Using Technology to Deepen Democracy, Using Democracy to Ensure Technology Benefits Us All

Tuesday, March 15, 2005

The Future Starts Now: Technoprogressives Cannot Postpone the Redress of Poverty and Treatable Illness

Friend and ally Mike Treder, one of the directors of the technoprogressive Center for Responsible Nanotechnology, recently posted an editorial to the CRN blog about some of the ways in which advanced (but possibly developmentally proximate) nanotechnologies might be used eventually to ameliorate some of the devastating poverty in the developing world. He is absolutely right about this, and it is encouraging to find more people beginning to think about ways in which emerging technologies might be applied to urgent social and political problems that confront humanity.

His comments complement points made in a recent article (to which he links in his own post) by Charles Choi, which worries that “Nanotech May Not Reach [the] Poor.” Despite the fact that “the poor of the world, who make up nearly 80 percent of the global population, [stand to] benefit most from emerging nanotechnologies,” writes Choi, they are not likely in fact to reap them at all “unless nations commit the funding and [endorse the] policies necessary to spread those benefits.”

Treder paints a dramatic and painfully accurate picture of the scope of the global healthcare crisis:
In the time that it takes you to read this sentence, at least ten real people will die, some of them helpless children, and some in horrible pain. Every single day, 24,000 people die of starvation; 6,000 children are killed by diarrhea; 2,700 children are killed by measles; and 1,400 women die in childbirth.

In more bad news, the number of cases of the deadliest form of malaria across the world could be twice as high as previously predicted.
A team from the University of Oxford estimated there were over half a billion cases of Plasmodium falciparum malaria globally in 2002. This figure is up to 50% higher than estimates from the World Health Organization. Two thirds of cases occurred in Africa, predominantly affecting children under five years old.
The study suggests that, in total, 2.2 billion people are at risk from malaria, or about one-third of the population on Earth.

Horrifying though this account may be, just think how the picture worsens when the AIDS pandemic is factored in, or the risk of comparably devastating global outbreaks of Avian flu, or any number of other contemporary global healthcare crises, into many of which we could intervene through recourse to elementary treatments, education, hygiene, basic nutrition, and the like.

Choi describes some of the ways in which nanoscale technologies and manufacturing might be uniquely suited to the problems of the world’s poor:

The World Bank estimates 4.8 billion people in the world are poor. Waterborne diseases and water-linked illnesses kill more than 5 million people a year worldwide, 85 percent of them children, according to the World Health Organization.

[Todd] Barker[,a partner at the non-profit Meridian Institute in Dillon, Colorado ,]... in preparing a report on nanotechnology and the poor for an April conference in Alexandria, Egypt, found a number of water-filtering systems based on nanotechnology that could save lives in the developing world. For instance, Argonide, a company in Sanford, Fla., with backing from NASA, uses alumina nanofibers whose positive-charge filters water by pulling out negatively charged viruses and bacteria.

More than 2 billion people currently have no access to electricity that could pump water, power rural clinics and refrigerate medicines, the report noted. A potential solution could come from Konarka, an energy technology firm in Lowell, Mass., which is developing inexpensive nanotechnology-based, high-efficiency, flexible, lightweight solar-power cells for electricity.

Nanotechnology could enable many health breakthroughs to help the poor. Meridian's report named Starpharma, in Melbourne, Australia, as the developer of nanotech microbicides that could reduce the risk of HIV infection in women. It found the Central Scientific Instruments Organization in India planning to develop nanotech-based tuberculosis diagnostic kits that work more quickly, use less blood and cost less per test.

Part of what seems especially significant in these examples to me is that most of the nanoscale technologies involved are already available or at any rate under active development.

When Treder proposes that “many more [of the world’s poor] could be saved from suffering and death through the development of molecular manufacturing,” it is quite clear he means by that term the rather more speculative and sophisticated nanoscale manufacturing technologies to which the Center for Responsible Nanotechnology devotes most of its attention.

If CRN is right (as I think they are) to think the development of versions of this more radical and robust kind of nanotechnology is possible, actively underway, and in fact probably developmentally quite proximate, then it is good and important that they are providing moderate and progressive policy language to address some of the key problems and promises of this development now, before it's too late.

But I want to propose that there can be something profoundly problematic about such a focus on superlative technological developments when the problem we are considering in particular is the redress of global poverty and injustice that already demands the most urgent and immediate attention from any human civilization worthy of that name.

Now, I want to be clear about this: I am not suggesting that Treder and other technoprogressive nanotechnology enthusiasts (of whom I am one, after all) are frustrating the contemporary address of these problems by projecting their eventual solution onto some hypothetical more technologically sophisticated future. There are a lot of market libertarian technophiles who like to handwave about abstract indefinite futures in which injustice will somehow evaporate so as to help justify their own ugly indifference to injustice today. But I know for a fact that Treder, like most technoprogressives, is both enthusiastic and insistent about the use of whatever tools we have at our disposal today to address the problems that confront us today.

But I do want to insist that there may be a much tighter connection than is evident on first glance between such an attitude and the likelihood that we actually will use more superlative technologies eventually to better address these problems in the future.

“In many areas of the world, something as simple as a water filter or a mosquito net could save many lives,” writes Treder. “Such small, simple products would cost almost nothing to produce with a nanofactory.” What I want to propose is that because the cost of saving lives with a water filter or an insecticide-treated mosquito net is already so negligible, especially considering the benefit it confers, that unless we actively devote ourselves to saving lives with the technologies cheaply at our disposal today, then we cannot expect more sophisticated nanotechnological solutions to these problems to be employed to that purpose, however much cheaper, more powerful, more effective they may be.

Only if we establish as an urgent priority of human civilization right now the provision of cheap insecticide treated mosquito nets to vulnerable populations in the developing world can we confidently assume that the arrival of even cheaper, more effective nanotechnologies will take their place to perform better the function already being performed by tools on hand.

And, of course, the insecticide-treated mosquito nets are just one among many examples. Have a look at the Medecins Sans Frontieres Access to Essential Medicines Campaign for other examples, among still many more.

What I am trying to emphasis here, I suppose, is just the rather facile but still crucial point that people in some superlative nanotechnological future will not think of themselves as inhabitants of the future in the least. They will inhabit a present just as we, inhabitants of a future imperfectly glimpsed by generations past, inhabit the present.

If tools exist to imperfectly redress hideous global poverty and treatable illnesses here and now (and they do), then it is precisely our effort to redress these injustices with these tools we have on hand that best ensures that the future tools available to future people (and we may very well be those people ourselves, after all) will be used to do the same when finally they arrive on the scene.

Counterintuitive though it may seem, cheap insecticide treated mosquito nets have everything to do with advanced nanotechnology -- to the extent that what we hope for from such emerging superlative technological developments is the redress of injustice, poverty, and human suffering.

According to Choi’s article, quite a number of nations in the developing world for which problems of devastating poverty and untreated but treatable illnesses are most acute, are in fact investing heavily in nanotechnology – countries like “China, South Korea and India are front-runners,” he writes, “with the Philippines, South Africa, Brazil and Chile in the middle and Argentina and Mexico as up-and-comers.”

But Choi goes on to quote Todd Barker that “[e]ven in countries where a large proportion of citizens are poor, little of this investment is being directed towards research and applications that could directly benefit the poor."

Like Treder, Barker worries that "there appears to be little effort among the various sectors of society -- government, nongovernmental organizations, business, donors and academia – to connect the development of nanotechnology with the needs of poor people in developing countries.”

The problem as well as its solution seems to me to be contained in Barker’s subsequent comment that even in the developing world "[m]ost government investments in nanotechnology are aimed at improved national corporate competitiveness."

A monomaniacal focus on such “corporate competitiveness” today yields an international socioeconomic order that serves first and most conspicuously the parochial interests of a minute politically empowered fraction of the people on earth, while devoting only marginal ingenuity and effort to the address of the problems, needs, and hopes of the vast majority of the planet’s population. As it is now, so shall it be in the future.

Technological development more or less blindly articulates human agency, exacerbating the injustices and inequalities of the societies that incubate and support it just as it ameliorates the problems at which the people of those societies aim it. When civilization makes it a living priority to redress avoidable suffering and needless poverty and treatable disease with the tools we have at hand, then and only then will we be building a future in which the technologies to come can be counted on to do more good than harm. That future is now.


Mike Treder said...

Many thanks, Dale, for devoting such serious attention (and blog space) to the ideas stated in my article.

In response, I want to emphasize one of CRN's main concerns: that the power of advanced nanotechnology -- atomically precise, exponential, general-purpose molecular manufacturing -- can make things *worse* just as easily as it can make things better.

In another blog entry (, we wrote:

"A technology as revolutionary as molecular manufacturing will offer trillions of dollars of abundance -- but it also could provoke a vicious scramble to own everything; it will enable rapid invention of wondrous products (many of which could be of great help to the world's poor) -- but it also may enable weapons development fast enough to destabilize any arms race; it could easily provide networked computers for everyone in the world -- or, just as easily, it could be used to manufacture networked cameras so governments can watch our every move; it could make lifesaving medical robots -- and untraceable weapons of mass destruction."

So the problems we lament today, including ineffective and unjust distribution of both opportunities and benefits, could easily grow even more dire in the near future. That is, unless we do something about those imbalances now.

As far back as the discovery of fire-making, technology has brought opportunities and threats. But now, as science and engineering race toward truly world-changing innovations, we must study, understand and address the potential dangers in advance -- and at the same time we must be smart about pursuing both economic gains and social gains.

Albert Einstein said, "The problems that exist in the world today cannot be solved by the level of thinking that created them." Advanced nanotechnology will present problems that do not have simple solutions. Indeed, they may require not only new levels of thinking, but whole new systems of stakeholder representation, consensus-building, decision-making, and perhaps even global administration.

It's time we got started.

Chris Phoenix said...

It's worth pointing out that discussion of Dale's article has continued on the CRN blog site, including a long and very worthwhile comment from Dale, and several responses to that comment.

Here's the link.


Dale Carrico said...

Needless to say, this sympathetic but already rather skeptical formulation preceded my growing skepticism year by year by year with what I have come to describe as nano-cornucopiasts. I would recommend more recent pieces of mine to the attention of those who want to see how these initial efforts to pressure transhumanist claims came to an eventual, more sweeping, fruition in the critique of superlative futurology.