Jach's personal blog

(Largely containing a mind-dump to myselves: past, present, and future)
Current favorite quote: "Supposedly smart people are weirdly ignorant of Bayes' Rule." William B Vogt, 2010

Sociology Memo: Nanotechnology

When talking about nanotechnology, one generally means the special case of molecular nanotechnology with nanobots manipulating the structure of atoms around them, possibly even self-replicating. I think Balbus et al. in the reading avoid this and talk about technology that simply happens to be at the nanoscale, such as nanotubes, which we've already had for quite some time, and it makes their calls for regulation and market diversification seem silly. And really, we're already approaching full-blown molecular nanotechnology: last year it was shown we could build robots that manipulate individual molecules. (source) Since then further advances have been made, including manipulating individual atoms in certain environments.

The big problem of nanotechnology is the existential risk to humanity. It's generally agreed that nanotech, if successful, will end poverty, need, want, disease, and anything else than ails us. (And people think it's possible to limit this grand technology to a privileged few!) Personally I believe it will destroy the entire concept of money: get nanobots that transform into solar cells and their energy needs are met, there's plenty of raw material on the earth to transform to other purposes as well as all the material in space. Even before self-replication you can get "utility fog", which promises some pretty great stuff. (utility fog) Eventually, though, whatever is desired can be achieved through self-replicating nanobots. I would like to see Curiosity become the currency of the future.

But the "if successful" part is a pretty big if. There's the classic "grey goo" scenario where, by accident, researchers unleash voracious self-replicating nanobots that quickly envelop the entire Earth. There are much worse outcomes though, especially if some entity tries to use nanotechnology for malicious purposes. But an overlooked accident that becomes possible with nanotech is brute forcing artificial intelligence, and developing unFriendly AI that ends up destroying us. (Probably not because it hates us, but because it is indifferent and you are made of atoms that it can use for other purposes.)

I'm not sure humans are responsible enough to handle nanotech. This isn't just "wipe out 95% of humanity" threat level that nukes potentially have, it's "wipe out 100% of humanity" existential threat level. Nanotech, improperly used, means the extinction of the human species. Defensive nanotech must be developed well before offensive nanotech and in conjunction with other development to avoid grey goo scenarios. Only with that, and with nanotech quickly becoming distributed throughout the population, could I foresee a successful future for humanity. It could help us solve the Friendly AI problem, because we can use nanotech to augment our own intelligence (which is the next necessary step). Thus nanotech could be thought of as a final test of humanity to see if it's worthy of a technological Singularity producing a Friendly AI whose intelligence goes FOOM as it recursively improves itself.

Some critics argue that nanotech isn't physically possible, but their evidence is lacking. They have to assert a new non-standard set of physics to show that. Feynman's famous talk "There's Plenty of Room at the Bottom" (read darn you) highlights numerous possibilities. For example, he highlights 24 million books, each as large as an encyclopedia, carrying 10^15 bits of information, allowing 100 atoms per bit, and it turns out all that information can be stored in a cube of material one two-hundredth of an inch wide. And indeed, lots of information being carried around in small areas has been known for ages by those who study our cellular structure. Anyway, if critics want to argue against the feasibility of nanotech, they need to do so within the known laws of physics. So far there is nothing saying it's flat-out impossible, and continual research shows it to be very probable that we'll arrive at molecular nanotech within this century. I'd want Friendly AI and intelligence enhancement to come first, but I think nanotech could be a suitable test to see if humanity deserves the benefits of superior intelligence.

Posted on 2010-04-30 by Jach

Tags: memo, nanotech


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