Saturday, February 24, 2007

Self-replicating robots are making a media comeback

A Boston Globe op-ed today on the next generation of threats from emerging technologies tried to resuscitate public debate over self replicating robots, grey goo, and GNR technologies (the acronym refers to genetics, nanotech and robotics) .
"[W]e are now seeing advances in the fields of genetics, nanotechnology, and robotics (so-called GNR technologies ) that threaten destruction even more horrific than that of atomic devices or climate change.

These technologies, often self-replicating, don't need the massive industrial infrastructure required to manufacture nuclear devices, and have the potential to kill tens or hundreds of millions of people in relatively short order."

(Click here for the complete op-ed.)

Very much like the 2000 Wired Magazine article on "Why the future doesn't need us," the Boston Globe op-ed draws on often speculative predictions by Ray Kurzweil, author of "The singularity is near." Back in 2000, Wired urged its readers:

"If we could agree, as a species, what we wanted, where we were headed, and why, then we would make our future much less dangerous - then we might understand what we can and should relinquish. Otherwise, we can easily imagine an arms race developing over GNR technologies, as it did with the NBC technologies in the 20th century. This is perhaps the greatest risk, for once such a race begins, it's very hard to end it. This time - unlike during the Manhattan Project - we aren't in a war, facing an implacable enemy that is threatening our civilization; we are driven, instead, by our habits, our desires, our economic system, and our competitive need to know."

(Click here for the full article.)

Also, YouTube has a nice clip of Kurzweil's stomp speech on this topic.

These challenges from GNR technologies, the Boston Globe op-ed claims, can be addressed, but only if we have an in-depth public debate about grey goo scenarios and the potential broader impacts of GNR technologies.
"Before our best scientific minds can be heard, they will have to be joined by a new generation of political leaders.

Only then can these more potent threats to mankind's existence become the focus of our efforts and resources. None of those resources will be allocated until public opinion becomes as engaged on threats from genetics, nanotechnology, and robotics as on nuclear proliferation and climate change."

Such all-encompassing calls for public engagement are somewhat interesting, of course, given how much trouble scientists and social scientists continue to have even when trying to encourage a meaningful public dialogue about current applications of nanotechnology. Mixing speculative scenarios of what may at some point be possible with the already complex scientific realities of today, will unfortunately do little to inform the very limited public discourse that currently exists about this issue.