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Nanotechnology, Biotech, and Our Common Future

As befits an information-besotted age, we live amidst buzzwords that, like some species of exotic insect, seem to live and die in weeks. You might think that the acronym “NBIC” (Nanotechnology, Biotechnology, Information and communication technology (ICT), and Cognitive science) is such an infocritter. But the phenomena behind this term are complex and profound, and raise difficult conceptual and operational questions for not just environmentalists, but anyone interested in human futures.

NBIC is not simply recognition of four rapidly evolving areas of research and technological advance. Rather, it also indicates that the four components -- which are probably best thought of as frontiers of knowledge, rather than simply new technologies -- are increasingly converging in many ways. The boundaries between them are growing increasingly fuzzy and fluid -- is building a DNA-based computational system ICT, or biotechnology, or nanotechnology? They also share some important functional similarities -- for example, all of them represent substantial leaps in the amount of information available to humans, and the ability to manipulate and learn from that information. Thus, for example, biotechnology explicates genome after genome, and the patent system and free market economics rapidly commoditize such information as it is developed. They also represent significant extensions of human intentionality into scales -- such as the very small -- that heretofore were closed to human design.

History clearly indicates that it’s a mug’s game to try to predict the specifics of technological evolution -- the more fundamental a technology system is, the less we can say about its eventual effects on society and culture. But the scenarios which respected scientists spin about the possible implications of the NBIC convergence are worth mentioning because they hint at the degree of possible disruptive change. Some scientists in fields such as artificial intelligence and biotechnology, for example, talk about achieving “functional immortality” within perhaps 50 years. Others speak of being able to create integrated real/virtual inhabitable environments within decades. Still others, thinking of the experiment where remote mechanical arms were linked directly into a monkey’s brain via wireless transmission and precision wiring, predict a future where complex engineered systems, such as weapons platforms, are directly interconnected with human brains. Some speak of self-replicating nanobots -- the “gray goo” made famous by Bill Joy in his pessimistic article in Wired. And the potential for a completely sensored, grid computed planetary environment, with no privacy and no individuality, is the nightmare scenario for others.

There are a few common immediate responses to these suggestions. One is usually incredulity -- are they not after all science fiction? “Functional immortality” has been a human fantasy for millennia. Direct coupling of external engineered systems with the human central nervous system reminds one of Anne McCaffrey’s The Ship that Sang about a human brain coupled to a space ship. Another typical response is complete rejection of a potential future that is difficult to comprehend. Thus, for example, some deep greens have already demanded a halt to nanotechnology. More broadly, a resurgence of religious fundamentalism around the world is at least partly attributable to fleeing into a structure of ideological certainty in an attempt to avoid an increasingly complex and contingent world.

These are problematic responses. For one thing, while predicting technology is virtually impossible, the transformative potential of these foundational technologies is clear and in some cases already demonstrable (MRI scans clearly show that access to the Internet and modern games creates a different cognitive structure in the young in developed countries than their peers without such access). Thus, while specific a priori predictions are not possible, it is certainly clear that the effects will be profound and far-reaching. Even more problematic is the effort to completely stifle (as opposed to regulate or manage) new technologies -- it has not worked with genetically modified organisms, and it has already failed with nanotechnology (modern electronics, for example, already contain components designed at the nano scale).

Whether these technologies will on balance be “good” or “bad” is unanswerable at this point. But they do pose a significant challenge not just to society, but to the environmental and sustainability discourses -- a challenge that, so far, has not been met. Continued inability to constructively engage with technological evolution in a rapidly developing world may end up continuing the marginalization of the environmental and sustainability movements. The costs of such a failure would be high for environmentalists - but also for the environment itself. How such engagement might be structured will, accordingly, be the topic of my next column.

Brad Allenby is professor of civil and environmental engineering at Arizona State University, a fellow at the University of Virginia’s Darden Graduate School of Business, and previously was AT&T’s vice president of environment, health, and safety.

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