Nanotechnology: Is decentralized control feasible?

Jamais Cascio offers four nanotechnology policy scenarios over at CRN, looking at options resulting from two axes: centralized vs. decentralized, and precautionary vs. proactionary.

His two decentralized scenarios describe some territory similar to that which Foresight is investigating as part of our Decentralized Physical Security project:

The third scenario, combining Distributed rule-making and Proactionary technology use, is “Open Source Heaven/Open Source Apocalypse.” The name reflects the two quite divergent possibilities inherent in this scenario: one where the spread of user knowledge and access to molecular manufacturing technologies actually makes the world safer by giving more people the ability to recognize and respond to accidents and threats, and one where the spread of knowledge and access makes it possible for super-empowered angry individuals to unleash destruction without warning, from anywhere.

My own bias is towards the “Open Source Heaven” version, but I recognize the risks that this entails. We wouldn’t last long if the knowledge of how to make a device that would blow up the planet with a single button-push became widespread, and some of the arguments around the destructive potential of late-game molecular manufacturing seem to approach that level of threat. Conversely, it’s not hard to find evidence that open source knowledge and access tends to offer greater long-term safety and stability than does a closed approach, and that insufficiently-closed projects leaking out to interested and committed malefactors (but not as readily to those who might help to defend against them) offers the risks of opening up without any of the benefits.

Finally, the fourth scenario, combining Distributed rule-making and Precautionary technology use, is “We Are As Gods, So We Might As Well Get Good At It.” Stewart Brand used that as an opening line for his Whole Earth Catalogs, reflecting his sense that the emerging potential of new technologies and social models gave us — as human beings — access to far greater capabilities than ever before, and that our survival depended upon careful, considered examination of the implications of this fact.

In this world, the widespread knowledge of and access to molecular manufacturing technologies gives us a chance to deal with some of the more pressing big problems we as a planet face — extreme poverty, hunger, global warming, and the like — in effect allowing us breathing room to take stock of what kind of future we’d like to create. Those individuals tempted to use these capabilities for personal aggrandizement have to face a knowledgeable and empowered populace, as do those states seeking to take control away from the citizenry. This is, admittedly, the least likely of the four worlds, sadly.

Scenarios are useful tools for thinking about nanotech futures. Let’s keep examining the decentralized options and see if they can be made to work. Foresight is looking into how open approaches may be able to optimize the tradeoff between privacy and security. Can we have both? It’s worth exploring. —Christine

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