Constraints on the Singularity

John K Clark (
Wed, 15 Oct 1997 09:05:14 -0700 (PDT)


Ramez Naam <> On Tue, 14 Oct 1997 Wrote:

>as a nanosystem designer, I /start/ with a desire for a particular
>output, and must work backwards to a specific design for the nanites
>that will construct the object.

But that's not "backwards", it's a much easier way to go. There is only one
output a complex mechanism can produce, so finding it, that is, understanding
it, could be very difficult. On the other hand, there are an infinite number
of ways a given output could be produced and you only need to find one of
them, that one will be the one that is easiest to understand. Nanotechnology
is different than life in that respect because life never used a simple
solution if a complex one was available.

>Note that in biotech we've had the advantage of being able to sample
>existing creatures, examining their genotype and comparing to the
>creature's phenotype. In nanotech we'll be starting from scratch

Starting from scratch can be an advantage. Life is a mess, the reason
intelligent beings have such trouble figuring out how it operates is that it
was not made by intelligence, and it shows. Life's inscrutability does not
demonstrate good design but the reverse, an elegant program written by a
master programmer is easier to understand than a mountain of turgid spaghetti
code from a no talent hack.

Random mutation and natural selection is not conducive to elegance in design
or ease of comprehension. The trouble with evolution is that it has no
foresight. With evolution EVERY step (generation) no matter how many MUST be
an immediate improvement over the previous one. It can't think more than one
step ahead, it doesn't understand one step backward two steps forward.

Fortunately people are smarter than that, so If the tire on your car is
getting worn you can take it off and put a new one on, but evolution could
never do anything that simple, because when you take the old tire off you
have temporally made things worse, now you have no tire at all. True, nature
would eventually come up with a solution to the worn tire problem, but you
can be sure it would be of byzantine complexity.

We already had prop engines for airplanes and then somebody came up with a
completely new idea that used very different basic principles, it worked
better and in just a few years they had made a working jet engine. Other
people could understand the engine and soon everybody was making them.
Imagine if you tried to do that natures way. I give you a prop engine and
tell you to improve it, but you must do it while the engine is running, you
must do it in ten million small steps, and you must do it so that every one
of those steps immediately improves the operation of the engine. After a few
million years you'd get an improved engine of some sort, but it wouldn't be a
jet, it would be a plumbers nightmare, and you'd have a hell of a time trying
to explain to somebody else how it worked or even in remembering exactly how
you built the damn thing.

John K Clark

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