Super-Empowered Hopeful Individuals
This is my column for the latest edition of Nanotechnology Now. Mike Treder reposted it over at CRN's blog, so I thought I'd go ahead and repost it here, too. Feedback, as always, is more than welcome.
Most discussions of the benefits of technologies like molecular manufacturing tend to focus either on broad social advances (engineered by helpful governments, NGOs, or businesses) or individual desires that transformative technologies may be able to satisfy. These are surely useful ways of thinking about a nanotech-enabled world. But what if this model misses another category, one that may be less noticeable precisely because we pay so much attention to its opposite?
A leading fear for those of us looking at the longer-term implications of molecular manufacturing is the technology's capacity to give small groups -- or even individuals -- enormous destructive capacity. This isn't unique to advanced nanotechnology; similar worries swirl around all manner of catalytic technologies. In fact, some analysts consider this a problem we currently face, and give it the forbidding label of "super-empowered angry individuals."
Thinking about it for a moment, the question arises: Where are the "super-empowered hopeful individuals?"
The core of the "super-empowered angry individual" (SEAI) argument is that some technologies may enable individuals or small groups to carry out attacks, on infrastructure or people, at a scale that would have required the resources of an army in decades past. This is not an outlandish concern by any means; many proponents of the SEAI concept cite the September 11 attacks as a crude example of how vulnerable modern society can be to these kinds of threats. It's not hard to imagine what a similar band of terrorists, or groups like Aum Shinrikyo, might try to do with access to molecular manufacturing or advanced bioengineering tools.
But angry people aren't the only ones who could be empowered by these technologies.
As a parallel, the core of the "super-empowered hopeful individual" (SEHI) argument is that these technologies may also enable individuals or small groups to carry out socially beneficial actions at a scale that would have required the resources of a large NGO or business in decades past. They would rebuild towns or villages after a natural disaster, or provide health care to refugees; they would clean up environmental toxins, or build renewable energy systems. The Millennium Development Goals would be their checklist. They would carry out the kinds of projects that humanitarian organizations do today, but be able to do so with smaller numbers, greater speed, and a far larger impact.
To an extent, these are tasks we might expect governments, NGOs or businesses would seek to accomplish, and they'd be welcome to do so. But catalytic technologies like molecular manufacturing could so enhance the capabilities of individuals that, just as we have to account for SEAIs in our nano-era policies and strategies, we should pay attention to the beneficial role SEHIs could play. They change the structure of the game.
In my work at Worldchanging, I became acquainted with numerous individuals and small organizations who would jump at the chance to become SEHIs. There's a tremendous desire out there for tools and ideas to build a better world. In addition, if molecular manufacturing proves as economically disruptive as some have argued, there may also be large numbers of people looking for something to do with their lives after their previous jobs disappear; it's in our collective interest to make sure that more of them become SEHIs than SEAIs.
Some readers may be wondering why we should care. It's obvious that we need to be concerned about SEAIs -- they can kill us -- but if SEHIs want to go out and make the world a better place, hooray for them (and the world). So why worry?
One answer is that there would be debate over just how beneficial some of the SEHI plans would actually be. Clean water, rebuilt homes? Fine. But what about building churches or mosques or other religious centers? Or think of the controversy surrounding the One Laptop per Child project; now picture thousands of One Laptop per Child-scale projects, run by passionate (but quirky) individuals. Worse yet, imagine the havoc that could ensue if well-intended but misguided SEHIs decide to solve global warming on their own and embark on massive geoengineering projects with disastrous side-effects.
Still, the outlook is not all bad. Far from it. The amount of good that can be done by future super-empowered hopeful individuals may prove to be far greater than the damage produced by their angry counterparts.
The lesson I took from Worldchanging was that it is precisely when the risks and challenges are greatest that we see just how many of us are willing to act to build a better world. There are millions of people out there right now, looking for ways to build a better world. Perhaps you’re one of them. As Pierre Teilhard de Chardin has said, "The future belongs to those who give the next generation reason for hope."