The (nano) Technology Revolution

In the Summer 2008 issue of Technology and Society there is an article by Robert Sparrow: “Talkin’ ‘Bout a (Nanotechnological) Revolution“.  Which challenges the anticipated level of social disruption that would be caused by nanotechonolgy, or any given technology for that matter.  He suggests that if we really think the fundamental nature of the human condition will be changed, we need to engage in an open dialog before this happens.  But most technology transitions do not have this level of impact, do not qualify as “revolutions” and are over-hyped as such — nanotechnology being a likely example.

On the other hand, Larry Niven and Matthew Harrington have recently published a book, “The Goliath Stone” in which they hypothesize a true revolution driven by nanotechnology and under the control of a beneficent tech-genius  (likely an alter ego for Larry Niven and his political/social preferences.)  I have long been an advocate of science fiction as a tool for engaging “what if” (or often “when we pass this tipping point” …) discussions.  While Sparrow is possibly right that we “ought” to discuss the possible revolutionary impact of technology before we embark on a path that is likely to fundamentally change the human condition, I share Niven’s scenario that such changes will happen at best with awareness of benign wizards, and at worst we will awaken after the tipping point has passed.

Niven’s emerging utopia is crafted intentionally by a character “William Connors”, who hones his in-corporal nanotech processes while in prison, When released he leverages a new nation (comprised of American “Indian” tribes), “infects” that populace with transhuman capabilities (and the rest of the world with a moral-enforcement virus) going on to win most of the Olympic gold medals at ninety some odd years old. It’s a fun read, and fun to consider which capabilities he suggests might actually emerge, how different entities might use such capabilities, and so forth.

Curiously many of the same capabilities have been posited as an outgrowth of biotechnology as opposed to nanotechnology. Extended human life spans and capabilities, infecting populations to accomplish targeted social or political objectives, etc.  When we can anticipate more than one possible path towards an objective,  the probability of success increases significantly.  In part this is because folks are striving after similar objectives, and in part because the apparent road-blocks on one path may be by-passed on another.

So here are some points to ponder:

  • What past technology advances have resulted in a true revolution (given Sparrows criteria of impact on the fundamental nature of human lives)?
  • What is the most recent example of this?
  • What are likely emerging examples, if any?

One of the first, I suggest, might be the emergence of language (some argue this created a new species).  But if you consider how long this might have taken, and what intermediary steps might exist it provides a sense of both “impact” and also the ambiguity of a ‘tipping point’.  I suspect that a thousand years from now, the emergence of computing/communications will be one such event — and at that time the short window from the invention of the telephone to that of the hand-held super computer will be so short as to not be distinguishable. (Of course our successors, intelligent machines, may not consider the advances of primitive life forms to be of any real significance.)

What are your candidates? And what impact might result?