Re: SPACE: How hard IS it to get off Earth?

Eric Watt Forste (
Mon, 15 Nov 1999 12:07:02 -0800

Robert Bradbury writes:
> its full capabilities (i.e. how do we avoid the police-state working
> against us). I think the answer here is that you don't. Since
> nanotech is basically "small" technology, I think you can work on
> it away from the 'light of day' and be successful. When you need
> big stuff you can assemble it from little stuff. Big brother is
> going to have a hard time doing global tracking of nanotech
> mass-drivers that launch self-assembling nanobots into orbit at
> supersonic speeds from random points around the world.

Yes, but if you work away from the "light of day" you slow down the process of diffusion of innovation. Many labs will be reinventing wheels unnecessarily. I don't know why you want to slow down the process with secrecy. There is a *reason* why publication is recognized as a fundamental part of the process of scientific research.

If you slow research down, people will die unnecessarily as a result. I can't countenance that, myself.

> One thread seems to focus on the problem of getting off the planet
> fast because we must to survive (presumably due to creeping grey
> goo). I want to go on record that I think Grey Goo is an irrational
> fear given the logical development trends. Grey Goo does have mass
> (element abundance), energy and disassembly design constraints.
> do *not* believe that those will be easy problems to work around
> and they do suggest possible avenues for defense. The only scenario
> I can imagine in which Grey Goo becomes a serious threat is if a
> significantly enhanced amoral intelligence develops and designs it
> *or* self-evolution is allowed on a much faster than real-time,
> real-world simulation. Without one of those two situations, I
> believe that defenses would keep pace with or even ahead of any
> offenses.

I don't think the basis of this fear is Gray Goo at all (which would indeed be irrational). I think the basis of this fear is the emergence of biotech and nanotech warfare, the destructive potential of which (for conventional biota such as we currently still are) dwarfs the destructive potential of nuclear warfare at present. Genetically engineered plagues are not very difficult to make compared to making, say, a serotonin-knockout strain of mice for neuroscience research (we already have ten or so such strains). Botulin toxin can be produced easily by biotech, dissolved into a DMSO vapor, and dispersed by a variety of means. Etc, etc, etc. Rather than to Gray Goo, I might refer to Nick Szabo's essay on Green Goo.

I do not see any mention by you of means by which you will prevent the emergence of the two situations that you admit would give us cause for concern. Amoral intelligences already exist in plenty, and will start enhancing themselves in short order if they have not already. And there are people whose posthumanism extends as far as antihumanism... such people may already be engaged in fast self-evolution research.

> With regard to the stale atmosphere issues, these are taken care of by
> molecular sorting. With regard to food production, people seem to be
> still thinking ancient-tech. A full complement of nutritious & tasty
> gruels with all the necessary vitamins, proteins, fats & carbohydates
> will be able to be produced in bacteria/yeast, directly from sunlight
> or electricity, using biotech, long before we have hard nanotech
> available.

I see zero economic pressure for the development of such technology. Who will fund the research and why would they bother to fund it?

> With regard to the patchwork code of the human genome and our
> ability to augment it, we will have to see how things turn out.
> I would offer a couple of comments -- studies show that mutations
> in a majority of genes do not result in fatal defects and transgenic
> animal studies have shown that we often have backup systems for
> any single function (this makes sense given that the prototype
> mammalian genome has been duplicated at least twice). So I think
> there is going to be a lot of junk and a lot of extra stuff we
> don't need. The question will become -- do you simply bite the
> bullet and generate as many new "improved" genomes as fast as you
> possibly can, recycling the failures (as nature does) or do you
> wait a little, expand your computational capacity and do all the
> genome experimentation in silico where you don't have to worry as
> much about whether people see you feeding the dead babies to the
> hydroponic yeast blob?

I'm still not convinced that effective in silico simulations of ontogenesis can be done without atomic-level detail, and that is a pretty tall order. Handling dead babies on a regular basis is just plain bad for human beings psychologically, so I don't plan to do any of that.