Lilliputian Computer Ethics


Associate Professor John Weckert
Centre for Applied Philosophy and Public Ethics,
Charles Sturt University


Nanotechnology and quantum computing have the potential to radically change information technology. If these technologies are successful, and there are signs that they will be, computers will become very, very small, very, very fast, and have an enormous amount of memory relative to computers of today. This is creating excitement in some quarters, but anxiety in others. Speaking of nanotechnology, in a recent and much publicised article, Bill Joy wrote that “It is most of all the power of destructive self-replication in genetics, nanotechnology, and robotics (GNR) that should give us pause. In truth we have had in hand for years clear warnings of the dangers inherent in widespread knowledge of GNR technologies – of the possibility of knowledge alone enabling mass destruction. The only realistic alternative I see is relinquishment: to limit development of the technologies that are too dangerous, by limiting our pursuit of certain kinds of knowledge.” (Bill Joy, Wired, 8.04, 2000)

Given the variety of benefits promised by nanotechnology in medicine, the environment, and information technology, to pick out just a few, Joy’s claim seems a little strong. This paper will discuss a few worries, some raised by Joy, to see what the appropriate reaction to this technology is. Are the worries enough to give his call for a halt to research any plausibility?

While nanotechnology has potential benefits and dangers in a wide variety of areas, for example in health and in the environment as previously mentioned, we will consider here just some potential dangers in the computing area.

There are at least two sets of issues. One set concerns existing problems which will be exacerbated by the miniaturisation of computers. This miniaturisation will involve the development of smaller, much more powerful machines (much faster and with much more memory), and with much more sensitive input devices. The second set concerns potentially new problems.

Important in the first set of problems will be privacy. Vast databases that can be accessed at very high speeds will enable governments, businesses and so on to collect, store and access much more information about individuals than is possible today. In addition, the capacity for data mining, the exploration and analysis of very large amounts of data for the purpose of discovering meaningful and useful rules and patterns, will increase dramatically. And the monitoring and surveillance of workers, prisoners, and others will be greatly enhanced with the use of small, powerful computers and new sensoring devices for input.

The second set comprises problems which as yet have not arisen, at least not in any significant way. Three will be considered. First, artificial intelligences. If machines are developed that behave in much the same way as humans do, in a wide variety of contexts, the issue will arise of whether or not they are things with moral rights and responsibilities. Second, prosthetic devices. Chip implants in humans that enhance various of the senses, memory and perhaps even other capacities such a reasoning ability and creativity, may blur the distinction between human and machine. Third, virtual reality. It may become difficult to tell the difference between “real” and “virtual” reality.

After the examination of the problems, various responses will be proposed and assessed. The first set of problems should lead at least to the reassessment of privacy legislation, the use of personal information by governments and corporations, and guidelines and legislation for the use of monitoring devices. The potential new developments in the second set could force us to rethink the nature of humanity, the nature of reality, and what constitutes a meaningful and satisfying life. Finally, there should be renewed emphasis placed on examinations of the accountability and responsibilities of researchers and developers. While Joy’s claim for a halt to the research may be extravagant, there are enough worrying aspects of nanotechnology and quantum computing which should make us examine what controls may be justified and what structures put in place to maximise the chances of these technologies being beneficial rather than harmful.