The Singularity and Nanotechnology

John K Clark (
Fri, 20 Sep 1996 20:46:31 -0700 (PDT)


On Wed, 18 Sep 1996 Lyle Burkhead <> Wrote:

>When somebody claims that goods produced by molecular
>manufacturing will be free, ask: why are things not free now?

A few things are free now, like water from a public water fountain. Of course
the water is not really free, it's just too cheap to be worth the bother of
charging for it.

>When Ralph Merkle says diamondoid material will be as cheap
>as potatoes, ask: why potatoes? Why not silk, ivory,
>mahogany wood, orchids, or caviar? Products made atom by
>atom in a replicating system may be very expensive.

Silk is expensive because if the price was any lower then the demand would
outstrip the supply. The reason silk supply is limited is because the silk
worm is lousy at producing silk. The silk worm was not designed, it evolved
in a mindless process, and evolution did not optimize it to produce silk,
it optimized it to pass on silk worm genes to the next generation. The silk
worm can not reproduce itself in just any simple environment, only in a very
specific, very complex one. The plants the silk worm eats were not optimized
to produce tasty food for this bug, in fact evolution tried, not entirely
successfully, to move in the exact opposite direction.

Potatoes are made of the same atoms as silk, and potatoes are undoubtedly more
complex than silk, the reason silk is more expensive is pure chance. Part of
the evolutionary strategy that potato plant genes use to reproduce themselves
include the production of a large amount of potatoes, so they must be pretty
efficient at it, silk worm genes only need a tiny amount of silk to reproduce
themselves. If the history of life had been slightly different it could have
easily been the other way around, silk could have been cheap as dirt and
potatoes a very expensive gourmet food.

The reason diamonds are expensive is that they don't grow on trees, and the
reason they don't is that life is incapable of constructing the tools to make
them from the simple carbon in CO2. Life is a nanotechnology, sort of, but
it's a very primitive, very stupid sort of one. It's not surprising that life
is dumb, considering that the processes that made it had no mind at all, just
random mutation and natural selection. It's not surprising that life is crude,
considering its basic building block is not the atom at all but something
much larger, the amino acid, and not even all of them, only 20 out of
thousands. Any machine life wants to make must be constructed from those 20
amino acids, a severe limitation for even the best designer and if the
"designer" has not a particle of intelligence, a crippling one. It's no
wonder it took the evolution of amino acid structures almost 4 billion years
to come up with us. I don't know how long it will take for us to develop
Nanotechnology but I know if will be A LOT less than 4 billion years because
people are A LOT smarter than a cosmic ray that causes a random mutation in
some DNA.

>Put nanotechnology into a historical context.

I'd love to, but I don't know how. None of our previous technological
advances improved us, they improved our tools, in the singularity we become
our tools and that is fundamentally new. That's why it's called a
"Singularity", there is nothing else like it.

OK, if you put a gun to my head and asked me for a historic parallel I
suppose I'd say The Cambrian Explosion 570 million years ago. In less than
10 million years, probably much less, nearly all the 32 phyla that make up
life today, and some that no longer exist, got their start. Nobody knows why
things happened so suddenly but I think there must have been some bio chemical
problem ( the need for efficient calcification? ) that was holding back
progress, when nature finally solved the problem through trail and error there
was an unprecedented explosion of creativity and experimentation.

One of the animals that evolved during this time was a dull looking little
worm like animal called "Pikaia". Pikaia was a chordate, a member of our
own phyla and the ancestor of every vertebrate animal on earth including us.
I don't think anybody could have predicted all the mischief this critter would
cause in the coming years. Predicting is hard, especially the future. (:>)

This may not be a singularity but it's the best I could come up with.

>If a genie machine is defined as an entity that can make
>anything -- whatever it is told to make -- does a genie
>machine already exist? I would say yes: the economy as a
>whole is a genie machine.

People have been giving orders to that particular "genie machine" for a long
time namely "make me rich". The results have been mixed. It's true that even
the poorest member of this list is fabulously wealthy compared to the average
person of 2 centuries ago (a long time in human terms), it's also true that
even the richest member of this list is not nearly as rich as he wants to be.

>Now, could anything smaller than the entire economy make

Yes, much, much smaller.

John K Clark

Version: 2.6.i