SCI and ECON Nanotech

Lyle Burkhead (
Mon, 23 Sep 1996 04:43:11 -0500 (EST)

Project: I'm going to dig a tunnel and lay a pipeline (or grow a tunnel
with a pipeline in it) from my back yard to the Saudi Arabian oil field,
and pump the oil out. This would seem to be beyond the capability of
an individual.

But suppose I have at my command the Bechtel Corporation, IBM,
Genentech, and Exxon. I call the CEOs of these corporations into my
office, and tell them: "I am going to lay a pipeline to Saudi Arabia,
as described in this spec." At this point I pass out copies of the spec to
each member of the group. They read it attentively, then look back up
at me. I continue: "Have a meeting among yourselves this afternoon
to plan the work and assign specific tasks to each company. Apply
all your resources to this task, and have the pipeline completed by the
end of next year." They nod obediently.

The four CEOs have the meeting, as instructed, then go back to their
respective companies, and start organizing themselves for their new
task. They may have to do a certain amount of retooling and retraining,
since in the past they have worked on other things besides tunnels.
Bechtel and Exxon take the lead in this enterprise, since their line of
work is the closest to laying pipe and pumping oil. Even they have to
do a certain amount of retooling and retraining. The other companies
have to completely reorient themselves. IBM abandons all work on
new system software, and reassigns their programmers to write software
for the pipeline project. They also relocate the company headquarters
to Los Angeles. Genentech contributes its expertise in biotechnology;
it too has to abandon other projects to work on the pipeline.

All the companies throw themselves into this task a hundred percent,
and they do in fact have the pipeline completed on schedule.

Do you see anything implausible in this scenario?

Now, suppose there are mite-sized humans (or mite-sized robots with
human intelligence). There is a one-to-one correspondence between the
mite-people and the employees of the corporations discussed above.
They have the same capability, on their level, that IBM, Exxon, etc.
have on our level. They have equivalent tools, the same ability to
acquire or invent new tools, similar computers, the same access to
outside consultants and subcontractors, the same corporate organization,
everything. They are clones of IBM, Exxon, Bechtel, and Genentech.

Let's go through the same scenario again, except this time I am not
addressing CEOs of my own size, I am addressing mite-sized CEOs.
I give them the same instructions as above, in the same peremptory
tone, with the same result. (In this case Genentech and IBM may play a
more prominent role than they did in scenario #1.)

Is scenario #2 more plausible than #1? Why? Why would a mite-sized
Exxon take orders from me, when the actual Exxon wouldn't?

If they were even smaller than mite-size, would that make it any more

Let's define a Genie as an entity with at-least-human intelligence and
sensorimotor ability, who works for free. (This is distinguished from a
genie machine, which is defined as an entity that can make whatever
it is told to make. A Genie is not necessarily a genie machine, and vice

Nanotechnologists assume that Genies will exist. That's what
distinguishes Drexlerian Nanotechnology from ordinary technology.
Size isn't really the point here. Drexler's "dizzying prospect"
doesn't depend on moving atoms one by one -- that's a red herring.
What makes the prospect dizzying is the idea that entities with
at-least-human intelligence will do our bidding.

Without Genies, the ability to move atoms individually is just an
extension of present-day technology, not dizzying at all.
Molecular manufacturing without Genies is just agribusiness.

There are no Genies and never will be. I'm not saying AI will never
exist. What I'm saying is that it doesn't matter: any entity with
at-least-human intelligence (artificial or not) won't work for free.

Therefore Strong Nanotechnology will not exist. By Strong Nanotech,
I mean for example the scenario described by Rich Artym:

> Just to bring it really home, if a person can program a nanosystem
> to create (say) a saltwater pipeline which extends itself a short distance
> into the rock under his property, he or she can in principle
> create a pipeline extending into the nearest ocean, WITHOUT
> requiring any extra capital or manpower or any other resources.
> Such power in the hands of everyman completely destroys
> the basis of our current economy, which is founded on the maxim
> that it is more or less impossible for any single person to do
> anything major in a material sense by him/herself, needing to
> *purchase* everything, which keeps the economy rolling and
> allows governments to reel in taxes.

Consider the expression "program a nanosystem." This is equivalent to
giving orders to the CEO of Bechtel, and having him jump at your
command. In other words, to "program a nanosystem" is to give orders
to a Genie. This is not going to happen. I'm not saying that
nanosystems will not exist, nor that they will not be able to create
pipelines. I'm saying that a nanosystem (or any system) capable of
creating a pipeline will contain many human-level intelligences,
and they will not be at your command. Not unless you pay them.