The Singularity and Nanotechnology

Lyle Burkhead (
Sat, 21 Sep 1996 03:53:57 -0500 (EST)

I agree that some kind of momentous, unprecedented event is imminent.

Calling this a "singularity" implies that we can't understand it. I see no
reason to start out with that assumption. It may well turn out that we
can't understand it. I am willing to accept that outcome. Maybe it will
be like the peak of an acid trip. Fine, I will enjoy the roller coaster ride
to infinity. But for the time being, I am going to make every effort to
understand what's going on. I am going to try to place it into the same
causal nexus as everything else. My working hypothesis is that
everything fits into the same causal nexus, and can be understood with
the same logic. (Logic, however, is far from a finished subject.)

I sometimes think of what's coming as the "crystallization." I agree
that it will involve a proliferation of new life forms, like the Cambrian
explosion. -- Not just new organisms in the usual sense of the word, but
entirely new forms of life. Corporations, for example, are a new kind of
living entity which didn't exist 300 years ago.

John Clark writes

> 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.

What's the difference between improving us and improving our tools?
Aren't tools just extensions of ourselves? All the tools I have access to
could be thought of as my "body" in mechanical space. They constitute
my means of operating on the world, including my physical body. This
entire apparatus can be improved on many levels. My tool-body already
includes tools for improving my biological body -- exercise equipment,
vitamins, drugs, chelation therapy. My access to my cells is going to
become more and more fine-grained in the coming decades, but I don't
see why this is fundamentally new. My toolkit also includes tools that
can be used to improve my mind, as opposed to my brain -- universities,
libraries, computers, the internet. This apparatus will also (we hope)
become more fine-grained, and I may be able to improve my thinking to
unprecedented levels of clarity.

Why is any of this unique or incomprehensible? Isn't all this just a
continuation of what we are already doing?

Referring back to one of your earlier posts, on August 23 you said:

> ...Lucy (Australopithecus Afarensis) could walk upright as well as
> you or me, and like modern humans, she had short fingers and a
> fully opposable thumb. This was not very good for climbing trees but
> it's great for precision gripping. From the neck down Lucy was
> pretty modern, but her brain was only about as big as a modern day
> chimp. After Lucy the brain increased in size at an enormous rate,
> and I don't think that would have happened if Lucy didn't have
> such a good hand, and nobody understands why Evolution gave her
> that good hand.

Hands and intelligence evolved together. They will continue to
evolve together. So, let's make better and better tools of all kinds,
and use them!


I said

>When somebody claims that goods produced by molecular

>manufacturing will be free, ask: why are things not free now?

to which you replied

> 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.

The fountain is a small part of a huge water system, including pipes,
tanks, reservoirs, and in some places purification plants and aqueducts.
All of this does cost something. In New York City, the official policy
for a long time was that a civilized city provides water for its people.
There were no water meters. In the 1960's, when the city's budget
fell into disarray, they had second thoughts about free water, and
investigated the possibility of charging for it. They had to weigh the
one-time cost of installing meters all over the city against the
continuing cost of providing free water. I don't know what they finally
decided; I left the city before this issue was resolved.

My point is that everything costs something. This is just a natural fact,
like friction in physics. It isn't going to change just because
manufacturing gets more and more fine-grained. Physical friction may
be reduced almost to zero at some points in the manufacturing process,
but the main cause of economic friction is human inertia and stupidity,
which will always be with us. People seem to assume that we can have
artificial intelligence without also having artificial stupidity. I doubt it.

> Silk is expensive because if the price was any lower then
> the demand would outstrip the supply.

In general, the price of any product is what it is because if it were any
lower then the demand would outstrip the supply (and vice versa).

> The reason diamonds are expensive is that they don't grow on trees,

What if they grew on trees that only grow half a mile underground in
certain geological formations that only occur in a few places in the

A product is expensive when it is (a) difficult to obtain and (b)
perceived as better than the alternatives. Silk is difficult to obtain
because, as you say,

> The silk worm can not reproduce itself in just any simple environment,
> only in a very specific, very complex one.

Exactly. Just like orange trees. Just like anything that grows.
Diamond trees, if they existed, would only grow in certain environments,
and diamonds would still cost something.

Any organism grows in a certain optimal environment, which may or
may not be easy to create. Some organisms will always be easier to
cultivate than others. Some chemical processes will always be easier to
set up than others. This is a general fact that isn't going to change
just because manufacturing becomes more fine-grained, or just because
we learn how to create new organisms. Some products will come from
organisms or processes that push the envelope of what's possible, and
these products will be expensive. There will always be expensive
products side by side with cheap products. We will always have both
designer silk shirts that cost hundreds of dollars, and polyester shirts
that are just as good for most purposes, selling for a few dollars.

Assume we have molecular manufacturing, in the sense that we can
grow (some) products out of diamondoid materials. Nanites assemble
them according to our specifications, like termites building an ant hill
according to the specifications that are wired into them. These nanites
are going to require programming and design, just like any other
fine-grained apparatus. Some programmers and designers will
do their jobs supremely well, and produce masterpieces of
whatever they are making; other programmers and designers will
give less attention to their tasks, and they will produce cheaper, generic
diamondoid products.

The economy will continue to adjust itself so that typical
working people can afford typical mass-market products, and
wealthier people can afford carriage-trade products.

Molecular manufacturing will emerge within the same capitalist
economy that we live in now. Factories will still be factories.
They will require elaborate buildings and millions of dollars' worth of
specialized equipment. They will employ biotechnologists with rare and
expensive skills. Factories will still be owned by investors who want to
get their investment back. They will produce products for the market,
and buy inputs from the market. The managers will still understand the
concept of planned obsolescence.

In other words the advent of molecular manufacturing will merely be
an adjustment within the existing economy. The economy itself won't
cease to exist.

I wrote,

> Now, could anything smaller than the entire economy make
> *anything*?

To which you replied

> Yes, much, much smaller.

A genie machine is equivalent to the economy of a large industrialized

It is true that a genie machine could be smaller than the world economy
(if you are willing to fudge a little and allow imports of rare minerals).
The American economy is a genie machine, to a close approximation.
We can produce just about everything we want, and the few exceptions
that we have to import (VCR's and so forth) could be made in America
if we really wanted to. A somewhat smaller country such as Japan
could make practically anything. But I think that's the lower limit.
I don't think a country as small as Taiwan or Norway could have
an economy complex enough to make anything. In a genie machine
there are a hundred million jobs that need to be done.

So far I have been talking about the size of a genie machine, where
size is measured by complexity -- the number of jobs. What about size
in the sense of spatial extent?

Suppose human beings can be miniaturized. I don't believe this for a
minute, but for the sake of argument let's assume it. Suppose the entire
population of Japan can fit into a volume the size of a beach ball, and
all their tools, factories and infrastructure are also miniaturized to fit
into that volume. Assume further that they can import whatever
materials and energy they need. In that case, would the Japanese
economy still be a genie machine?

In a certain sense, I guess it would. They could still produce an
enormous variety of goods for their own use. They could make
practically "anything", at least on their own scale. Whether they could
produce goods that would be of use to us is another matter.

Could the Japan that actually exists, the macroscopic Japan, produce
something comparable in size to the Japanese islands themselves?
What would induce them to even attempt such a thing?

If the beach-ball Japan is going to be a genie machine from *our*
point of view, not just from their own point of view, they would have to
make objects comparable in size to their own beach ball -- or even
many orders of magnitude larger, if they are literally going to make
"anything." A genie machine has to be able to make ships, airports,
cities -- anything. Asking the beach-ball Japan to make a ship would be
like asking the actual Japan to make something the size of the earth.

A beach-ball Japan would find some niche in the economy. A hundred
million tiny humans could certainly do things that couldn't be done any
other way. They could repair our cells. They could (if they wanted to)
make themselves useful in many ways. But they wouldn't replace
macroscopic industry. They would be an extension of the economy
as it presently exists, not a replacement of it. They would be just
another part of the genie machine, not the whole thing.