Novak (novak) wrote,

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Theological Notebook: Me and My Doomsday Machines

Friday night, before Bob and I headed out to see The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, as I wrote about earlier, we headed down to Mike and Donna's apartment for dinner, being joined by Dan (Amy was on vacation and, Anna in tow, was visiting some friends out on the East Coast, leaving Dan to focus on final papers). We were all flabbergasted by a surprise, subtle, "Wait-what-did-you-say?" announcement from Donna that she was six weeks pregnant, thus joining Dan and Amy in expecting their second child and leaving Bob in a flustered, "no way am I ready for that!" denial that he and Carmen were going to join the club--little Logan, Carmen's Emergency Medicine Residency, and Bob's upcoming doctoral exams being apparently more than enough work at the moment. Somewhere in the midst of all our floating conversations, Dan and I had a brief side conversation regarding my beliefs in the incredible medical potential, and terrifying weapons potential, of nano-technology. Following up on that, Dan just sent me the following note:
You were saying...?
New Scientist Breaking News – Buckyballs could disrupt functioning of DNA
Manipulate it a little and you have a nice, slow weapon.
I have had acid in my stomach churning for ten years now, thinking about the applications of this technology. I've long known that this would have huge potential in the future, with positive possibilities. Think of tiny robots fusing bone to where my femurs are collapsed and restoring the potential for full movement there, or stitching together the small hole on the seam of my surgical site that so complicated things for me last fall. Think of a highly-contained and -controlled squad of nanobots taking apart all the material that would be put in a landfill and reducing it to rich loam: topsoil and raw minerals produced from what would have been disease-causing garbage. Like what plastics were in the '50s, and computers in the '70s or '80s, I knew that this would be the great investment potential of the future.

But thinking of a set of these, invisibly, released into a public square and beginning to distort the DNA of everyone with whom it came into contact, or worse, a set of nanobots designed to just begin taking apart the body of anyone it touched, like a mechanical, ultra-efficient Ebola virus--just a slight difference in that program that would have them recycle our waste materials. Even the use of hunter/killer nanotech, designed to fight such abusive uses--like our antivirus computer programs--couldn't catch everything in advance, or maybe even "in time," especially when I think of such terrorist nanites also programmed to reproduce themselves out of the raw molecules they dismember.

Thinking of all the poor policy calls and sneaky little projects our own government has been involved in over the last 50 years, would I really want this technology in their hands? Much less, would I want to see it in Iran's? Even worse, do I want to see it become something that can be developed in a garage, 50 years into the future? I suspect that I would rather hand out nuclear missiles like lollipops to the governments of the world than to see this technology weaponized, and particularly in the hands of independent, terrorist organizations.

I've noted in recent months that the poverty of current ethics can be most strongly illustrated by the disdain for ethical reflection regarding technology. If something can be done, then it ought to be done, particularly when it can be sold. And everything, it seems, can be sold. Genetic manipulation of our foodstuffs? Do it, even without long-term study. Because would could be more irrational than studying something long-term, for a generation or two, in order to see what its long-term effects really are? Consider the profit that would be lost over such a time! In fact, studying something that long would be seemingly profitless. I'm so glad the Europeans have been more cautious in this regard, at least with our genetically-modified foods. Maybe it's all fine, but I do resent my government allowing corporations to introduce such things to my diet without so much as a distinguishing label. But then who is more important, persons or a corporation?

Likewise, I fear that the development of nanotechnology will be presumably quick, full of wonders, and relatively unreflective. Ironically, only its clear weapons potential might make the United States more cautious in regard to it--likely to the detriment of its more positive potentials--in the name of secrecy. Still, radiological potentials for medicine have certainly been developed, without every x-ray machine being a potential nuclear device. Maybe this technology will have the same kind of gradations of applicability and producability. But from the theologian's and historian's corner, I think I'm not being paranoid in being worried.
Tags: ethical, scientific, theological notebook

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