[ Question ]

Is nanotechnology (such as APM) important for EAs' to work on?

by pixel_brownie_software 1 min read12th Mar 20205 comments


Hello there!

I ask this question because I'm considering writing a post about nanotechnology (like atomically precise manufacturing) and it's possible importance (similar to how I wrote about china, cryptocurrency).

I first came across this term through one or two of 80,000 hour's podcasts.

I'm trying to figure out how and why it is important, as I don't know much about the area and I would like to learn more about it. If anyone with at least some expertise in the area could inform/help me, that would be great.

Please do link pages or studies.

That's all from me!

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I would guess that writing this post would take a lot of time, considering your relative lack of background, and I'm not sure the post would have much impact given the relative obscurity of the topic.

If you plan to research the topic anyway and want to publish research notes, that seems reasonable, but I'd be wary of spending a lot of time to format your notes for other readers, unless you can present a clear value/action proposition to draw them in. (Even if you conclude that nanotech is important, there's a separate question of what a reader is actually supposed to do about that.)

I asked a related question on the EA facebook page a few months back. Here's the question I asked: https://www.facebook.com/groups/effective.altruists/permalink/2592010687521939/

I copy below the question I asked, and the response which I thought was most useful. (I've tried to include the image, but if it didn't work, click through to the fb page)


The 80,000 hours article on extinction risk includes a table from an FHI survey in 2008 (scroll down for source) (edited to clarify not necessarily current views of 80k)
As molecular nanotech weapons top the list, this makes me wonder what is being done about this?
The only organisation that I'm aware of in this space is the Foresight Institute (https://foresight.org/) featuring Eric Drexler. I also found the Center for Responsible Nanotech http://www.crnano.org, but I couldn't tell if the website was out of date.
I'm interested in discussion along the lines of:
![]( https://i.imgur.com/swpETg7.jpg )

Notes:Here's the 80k article: https://80000hours.org/articles/extinction-risk/The ultimate source of the table is this survey: https://www.fhi.ox.ac.uk/reports/2008-1.pdfFurther reading:https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Molecular_nanotechnology#Riskshttp://www.crnano.org/dangers.htmhttps://www.realclearscience.com/lists/top_methods_human_extinction/molecular_nanotech_weapons.htmlhttps://www.cnbc.com/2017/03/17/mini-nukes-and-inspect-bot-weapons-being-primed-for-future-warfare.html


[Disclaimer: I was working on GCRs at Open Phil when the below page was written but I did not write it and don't have any interesting inside information on Open Phil's views on the topic. The views below are my own only.]

Open Phil put out a (very) shallow investigation of risks from atomically precise manufacturing (i.e. nanotech) back in 2015. One thing they found is:

"Unless APM is developed in a secret “Manhattan Project”—and there is disagreement about how plausible that is —the people we spoke with believe it would be extremely unlikely for an observer closely watching the field to be surprised by a sudden increase in potentially dangerous APM capabilities."

This suggests we might expect risk reduction work to naturally ramp up if/when the tech starts developing and that it may be more efficient for risk reduction work to be done once the field makes some progress.

More on this:
“People who are watching the field and know what to look for would be unlikely to be caught off guard even by rapid developments in atomically precise manufacturing. While development could be surprisingly fast, it would be possible to observe the substantial advances in various capabilities of nanosystems (e.g., mechanical stiffness of various types of nanostructures, number of moving parts of mechanical systems, and lattice sizes of materials used to build intricate systems) that would come before the technology reaches its mature form. Hypothetically, surprise could come if there were a secret project aimed at developing the technology, but that would be implausible in the present climate.”
GiveWell’s non-verbatim summary of a conversation with Eric Drexler, October 8, 2014.

See also:

[Note - I haven't thought about the issue recently enough or deeply enough to have my own view on how valuable work on APM risk might be today.]