Thursday, March 23, 2006

A response to 'I, Nanobot'

OK, Alan Goldstein, I will not call you Ishmael. But somewhere along your road to Melville, you took a detour into speculative fiction, because that is clearly the genre of your Salon article, I, Nanobot.

The piece needs some work, but it appears to be written in the tradition of writers like Isaac Asimov, author of the article's namesake. Good science fiction takes a kernel of fact and extrapolates strange, new worlds via acres of “therefores.” I applaud Goldstein for this, as I did his previous Salon work, The (really scary) soldier of the future, which was a kind of "Terminator" meets "Gattaca." Most definitely FUD for thought.

So, why listen to me? A voice that, like Goldstein, is not Ishmael (sounds as though Isaac would be the correct branch of both of our family trees, anyway)? Because I can tell you something that just about anybody who has looked at what is called "nanotechnology" today can: He has been hoodwinked by the hype. In reality, scientists are still trying to figure out how to cook up a batch of nanotubes so that they all come out looking the same. We're far, far away from engineering our own extinction. No, if that happens courtesy of science, we'll do it the old-fashioned way and just blow ourselves to smithereens.

I have written before about the primary source of nanotech hype (here, here and here) and have shown how it is neither the media nor the nanobot futurists who are at fault. Most of the hype comes directly from the U.S. government's and nanotech industry's own promotional material about trillion-dollar markets and the dream of converging technologies to enhance "human performance." Nanotech proponents in government and business are continuously asking us to believe their "positive" hype and to dismiss the objections of those, like Goldstein, who take the same information and extrapolate a future dystopia.

Goldstein's article helps to solidify positions against nanotech that I predicted a few years ago -- that the right would turn vocal against a hypothetical, future nanotech that dares to "play God," and the left would organize against its own nano-mythology of out-of-control "green goo," (pissing off Mother Nature.)

But buried within Goldstein's whale of a hyperbolic tale are a few issues we all should consider as the young discipline of "nano-ethics" begins to define the rules of engagement. Do cochlear implants, for example, represent a wondrous cure for deafness, or are they the beginnings of a "genocide" perpetrated by science against the "deaf community?"

These are issues worthy of debate, yet I feel uneasy with the assumption that what occurs in nature is always the best outcome, that there is a pristine Eden that can only exist without the intervention of higher primates.

But, somewhere along the way, with or without the aid of Clarke/Kubrick's monolith, some clever monkeys began to use tools to survive, and those tools – while not physically melding with their bodies – became extensions of them, nevertheless, and guided the species along the path toward evolutionary survival.

Goldstein writes:

"Some people might argue that it is pretty cavalier to work on 'artificial life' or 'synthetic biology' before we have even agreed on definitions for these 'things.' They might even point out that 'artificial life' containing nonbiological components or new forms of biology could drastically alter the ecological balance or even the evolutionary trajectory of life on Earth."

I certainly hope so. The "evolutionary trajectory" of every single species on Earth – from Cro Magnon to South Park Republican – is extinction. The future needs those of us who can adapt.

1 comment:

Richard Jones said...

Welcome back, Howard. I agree completely with your assessment that we are a long way off making a nano-golem worth worrying about, but that there are some real issues hidden in the hyperbole. But I think you are being too kind to Goldstein by arguing that he has been hoodwinked by the hype. Goldstein is a scientist who should be able to make his own judgements. My own opinion is that Goldstein's article has factual, scientific flaws substantial enough to completely undermine the basis for his jeremiad - I talk about some of these on Soft Machines. Goldstein replied to my criticisms in a comment on that post; you can judge for yourself, in the light of my reply to his comment, whether you think his defense is convincing.