For some more discussion of the technical issues that, to say the least, make the success of the MNT project far from a certainty, take a look at:
I might say that, although as a physicist I have engaged at a technical level with the proponents of the MNT vision for a few years, I'm increasingly concluding that the kind of cultural and ideological perspective that people like Dale are bringing to this discussion is perhaps more valuable and pertinent than the technical discussion. Or perhaps, to state this in a stronger way, discussions that at first seem to be technical in nature in actuality are proxies for profound ideological disagreements.
What I would highlight here is the concluding statement: "[D]iscussions that at first seem to be technical in nature in actuality are proxies for profound ideological disagreements." I think this is a crucial insight, one that most Superlative Technocentrics easily grasp when it is applied to, say, the rhetorical work of "hard sf" literature, and which most Superlative Technocentrics will see the sense of when it is applied to the presumably "technical" risk-discourse of bioconservatives (as I discuss here and here, for example), but seem to have considerable difficulty with once it gets applied to their own formulations.
My Superlative Technology Discourse Critique has been preoccupied with three discursive transcendentalizations of technodevelopmental quandaries of the emerging and proximately upcoming technoscientific terrain: First, the transcendentalization of healthcare discourse in an emerging era of consensual non-normative modification medicine into so-called "Technological Immortalism." Second, the transcendentalization of security discourse in an emerging era of networked malware into so-called "Singularitarian" preoccupations with post-biological superintelligent Robot Overlords. Third, the circumvention of the impasse of stakeholder politics through a superabundance to be enabled by cheap programmable molecular manufacturing, a transcendentalization of political discourse, in an era already suspicious that scarcity is largely a political artifact, into a superabundance I jokingly summarize as "Nanosanta."
This picture is complicated somewhat by the fact that the Singularitarian mode of Superlativity is picking up the torch from one of the classic Superlative Discourses of the twentieth century: the Strong Program of AI, from which it differs in important respects but on which it nonetheless depends, not only conceptually, but culturally, figuratively, and so on.
Another way of phrasing these connections is to survey the modes of Superlative Technocentricity as relying on questionable inter-implicated notions of post-embodied consciousness, post-embodied and "hence" post-mortal life, post-historical singularity, post-political superabundance, post-democratic technocracy.
I am concerned quite urgently with the emerging and proximately upcoming technodevelopmental quandaries that seem to me to be irrationally hyperbolized and transcendentalized in their Superlative formulations in this way, and it this derangement of sense where sense is needed (not to mention what I have discussed as the special appeal of these Superlative formulations from the perspective of incumbent interests), this activation of irrational passions where democratic deliberation is demanded that provokes me to return to this topic so insistently.
It's also true that I am quite simply skeptical of the more hyperbolic predictive claims made by Superlative Technocentrics, especially claims about the developmental timescales that drive their expectations. I am suspicious how uncaveated so many of their claims tend to be, contrary to those of most scientists with whom I am familiar. I am struck by what seems to be a widespread tendency to overestimate our contemporary theoretical grasp of basic concepts like intelligence in general, when they go on to make glib predictions about post-biological superintelligence. I discern a worrying tendency among them to underestimate the extreme bumpiness we should all know to expect by now along the developmental pathways from which the relevant technical capacities could arrive, not to mention a correlated tendency, just as worrying, to assume that these technologies, upon arrival, would function more smoothly than technologies almost ever do. I am puzzled by the amount of argumentative weight that tends to placed in Superlative Technology Discourses on loose analogies the aptness of which often seem questionable indeed: to find in the embodied human mind a "reality-referent" for a post-biological mind, let alone a superintelligent one, to find in biological molecules a "reality-referent" for dry programmable general purpose nanofactories, to find in a mansion repaired and maintained for centuries a "reality-referent" for rejuvination medicine, and so on. Finally, I am obviously struck by the exhibition in these discourses of what looks to me like a rather stark obliviousness about the extent to which what we tend to call "technological development" is articulated in fact not just by the autonomous accumulation of technical accomplishments but by social, cultural, and political factors as well, in consequence of which they simply rarely take these adequately into account at all. In light of all this it can certainly be a bit trying to hear the barrage of self-congratulatory protestations to superior scientificity that can sometimes greet even informed, respectful, seriously engaged critiques.
All that said, however skeptical I may be of the strongest technical claims arriving out of these discourses, I must admit that of these three modes of Superlative Technocentricity, the mode I describe as "Nanosanta" receives the most political and least technical of my critiques. That's one of the reasons Richard's technical intervention is so welcome and useful (and this would remain true even if, ultimately, I were to be unconvinced by it).
Whereas the claims of Singularitarians seem to me probably too incoherent conceptually and too compromised politically for redemption in anything like their present form, and the same goes, I'm afraid, for the essentially religious claims of the Technological Immortalists (claims that should, in my view, you will recall, be carefully disarticulated from claims about healthcare in an emerging scene of non-normative genetic, prosthetic, and cognitive modification medicine, including medicine with likely effects on healthy human lifespan), it has seemed to me that many of the claims made about molecular nanotechnology were on less shaky ground, and many of its advocates less prone (though not immune) to the worst pathologies of Superlativity.
I do think that sometimes "nanotechnology" comes to name always only a ferocious identification with the arrival of a particular idealized outcome -- like the appearance on the scene of a programmable general-purpose nanofactory -- rather than encompassing the wider range of nanoscale interventions that are sure to be taken up long before any such outcome, much of which is likely to be called "biotechnology," in fact, much of which is likely to concern nanoscale sensors and material toxicities that fail to pass muster as nanotechnology in a more restrictive characterization, and so on. This seems to me to be properly understood as a Superlative derangement of policy discourse in a way that is analogous to my critiques of the derangement of quandaries about networked malware into preoccupations with Robot Gods or the derangement of quandaries about consensual nonnormative healthcare provision into preoccupations with Technological Immortalism.
But the focus of my own Superlative Critique where molecular manufacturing is concerned has always had less to do with these sorts of technical and predictive worries than with concerns about the anti-democratizing or post-politicizing gesture that seems to me to invigorate quite a bit of Superlativity at the Nanoscale.
One cannot point out too many times, for example, that neither "nanotechnology" nor "automation" will one day magically cut or circumvent the basic impasse that inaugurates politics: namely, that we share a finite world with an ineradicable diversity of peers with different stakes, different aspirations, different capacities on whom we depend for our flourishing, from whom we can count on betrayal, misunderstanding, and endless frustration, and with whom we want to be reconciled.
The simple truth is that abundance is already here, already within our grasp (just like war is over... if you want it), and so, it is the defense of injustice in the name of championing parochial prosperity that is the threat to the arrival of the available abundance worth having.
If new cheap robust sustainable materials modified at the nanoscale or new cheap robust sustainable products manufactured via nanoscale replication in whatever construal actually were to arrive on the scene, these would contribute to general welfare and prosperity only if that is the value that defines the societies in which these technodevelopmental outcomes made their appearance. Otherwise, they absolutely would not.
If one wants to arrive at something like the Superlative outcome of "Nanosantalogical" superabundance, what one should be fighting for is to protect and extend democracy, to implement steeply progressive taxation, to broaden welfare as widely as possible, and to make software instructions available for free (else they certainly won't be and then Nanosanta will be sure to open his bag only for the rich). If one wants to arrive at something like the Old School Superlative outcome of universal automation or Robo-Abundance, what one should be fighting for is to implement a basic income guarantee, otherwise automation (including much that gets called "outsourcing" and "crowdsourcing" in contemporary parlance) will simply function as further wealth concentration for incumbents. Needless to say, I worry that no small amount of the post-political handwaving of the Nanosantalogical mode of Superlativity derives from a prior commitment to neoliberal assumptions, and functions as a proxy (to return to this post's initial topic) precisely for a worldview that would not in fact be displeased at all with the prospect of such wealth concentration for incumbents or with a stingy Nanosanta with a bag full of toys only for already rich girls and boys. These are the discursive derangements that attract my primary interest when talk of MNT goes Superlative.