This morning I got an email from Eric Klien of the Lifeboat Foundation, an organization that advocates building a “space ark” as an insurance policy in case out-of-control nanorobots destroy all life on Earth. Klien was inviting me to join the foundation’s scientific advisory board, which includes such notables as Ray Kurzweil. I thought readers of this blog might be interested in my response.
I’m honored (and surprised) that you would consider me for your board. But I’m afraid I’m going to decline, for the following reasons:
(1) I’m generally skeptical of predictions about specific future technologies, especially when those predictions are exactly the sort of thing that a science fiction writer would imagine. In particular, I consider the risk of self-replicating nanobots converting our entire planet into gray goo to be a small one.
(2) Once we’re dealing with such unlikely events, I don’t think we can say with confidence what protective measures would be effective. For all we know, any measures we undertake will actually increase the risk of catastrophe. For example, maybe if humanity launches a space ark, that will tip off a hostile alien civilization to our existence. And maybe the Earth will then be besieged by alien warships, which can only be destroyed using gray goo — the development of which was outlawed as a protective measure. I’m not claiming that this scenario is likely, only that I have no idea whether it’s more or less likely than the scenarios you’re considering.
(3) There are several risks to humanity that I consider more pressing than that of nanotechnology run amok. These include climate change, the loss of forests and freshwater supplies, and nuclear proliferation.