Re: LIST: the Gooies

Lyle Burkhead (
Mon, 19 Apr 1999 19:46:50 -0700

I wrote:
> 1. What is fantastic is the image of goo spreading over the planet,
> everything in its path. Microscopic life won't have an advantage over
> large-scale life in the future any more than it does now. Hard life, like
> natural life, will come in all sizes, from microbes to Godzilla, and all
> forms, from algae to insects to mammals, plus other forms that have not
> been thought of. The ecosystem of the future will be at least as complex
> and diverse as the ecosystem of today. The world isn't going to be any
> more gooey in the future than it is now.

To which Eliezer Yudkowsky replied, in one of the most amazing non sequiturs to appear on the list in a long time -- at least in the last couple of hours --

> I'm so glad to know that submarines will never outswim fish.

What on earth is this in reference to?

Hard life will, as I have said repeatedly, have an advantage over soft life. However, microscopic hard life won't have an advantage over large-scale hard life any more than bacteria have an advantage over mammals. Hard life will come in all sizes, from microbes to submarines. An ecosystem of hard organisms won't be any more gooey than an ecosystem of natural organisms.

I wrote,
> 2. The very idea of "nonbiological, free-living replicators" is absurd.
> It is possible to have replicators that use different materials and have
> different sources of energy than natural cells, but any free-living
> organism that replicates will be "biological" in a general sense.

Eliezer created a hilarious skit in which the punch line is

> "And look!" cried Anders Sandburg, pointing at the monitors.
> "The goo, being biological, can't eat our facility and
> condemn us all to horrible, agonizing deaths! We're saved!"

When it comes to satire, I'm afraid I am outgunned. There is no use trying to compete with such deadly wit. But leaving humor aside, let's try to find the logic in this.

Mitchell Porter used the word "nonbiological" to mean that the hypothetical new organisms will be mechanical, unlike the organisms that exist in nature. My point was that even if the new organisms are nonbiological in that sense, they still must be biological in a more general sense. There will be an entire ecology of mechanical replicators. They will eat each other, reproduce, evolve, and in general play the same roles in their ecosystem that natural organisms play in the present ecosystem. This doesn't imply that they won't be a threat to natural life. Far from it.

I wrote,
> Hard life, like natural life, will be constrained by time, space, and
> energy; there will still be such a thing as bioenergetics. Each species
> will have its own niche. There will still be predators and prey, and
> will still be an ongoing arms race between predators and prey, as
> by Dawkins. There will still be symbiotic relationships and parasitic
> relationships between species. In other words the general form of biology
> will remain the same. The essential difference will be that organisms
> be able to change themselves, like corporations do, instead of depending
> the blind process of natural selection.

To which Eliezer responded
> Yes; submarines might be more of a problem if the population
> was not kept down by the submarine-eating denizens of the deep.

If there were predatory submarines, then there would indeed be submarine-eating denizens of the deep, i.e. other submarines. They would eat each other. They would also be subject to attack by smaller a-life creatures. Microscopic a-life creatures ("goo") would be more interested in attacking submarines than in attacking us. In other words, the submarine population would be kept in check just like the population of any other organism is kept in check.

I wrote
> 3. Finally, the other fantastic thing about the grey goo scenario is that
> it is all supposed to happen overnight.

Eliezer interrupted at this point and said
> Says you. It could just as well happen after a decade.
> Straw man. Nobody specified overnight.

The word "overnight" is a figure of speech, meaning "suddenly." My understanding of the goo scenario is that even if it takes a decade to start, once it does start it is supposed to happen very quickly indeed. The goo is going to "eat our facility and condemn us all to horrible, agonizing deaths!" That scenario is fantastic, and the word "overnight" is not out of place in describing it. Nor is the word "overnight" out of place in describing a scenario in which an entire new kind of life is designed and built in a decade.

There are two distinct questions concerning the speed of the goo process: (1) Whether a-life will be ready to shrink wrap in a decade or so, and (2) how quickly it will spread once it gets started. The calibration principle can be applied to both of these questions.

My statement continued,
> I wish it were that easy to design new cells. I spend
> a lot of time trying to figure out how to redesign my own cells.
> It's a daunting task, and I think it will take decades
> just to make the first steps. Replicators are complex, and
> that complexity isn't going to go away.

Here I am trying to get a handle on question #1 above, by considering the difficulty I have had in redesigning my own cells. Ignoring this, Eliezer chose to focus on the word "overnight." So who's attacking a straw man? Instead of taking the word "overnight" literally, why don't you reply to the statement "Replicators are complex, and that complexity isn't going to go away"?

Let's reframe the question. Consider corporations to be a form of a-life, and look at what is happening in the Amazonian rain forest, and other rain forests. The natural ecosystem is being destroyed by artificial organisms with chain saws, and it can't defend itself. It doesn't even know it is being attacked -- which is the whole problem. Corporations are aware of themselves and their environment, and they can make plans. Rain forests are not aware of themselves and their environment, and they can't make plans. Therefore they are being cut to pieces. This is happening most conspicuously to rain forests, but the same thing is happening to the entire natural ecosystem. This is the real goo problem. It has already started. It will continue. We are caught in the middle -- we are part of the natural ecosystem, but we are also at the center of corporations. Our role is ambiguous, and it will continue to be ambiguous. As Pogo would say: We have met the goo and it is us.