Thoughts on getting the attention of ordinary people for far-out ideas

A somewhat rambling set of ideas intended to provoke discussion at the 1999 Foresight Senior Associates Gathering

(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:

  1. 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).
  2. More effort to explain realistic pathways towards building an assembler with technology that we have today or can forsee having soon. (Yes, this is hard.)
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.
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