Does the NSA want effective private sector cryptography that woud enable any random foreign government or terrorist to hide their communication? Does the Department of Energy want a commercial infrastructure for private sector breeder reactors that produce more nuclear fuel as part of the power generation process than they consume (fuel of sufficient quality that it is also usable in nuclear weapons)? If there was commercial nuclear power in the 1930’s who would have produced and used nuclear weapons first? Perhaps we don’t want widespread commercialization of bio and nano-technology because, although the private sector will optimize their use for good, that technology would be too easily used by our enemies.
At the Foresight conference last weekend Eric Drexler claimed that the National Nanotech Initiative and Richard Smalley were actively trying to inhibit private sector nanotech research. If he is correct, perhaps thoughts like those above are motivating them. It would be bad if people were producing human viruses in the same manner that they are producing computer viruses.
However, given that the capital costs of bio/nanotech are so cheap (two scientists recently designed a “good” sexually transmitted virus that disables HIV for less than $200k), it is not clear that these harmful viruses won’t be produced by teen-agers and terrorists in basements in Eastern Europe and perhaps Pakistan anyway. One could argue that crypto is low cost as well except that the R&D is really hard and mathematical and the failure of crypto affects only its users and not everyone else. Basement bio/nano-tech is more like spam. Easy to do badly possible to do well. With bad guys trying lots of different things both for fun and perhaps even to increase demand for products in which they are invested.
So, we face the choice of increased commercialization of bio/nano-tech at the cost of increased likelihood that it will be used for evil and gaining the benefits that such technologies will deliver (greater health, happiness, and wealth). Or we don’ eat the apple of commercial bio/nano-tech and remain in our present less-than-edenic-but-not-as-bad-as-it-could-be state. And as with most choices the real issue is not whether but when and how best to prepare.
In most sorts of fights it is better to be on offense than defense. In that spirit we should start thinking now about what bio/nano-tech we would like to procure and what we would like to resist. We should be able to produce a new treatment as easily as they can produce a new disease and we should shift into a psychology of active improvement because it puts us in the mindset of being the ones choosing the changes and forces the bad guys to try to hit a moving target (as the population modifies its genes and biota at highly varying rates).
As a matter of attitude the shift to a psychology of happiness is definitely a good start. We may also need medicine of health that make people feel and be better rather than simply a medicine of cure. We probably need to loosen up on rules about illegal drugs and perhaps restrict the FDA to regulating cure treatments rather than improvement treatments. We should expect that many of these treatments are custom and so perhaps people will demand Personal Producers, desktop machines that produce custom drugs, genes, and nanotech for each persons individual needs.
(Yes I know that this contradicts the Human Dignity argument I’ve been making. Will follow up shortly).