The Singularity and Nanotechnology

John K Clark (
Sat, 21 Sep 1996 21:58:51 -0700 (PDT)


On Sat, 21 Sep 1996 From: Lyle Burkhead <> Wrote:

>What's the difference between improving us and improving our
>tools? Aren't tools just extensions of ourselves?

A million years ago a stone ax was one of our best tools, back then if you
were lucky enough to find a freshly killed large animal it made perfect sense
to eat and eat and stuff yourself silly, because it might be a very long time
before you find that much food again. Today our tools are different, we have
things like refrigerators and grocery stores and it's no longer a good idea
to eat as much food as you can shove in your face, but we have not changed so
we do it anyway and get fat.

Solving differential equations is not intrinsically difficult, our primitive
computers are very good at it, lots of people, like me, would love to be able
to solve them in their head in a few seconds, but at the time we evolved that
ability had no survival advantage so people are terrible at it.

>Hands and intelligence evolved together.

Yes, that certainly seems to be true, but I'd love to know the details of why
that is true.

>My point is that everything costs something. This is just a
>natural fact, like friction in physics.

Nobody is saying everything will be free. The price of the things we are
familiar with will never be zero, but it will approach zero asymptotely.

>What if they [diamonds] grew on trees that only grow half a
>mile underground in certain geological formations that only
>occur in a few places in the world?

Then diamonds would still be expensive. Obviously a Nanotechnology machine is
of no use to us if we don't have accesses to it.

>>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.

Nanotechnology would be much less sensitive to the environment than life is,
or anything else we're familiar with, because it's only interested in the
types of atoms in the environment, not how those atoms are put together.
If your business is destroying buildings so you can reuse the bricks it's
really not important what the architectural style of those buildings was.

Of course Nanotechnology wouldn't be totally immune from the environment,
great heat could be a problem, so would radiation if it was huge, like the
center of a working nuclear reactor. I suppose you'd need special precautions
if you wanted to operate in an ocean of liquid fluorine, but beyond that the
environment is not important to Nanotechnology.

>Some products will come from organisms or processes that
>push the envelope of what's possible, and these products
>will be expensive.

Large quantities of rare elements would still be hard to get, but I don't
think they'd be terribly expensive because the demand would not be large.
Not a lot of uses for Californium. By far the most important elements would
be carbon and hydrogen and both are very common. In spite of this I basically
agree with you, some things probably would be expensive, but those luxury
items are things that our puny human brain could no more understand than a
goldfish could understand a nuclear submarine.

>nanites are going to require programming and design


>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.

No. A shoddy design will not be produced, it will never get beyond the
prototype stage. If a superior design exists it will not be easier or cheaper
to use a crummy design. By the way, reverse engineering would be a trivial
task with Nanotechnology.

>They [Factories] will employ biotechnologists with rare and
>expensive skills.

There is only one difference between a man (or a machine) who has skills and
a man who does not, the pattern of atoms arranged in his brain.
Nanotechnology is about changing the way patterns of atoms are arranged.

>The managers will still understand the concept of planned

If you mean there is no point in going to the trouble to make something that
will last longer than you will want to use, then I agree, but that's just
good engineering.

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

Using the words "merely" and "adjustment" in this context reminds me of NASA
calling the explosion on the space shuttle an "energetic disassembly". I am
certain there will be an economy after The Singularity, any system that
obeys the laws of Thermodynamics must have something like a economy, I am
also certain that this economy will evolve over time, History will not stop.
I am certain all these things will exist, but I don't have the slightest
idea of what they will be.

>The American economy is a genie machine, to a close
>approximation. We can produce just about everything we want

Yes, but not in the quantities we want, that's why everybody isn't rich.

>In a genie machine there are a hundred million jobs that
>need to be done.

And a Nanotechnology machine would have thousands of trillions of parts,
per ounce.

>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?

To build something, anything, you need 2 things:

1) The ability to pick up the parts of an object and place them where you
want them, and do it without damaging the parts. It's difficult to move
individual atoms but at least you don't need to worry about damaging them,
unlike a conventional factory that uses complex and fragile parts. Once
you have mastered this admittedly difficult skill you only need one other
thing to make anything.

2) The information on where the parts should go. The spatial extent of the
object is irrelevant.

>A genie machine has to be able to make ships, airports,
>cities -- anything.

As long as a Nanotechnology machine has access to enough raw matter and raw
energy the size of the thing it's building is not important, it's still just
"pick up that atom here and put it over there.

>Asking the beach-ball Japan to make a ship would be like
>asking the actual Japan to make something the size of the

Do the math. Assuming the ball had a volume of one cubic foot and even
assuming it took a full month (to Nanotechnology that's a very long time) for
your beach ball to make a second beach ball, it would only take 6 years to
make something as big as the earth.

John K Clark

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