Re: POLITICS: Avoiding nuclear anarchy

Hal Finney (
Mon, 6 Jan 1997 16:22:12 -0800

> [Nuclear proliferation, bio/chem, nanotech dangers]
> Another explanation -and this brings me to the second point
> I want to make- is that many of these problems seem to call
> for solutions that clash with the libertarian doctrine held
> by many on this list. At least at first sight, it seems that
> a reformed and strengthened United Nation would be the best
> suited institution to supervise the use of very dangerous
> technologies. I know the mere mention of the UN probably
> causes some people here to want to throw up. The alternative
> would perhaps be a world where USA plays the international
> big brother role, but this raises many problems of moral
> authority, financing etc. etc.

I think this is a good point. Certainly in my own mind there is some
cognitive dissonance between my expectation for a bright future and the
knowledge of the many dangers we face to get there. And given the lack
of good, visible examples of successful anarchies in the world today,
there is an uncomfortable degree of faith in my belief that a free
society will give us a good chance of finding a way through the dangers.

One trend I have noticed in the last few years is an attempt to downplay
the risks of nanotech. We used to hear a lot about the dangers of
out of control replicators, either accidental accidents or intentional
sabotage. Now I see more about how unlikely these problems are to arise,
with analogies to the difficulties of cars suddenly evolving the ability
to eat trees and produce gasoline from them. And supposedly creating a
nice nasty gray goo beastie will require overcoming the billion-year-plus
head start that nature has in creating her own replicators, which makes
the task sound more difficult.

I don't really find these arguments persuasive, and I don't know whether
their success is due to the fact that I am missing the point, or whether
they just fit better into people's hopes and preconceptions. I sometimes
wonder whether there is an intentional and planned effort to reduce people's
fears of nanotech in order to help secure research funding.

It's also worth noting that, assuming the world political system retains
something like its present form for the next few decades, there's a good
chance that breakthroughs into new, threatening technologies will occur
in the context of military research. This suggests that handling the
matter through existing trans-national institutions may in fact be the
best way to go, since these are organizations which the nation-states are
well set up to deal with.

On the other hand, there is obviously no guarantee that any particular
organization is going to handle these technologies honestly or safely.
Whether UN or USA, there is plenty of precedent for behavior which would
not make us want to trust them.

I want to see a free world, but I don't want my kids melting down into
gray goo or dieing from a tailored virus. It is far from clear how to
steer between the problems.