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Anything seems possible in Arizona

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The future is a different country; they do things more grandly there.

Last week, a small but impassioned band of forward thinkers gathered in Tucson, Arizona for the first conference of the Center for Responsible Nanotechnology. The Internet pioneers spent 20 years rejecting the idea of government regulation. But CRN's two founders and chief researchers, Chris Phoenix and Mike Treder, have been convinced for a decade that the potential of nanotechnology – by which they mean molecular manufacturing – is too dangerous powerful not to plan ahead.

Arthur Dent should have been listening to this

The week produced more questions than answers about what the world might look like if all of us had nanofactories in our homes.

Are humans going to be in charge or AIs, after humans have been successful at transferring themselves into an artificial substrate?

Will we need to work? If we don't, will we be retired – or unemployed? ("I've asked that for years," says Phoenix.)

Will families and value systems disintegrate because, no longer human, those things won't matter to us any more? (Yes, said Josh Storrs Hall, because "We will build it to care.")

How will we define what it means to be a person?

Should we replace photosynthesis? If, that is, we're able to develop better functionality. Do we build a planet-wide immune system? Surely, we'll need to be able to adapt quickly to newly developing viruses, just so no one person can wipe out the entire world.

How do we back up the ecology of present-day earth as we know it? And should we bother?

In fact, wouldn't it be better to move the entire thing off-planet for the final development stages? For safety's sake? Doug Mulhall, author of Our Molecular Future and an environmentalist with experience building water recycling and flood control facilities in Brazil and China, rounded out this idea by estimating that the asteroid belt could be deconstructed to provide 1,800 backup copies of Earth, each of which could become a different experimental biosphere. "And then if we break apart Jupiter and Saturn…"

You have never even really seen either planet properly, and have few prospects of actually going there, and you're not sure what asteroids are good for anyway, but you react with a sudden nostalgic affection for these endangered celestial bodies, as if they were polar bears sitting on melting ice.

These questions all seem more reasonable in the Arizona desert, perhaps because in an environment this harsh survival seems so miraculous that you can easily believe that anything could happen. That said, CRN is not based there: Phoenix and Treder work from San Francisco and New York, respectively. However, the conference's co-sponsor, Worldcare, is Tucson-based, and Biosphere 2 is less than an hour's drive away.

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