RE: Geniebusters

Billy Brown (
Fri, 9 Apr 1999 11:14:49 -0500

Lyle Burkhead wrote:
> That section isn't supposed to be read in isolation. It is part of the
> argument leading up to Exercise 5 in Section 7, and it also has to be read
> in conjunction with sections 12 and 13. The question is whether the
> Assembler Breakthrough is going to happen. To get a handle on that
> question, I'm trying to establish the level of complexity involved in "a
> system that can make anything, including copies of itself." If a
> can make anything, in the sense required for the Assembler Breakthrough,
> then it will amount to the same thing as an industrial economy.

The complexity of making such an artifact varies enormously depending on how it works. With an industrial civilization most of your effort is consumed dealing with the vagaries of the physical world, and even the simplest task requires a huge investment of effort. With a magical "matter materializer" device all you would have to do is design the things you want, which is a simpler task by several orders of magnitude. A nanotech manufacturing system is somewhere between these two extremes, and blindly comparing it to either of them will give very misleading results.

I would suggest a different set of calibrations: 1) A general-purpose nanotech fabricator, capable of making most kinds of physical goods in a sealed environment, is similar in complexity to an automated factory. It still requires human supervision, but you don't need a whole ecology of different factories to make different kinds of goods.

2) While many proposed nanotech goods are wildly complex, the production of mundane goods using nanotech fabricators need not impose much additional design cost. It seems reasonable to expect that automated software, similar in nature to a compiler, could convert a high-level design calling for a given part into the low-level instructions needed to fill a given volume of space with a regular pattern of atoms. Thus, the design problem is not inherently harder for nanotech manufacturing.

3) With these points in mind, the size of the system needed to make "anything" collapses from a large nation to a rather small one, or perhaps a large city. Most of the complexity involved in maintaining thousands of different types of manufacturing facilities, with completely different needs and constraints, disappears.

Beyond that point, any further radical productivity gains would have to be based on advances in AI and robotics rather than nanotech per se.

Billy Brown, MCSE+I