Thoughts on getting the attention of ordinary people for far-out ideas
(See my Nanotech and the Crackpot Index essay for more thoughts on a closely related subject).
One of the biggest problems with convincing ordinary people to prepare
for the effects of nanotechnology is that their gut reaction is to
compare the magnitude of the predicted changes to past technological
changes and conclude that it will probably take a century or so to
revolutionize the world, so they don't feel any urgency about carefully
educating themselves about when it will happen.
I know that was my reaction to reading Engines of Creation when it
first came out, and it took about 10 years for me to seriously doubt
it (hearing some mentions of Zyvex from smart people who didn't think
Zyvex was a joke was probably the biggest reason for my change of mind).
Foresight has put much effort into eliminating the belief that
a nanotech revolution is physically impossible. Nanosystems has been
about as effective at changing expert opinion on that subject as anything
could be, and Foresight seems to be making good progress at helping that
fact trickle down to the general public.
But that's only half the battle. None of us have done much to get people
thinking about when nanotech will impact people's lives.
Because of the difficult nature of forecasting when technologies will be
adopted, people have learned to heavily discount such forecasts, and
assume that it isn't worth spending much time to evaluate them.
Many of the problems associated with forecasting result from a
deisire to say that X will happen by date Y. But much of Foresight's
goals can be accomplished by convincing people that it's unsafe to
assume a nanotech revolution won't happen in 20 years, and ignoring the
question of whether the correct probability to assign to that possibility
is 50% or 99%.
Two ways in which we might do a better job of convincing people not
to wait too long before evaluating the potential of nanotech are:
I know enough about Jim von Ehr to be confident that he isn't a crackpot
and that he is betting significant amounts of his own money on some sort
of assembler being possible within a decade, and have also talked enough
with Bruce Smith to believe that
his ideas could produce an assembler in less than a decade if given enough
manpower. But I don't have a good way of communicating these beliefs to
the general public - most of what I could say would be dismissed as what
Robin Hanson calls cheap talk. A market in Zyvex stock would go a
long way to solving that, but the SEC places plenty of protections in
the way of investors who might want to use that form of speech. Maybe
a play-money version of such a market (as in the FX Exchange)
would communicate some of what I want to communicate, but setting up such
a market primarily to communicate that one piece of information would
create a bias towards attracting "True Believers" that would cheapen
the message. And there's already a claim on FX about the date of the
Feynman Grand Prize which provides some of this information, apparently
without convincing many people.
- Less emphasis on the revolutionary nature of nanotech, and a greater
emphasis on trends such as Moore's Law. Even if Moore's Law provides
some imperfect hints as to how and when nanotech be implemented, catching
people's attention by saying "this is why Moore's Law won't slow down soon"
will give typical people more motivation to read a detailed argument than
"an incredible revolution is coming soon" will (it's no accident that
"incredible" and "not credible" mean similar things).
- More effort to explain realistic pathways towards building an assembler
with technology that we have today or can forsee having soon. (Yes, this
Speaking of Robin Hanson, he has a
paper (and also mentions a related book, Robert Frank's Luxury Fever)
which indirectly suggests another problem associated with
the kind of debate in which Foresight wants to enagage the public.
A significant part of the communication that people engage in is
apparently intended not to enlighten people about the subject apparently
under discussion, but to signal which group of people the speaker intends
to remain allied with. It may be that the tendency of political discussions
to polarize into a small number of well defined factions is a byproduct
of instincts to exaggerate one's opinions in order to secure one's place
in the alliance one has chosen.
This hypothesis may help explain why people tend to polarize into
True Believers in nanotech, cryonics, etc. and people who treat them
as science fiction, when the hypothesis that people are seeking the
truth would seem to predict a lot more people who know that they haven't
determined whether these are important.
I hope this insight will help
us find ways to replace flame wars with more truth-oriented approaches,
but I'm still searching for those solutions.
The URL of this document is http://www.rahul.net/pcm/99gathering.html.