Self-replicating nanofactories?

Self-replicating nanofactories?

Over at Accelerating Future, Michael Anissimov has a post about self-replication in which he seems to find it remarkable that Foresight, among others, can view a world containing mechanical replicators with aplomb:

What is remarkable are those that seem to argue, like Ray Kurzweil, the Foresight Institute, and the Center for Responsible Nanotechnology, that humanity is inherently capable of managing universal self-replicating constructors without a near-certain likelihood of disaster.

From this he jumps with very few intervening arguments (“there are terrorists out there”) to a conclusion that we need a benevolent world dictatorship (“singleton”), which might need to be a superhuman self-improving AI. This seems a wildly illogical leap, but surprisingly appears to be almost an article of faith in certain parts of the singularitarian community and Washington, DC. Let us examine the usually unstated assumptions behind it:

  • Humanity can’t manage self-replicating universal constructors: We’ve been managing self-replicating universal constructors for tens of thousands of years, from elephants to yeast. What’s more, these are replictors that can operate in the wild. The design process, e.g. to turn a wolf into a Pekingese, takes longer but is much more intuitive to the average human.
    If you’re worried about high-tech terrorists, worry about genetically engineered swine flu or other naturally-reproducing agents. If there are terrorists out there who are so technically sophisticated as to be a threat with MNT, at best guess still 20 years away for the leading mainstream labs, why aren’t they doing this? Even terrorist Berkeley professors only make letterbombs.
  • Once the leading mainstream labs produce self-replicating universal constructors, they are hardly going to hand them out by the billions for people to make shoes with. As Eric Drexler recently pointed out, specialized mill-style machinery is considerably more efficient than universal constructors at actually making stuff. My analysis of this point is that the difference is months for universal constructors vs milliseconds for specialized mills. Nobody is going to want universal constructors except for research.
  • Note that a really universal constructor at the molecular level would, even under current law, require a bushel of different licenses to operate — one for each of the regulated substances it was capable of making. Sony is not going to be selling these things on the streets of Mumbai.
  • Anyway, there already is a “singleton” — the US government. It has clearly demonstrated a willingness to act to prevent even nuisance-level WMD by actors outside the currently-accepted group. (By nuisance-level I mean ones which pose no serious threat to topple the US from its dominant military position.) The notion of producing, from scratch, an entity, AGI or whatever, that would not only seriously threaten US dominance but depose it without a struggle seems particularly divorced from reality. (Note that the US military is the leading funder and user of AI research and always has been.)
  • It seems to me that if you can make a self-improving, superhuman AGI capable of taking over the world, you could probably make a specialized AI capable of running one desktop fab box. Its primary purpose is to help the 99.999% of users who are legitimate to produce safe and useful products. It doesn’t even have to outsmart the terrorists by itself — it is part of a world-wide online community of other AIs and human experts with the same basic goals.

The bottom line is that consumer-level desktop nanofactories are really a non-problem. That’s not to say that national- (or even major university-) level research labs could not be a threat, but then they already are, on the biotech side, and the same kinds of safeguards we have there, and more, can be applied to leading-edge nanotech research.

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  1. Anonymous April 30, 2009 at 6:43 am - Reply

    there is no way to contemplate a dictatorsip when the real fear is the infinity awaiting us in the universeand beyond .liberalsfear every day they get up that the inelluctual game will end with them losing.their insane hate of ronal reagan and the fall of the berlin wall is proof enough of why the do not like nanotechnology.once the infinity of the universe and what exists as mathe happens it will make that night in 1989 look like nothing

  2. Anonymous April 30, 2009 at 9:13 am - Reply

    Ugh. IBM just announced Watson, Wolfram Alpha is going live in a matter of days… aren’t there more productive ways to spending our time than sniping at each other? No? OK. Anissimov needs to shower more often!

    Pinko librals want to give us all nano-bortions and make electrified sodomy machines!

    Maybe it’s me. Maybe I’m wrong. If so, I’ll gladly apologize. Can anyone recommend a good blog that analyzes the tech & the news without slipping in their political views?

  3. Anonymous April 30, 2009 at 5:49 pm - Reply

    I just finished thumbing through Renaissance book that I’ve looked through time and time again throughout my life(It’s called “Renaissance: Makers of Modern Man . . . it’s a National Geographic book); i’ve been using it for my mouse so that it works better than it does on the soft padded desk the lcd screen is sitting on. The dominant thought upon reviewing it is how the pictures are full of the people living in the various towns that whoever put the book together explored. The artfullness of the Renaissance period certainly far surpasses most cultures; and, it is still much as it was formed unlike the ruins of much of the rest of antiquity. The major difference between the people living there now and then are the clothes and perhaps some of the social/political activities that used to happen there; Not only are the people dressed differently, but they are absolutelly stricken by the place. I’ve lived in Sicily; the dominant feeling I like to recall to people about it is how ancient it was; The place is haunted by the religion portrayed; you could feel it in your bones. Today, just now, I note how there is no mathematical science done there anymore; or, if there is, it’s not much; i recall a recent observation of mine . . . of how mathematical science didn’t happen for centuries after the prionment of Galileo Galilea. The people in Italy are so mesmorized by the art of the past that they’ve forgotten about the universe(for the most of them).

    Humanity is the technologically dependent species and hence, ultimaitelly, the mathematical science dependent species; this thought is not hard to come by; the fact that it is not come by 99% of the time like it is for me by most of the people should give some pause; i look at Bill Joy’s writings, and read things here and there, and I find this thought is anethema to our famed nanotechnologists. I don’t see scientific humanists in the example of Jacob Bronowski; i see Platos with their combining of rationality and irrationality to appease themselves and the populace. Civilizations and cultures are scientific or not depending on the underlying philosophy of their leaders, and these guys want to bind us up on this planet to a populace of irrationality.

    The idea that they have to prevent those who have broke through mysticism to mathematical philosophy so they can save the planet isn’t even logical; it says a lot that there is no effort by some group of nanotechnologists to form a kind of Isaac Asimov ‘Foundation’ to make a mathematical science culture free from the close and fear minded past cultures . . . out in space . . . it says a lot.

    People wonder at the Fermi Question; i think I know the answer; they’re all locked up by their powerfull nanotech a.i.;

  4. JamesG April 30, 2009 at 6:53 pm - Reply

    Good post, I find it likely that the US government will simply control the world. The liberals will whine to high heaven, but the alternative is everybody running around with their own AI/nanofactory, it will be better to have the US government control everything through direct control of the AI that is networked and resident in all things that are capable of supporting it, such as nanofactories for one, and ultra powerful desktop computers and so on. The AI would permit benign operations, and deny malignent operations. It does suck, but again, the alternatives are so much more terrifying. People seem to think the AI is going to run around free like people, and everyone will have nanofactories, that is just not going to happen, humanity wouldn’t last 3 seconds before someone executed a nano-WMD attack just for kicks. People are going to have to get used to an all-powerful US government, and learn to live with it, imo. Maybe we will figure out another way (maybe the SAI can be programmed to be extremely benign and good/noble) but I think the die is pretty much cast here, and the US goverment will be calling the shots.

  5. […] J. Storrs Hall at the Foresight Institute has responded to my recent post about the challenges of self-replication. Specifically, the line where I refer to the Foresight Institute and the Center for Responsible Nanotechnology: What is remarkable are those that seem to argue, like Ray Kurzweil, the Foresight Institute, and the Center for Responsible Nanotechnology, that humanity is inherently capable of managing universal self-replicating constructors without a near-certain likelihood of disaster. […]

  6. Anonymous May 1, 2009 at 4:45 pm - Reply

    I believe in decentralized open source development of this technology. I reject the notion of centralization, in general. I do not want the U.S. government or any other government, for that matter, to have control over everyone and everything. I despise monopoly authoritarianism.

    The obvious positive sum approach is space colonization on a massive scale. We need to get out into the solar system and to other star systems. We need openness and freedom, not some nanotech version of “1984”. Certainly the kind of technologies talked about here would make this possible.

  7. Anonymous May 1, 2009 at 5:54 pm - Reply

    science is about humans confirming each others work; crn, foresight sounds like they want to keep all of science and technology for their elite and not let the rest of humanity grow up.

  8. Anonymous May 2, 2009 at 6:00 pm - Reply

    Why do you say that about Foresight and CRN? CRN and Foresight from their founding were and are all about responsible use of molecular nanotechnology and other advanced forms of technology in the hands of the people, in a grassroots manner.
    I for one applaud and stand behind both the Foresight Institute and the Center for Responsible Nanotechnology for their efforts.

  9. Anonymous May 6, 2009 at 3:03 pm - Reply

    One problem I’m seeing with the current thought(that you generally pick up by reading through the lines) is the interface between CRN’s ‘system of three ethics'(a kind of generalization of the American ‘constitutional’ democracy) and who’s going to type in the instructions to the prime nanomanufacturing system.

    The other part is still how humanity is going to choose to vote for this or that product to be made out of the nanomanufacturing system; are we going to choose to produce things scientifically, or based on some hyperbole religion? Are we going to scuttle it due to some predominant religion? As soon as the questions get to close to religion, do we vote out the nanomanufacturing system? As soon as some complication to close to the predominant personal problems . . . you know why democracy is great is because some king doesn’t go out on a rampage because somebody stole his wife from him(like in Homer’s epics). Religion generally isn’t about changing its mind when proven false(or, if it does, only in the most spin-doctoring way when the community realizes it needs to grow up some and allow a little scientific fact into their lives just to survive).

    Eric Drexler talks about how proteins(I’m assuming I don’t have to tell most people around here about Drexler’s still relativelly new blog) are evolved to be . . . well I forget at this moment of writing; let’s just say soft instead of hard material, even though proteins are generally more stable than what people generally envision of soft/plastic life(muscles and so on – instead of say bone). As he argues, why can’t we evolve proteins to be more usefull(this he’s done for the umpteenth time); he can think about this type of Ilya Prigoginian stable non-equilibrium thought on a physical level; but, on a social level seems to be well beyond him and everybody elses wildest conceptions. I mean people apparently are still having trouble seeing this on the level of proteins(since Mr Drexler is still pointing out the same old points). I mean if you lock up all of humanity here on earth, what do they evolve to? If you let them expand out in space, what do they evolve to? If you free their minds from those with entrenched interest; if you put them in a postion where they have to think just to survive . . . it’s like the difference between night and day!

    Going out in space is once again, probably the only way your going to set up a CRN society anyways; you let those who want to live in that way go into their little space colony; those who don’t want to follow truth can go in their space colony and we’ll see who survives in this universe; because those who don’t wish to pursue truth will kill themselves; those who decide to pursue truth with be more friendly than not(I’d put it up there around 95% chance that those space colonies that survive will be thrilled to meet one another); going out in space is how you tilt humanity towards peacefull behaviors; confining them all here on earth like caged animals no matter how friendly done, will turn humanity not only to smudge, but a-holes and evil; they will practice over and over again in their little heads to play some game; they will play all kinds of socio-political games.

    Demonizing those who want to go out to space just to save the earth isn’t even logical!

    Note, I’ve posted something very similar to this at CRN’s yahoo messageboard; it never lived to see the day(they never posted it!)

  10. Anonymous May 7, 2009 at 10:38 am - Reply

    Another thought about letting those who want to get away from all the jerkoffs here on earth; if you let those who want to get away, get away; then, it will be easier for those who want to stay here on earth to unite under one rule on earth. Forcing others to not leave can only lead to war!

  11. Anonymous May 10, 2009 at 8:06 pm - Reply

    I don’t see Foresight as inherently political- though posters frequently are.
    And it won’t be the liberals whining about the US gov’t taking over the world (not that I’m convinced it’s inevitable) The traditional conservative position is much less interventionist around the world.

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