Whilst scurrying through the intertubes, I ran across a post entitled Should We Ban Physics? at Overcoming Bias.
At the recent Global Catastrophic Risks conference, someone proposed a policy prescription which, I argued, amounted to a ban on all physics experiments involving the production of novel physical situations – as opposed to measuring existing phenomena. You can weigh a rock, but you can’t purify radium, and you can’t even expose the rock to X-rays unless you can show that exactly similar X-rays hit rocks all the time. So the Large Hadron Collider, which produces collisions as energetic as cosmic rays, but not exactly the same as cosmic rays, would be off the menu.
I think the context of worrying about the end of the world is misplaced. What science could you do if you were limited to strictly observing natural phenomenon, and couldn’t fashion experiments that involved “novel physical situations?” Astronomy and biology, if you were doing them last century, or even earlier — can you even make a lens under such a guideline?
It’s unfortunate the details were no forthcoming; there were some physicists at this conference and this is an interpretation of the proposal. But it sounds like a policy suggestion made by someone who doesn’t have experience in doing science.
From a summary of some of the discussions, though, it seems like there was a whole lot of this genre of conjecture with a hefty dose of science fiction along with the science.
They envision desktop nanofactories into which people feed simple raw inputs and get out nearly any product they desire. The proliferation of such nanofactories would end scarcity forever. “We can’t expect to have only positive outcomes without mitigating negative outcomes,” cautioned Treder.
What kind of negative outcomes? Nanofactories could produce not only hugely beneficial products such as water filters, solar cells, and houses, but also weapons of any sort. Such nanofabricated weapons would be vastly more powerful than today’s. Since these weapons are so powerful, there is a strong incentive for a first strike. In addition, an age of nanotech abundance would eliminate the majority of jobs, possibly leading to massive social disruptions. Social disruption creates the opportunity for a charismatic personality to take hold. “Nanotechnology could lead to some form of world dictatorship,” said Treder. “There is a global catastrophic risk that we could all be enslaved.”
I think this is akin to the stance that nanotechnology is morally unacceptable. The steps between where we are and where would have to be for this to be true is huge (and a similar stance is taken with AI); the scenario is proposed seemingly without any regard for how difficult it is to predict the future of technology .