for unusual occurrences; such programs, applied to universal video surveillance, could detect (for example) illicit technical activity.

The potential power and low cost of the products of molecular manufacturing implies that an oppressive government could gain complete control over its subject populace. Rebellion in such a situation would be virtually impossible; Orwell's nightmare pales by comparison. We must ensure that whatever governments (or other organizations) control this technology are designed so that they will not apply such abusive power even when it would be easy and irresistable.

*Corresponding Address:
Chris Phoenix
Center for Responsible Nanotechnology
14930 SW 104 St Apt 27, Miami, FL 33196 USA
Phone: 305-387-5583 Fax: 305-387-5583

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