Re: Geniebusters

Lyle Burkhead (
Tue, 13 Apr 1999 15:07:27 -0700

Eliezer writes,

> Your entire Web site does seem to be a straw-man argument;...
> Discussions of nanotechnology and AI have advanced
> far beyond the popularized simplification you call the "genie"
> You're stomping on the greasy smear where there used to lie
> a dead horse.

Eliezer, the position I am arguing against is quoted in bright red letters on the home page of Geniebusters. Eric Drexler has never backed off at all from those statements. In the Introduction to the Web version of Engines, published just a couple of years ago, Eric wrote:

> There's not much I'd change in Engines if rewritten today
> (that is, I'd fiddle all the details and make it worse,
> but change little of the substance). The technological work
> keeps evolving and expanding in scope and analytical detail,
> but the basic concepts have survived critical examination,
> on the net and elsewhere.

So I'm not making up a straw man, am I? I am examining the basic concepts in a way that they have not been examined before. The basic concepts (universal assemblers, the design-ahead process, the sudden Breakthrough) are still live issues, as far as Eric Drexler is concerned. It may not be a live argument to anyone else. As I said, _no_one_ has attempted to defend the Assembler Breakthrough as described in Engines. That remains true. Now you yourself say I am flogging a dead horse. If anyone wants to defend the Assembler Breakthrough, please speak up. If not, we can regard that question as settled, and move on to other things.

Eliezer writes,

> if you really aren't attacking nanotechnology and AI in general,
> you're doing a very poor job of conveying that important piece of
> information. If you're really devoting an entire Website to arguing
> against the "Great Breakthrough" described in _Engines_,
> then say "I think nanotechnology will happen _this_ way",
> so it's clear to everyone that you're only attacking one scenario
> and not nanotechnology in general.

Sigh... Eliezer, on the home page of Geniebusters, I wrote:

> Nanotechnology in the most general sense -- the ability
> to control individual atoms -- will certainly exist. In fact
> it is already well underway. It seems like almost every issue
> of Nature has an article about nanotechnology. Nothing I say here
> is meant to reflect in any way on the scientists who do research
> in this field. This Web site is not a critique of nanotechnology as
> technology, it's just a critique of the belief system...
> that has come to be associated with it.

Then I state the belief system that I am arguing against, and argue against it. I don't know how I could have made it any clearer. As for saying "I think nanotechnology will happen _this_ way," I said, also on the home page,

> Nanotechnology is commensurable with other technologies,
> and it will progress at the same rate as technology in general.
> Industrial nanotechnology will emerge gradually and continuously
> from the technology of the present.

That's how I think it will happen. On the last page of Geniebusters, section 28, I wrote

> Nanotechnology will take its place among other technologies,
> step by step, over a period of decades. Like any other technology,
> it will enable us to do some things that have never been done before,
> and like any other technology, it will leave the economy and
> the world in general with the same basic structure that they have now...
> We can turn our attention to the problem of how to create
> industrial nanotechnology and medical nanotechnology --
> i.e. how to use atomic positioners in chip factories, how to make
> made-to-order cells to carry out specific tasks, and how to write
> computer programs to assist us in designing and building such systems.
> Then some of the awesome things that have been predicted
> for nanotechnology will indeed come to pass. For example,
> cell repair machines will exist. Cell repair machines don't require
> diamondoid replicators or AI programs writing better AI programs.
> Cell repair machines will be cells -- highly modified cells, yes,
> but still cells. Cell repair systems will be an extension and refinement
> of the immune system we already have.

To sum up, I think people have been looking in the wrong direction when they try to predict the consequences of nanotechnology. It isn't going to transform manufacturing, for reasons given in section 27 and elsewhere. Nevertheless, nanotechnology (construed in a general sense, to include biotechnology) will have profound consequences. We will have exotic new materials. We will have (probably) a new source of energy -- cheaper, cleaner, and more accessible than anything we have now. Most important, our cells and tissues will become (asymptotically) perfect.

A couple of days ago Eliezer wrote,

> I don't have time to read the Geniebusters site;
> I just swooped through chapters 18 and 19...

and now

> Sort out your arguments. You're mixing them together
> and completely failing to indicate what you're arguing against
> at any given time, or what implies what, or distinguishing
> between specific and general cases.

This criticism comes with little grace from someone who admits that he has only glanced at a couple of sections. You have to read it all the way through and think about it long enough to see how it all fits together.

I'm not trying to write journalism. In section 7, I said

> Instead of telling you what to think about all this,
> I'm going to indicate some questions that need to be addressed
> and let you arrive at your own conclusion. This Web site
> is like a topology book, where the reader is supposed to
> read the book with pencil and paper in hand, and prove some theorems.

If you are too busy reading science fiction to have time for topology, that's your choice, but please don't tell me my argument doesn't hang together when you haven't read it.