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« Worse Than Gray Goo | Main | European Parliament & Nanotechnology »

February 24, 2004


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Mr. Farlops

In other words we are damned if we do and damned if we don't.

Even if we make the benefits of MNT ubiquitous and most everyone on the planet has a high standard of living, some malcontents will always remain. Ironically MNT will grant these malcontents such power that they really don't have to recruit people to their causes or raise as much money as they used to.

So what do we do? Install minders that put people to sleep if they engage in crimethink?

Or do we just install blue goo and accept that there will occasionally be disasters that we'll have to clean up?

Seems to me that the second solution is the better solution. People are not going to stop building skyscrapers just because malcontents drive airplanes into them.

Maybe another solution is to scale things up and colonize space. This way if something terrible happens to civilization on Earth, human culture will still survive.

Janessa Ravenwood

I second both of your solutions.

jim moore

Monitoring people is much easier than blue goo. You don't need to read people's thoughts, you watch peoples's behavior, looking for some group or some one that is developing something harmful. Worst case ( from a technical point of view) you need to monitor the activities of 8-9 billion people. Its a big job, but much easier than monitoring every square meter of the planet for an outbreak of gray goo.

As far as colonizing space, I would love to but I see the problem of building and maintaining self-sustaining ecosystems in space as a difficult hurdle. How many years will be needed after nanofacories are developed before you can get a house at L-5?

Chris Phoenix, CRN

Jim: I don't think colonizing space would need a self-sustaining ecosystem. There aren't that many chemicals required to nourish a person. A combination of mechanochemistry and lab-on-chip should enable compact and efficient synthesis of all of them from CO2 and other metabolic byproducts. Nanomedicine would be able to tell you if you were missing any previously-unknown vitamins.

Of course, you'd need a supply of all raw materials, including trace minerals. You can't make something from nothing, or transmute elements. And if you wanted animals or plants along, you'd have to do the research to find what vitamins/fertilizers each species needed, and learn to synthesize them.

With the ability to build millions of custom nanofluidic systems and test them in parallel, and then scale up the most successful one simply by building lots of copies, I don't expect it would be *too* hard to develop fabrication capabilities for organic chemicals.


Mr. Farlops

Well, I was speaking in the longest terms here when I mentioned blue goo and space colonization.

But in the short term there are policing technologies far short of blue goo that can serve us. In fact most of what we have now or will have soon is probably sufficient.

But police agencies often don't suffer for lack of tools, tech or laws, they suffer most often from lack of staff. This is usually the one thing most governments seem unwilling to pay for. It's always cheaper to grant the FBI dictatorial power, have alienated police patrol huge urban areas in squad cars, or invade citizen's privacy than to just hire more agents to work the problems, bike the beats, interpret the data and solve the crimes.

And even still, I think we're going to have to accept that some disasters will eventually surprise us. I don't like that any more than anyone does but, there is no such thing as riskless. We can change the laws, we can give police new tools and we can hire more staff and the world will be mostly safe but, never say never.

I am not saying do nothing. Of course we must be always be vigilant, laws must be reformed, techniques must change, society most adapt and so on. I'm just saying that we can never reduce risk to zero.

It's a risky road we are on, a road we seem unwilling to give up (Otherwise we would have returned to the savannah in disgust soon after nuclear weapons became possible. I don't see anybody burying their cars, do you?) but, it was always a risky road ever since we invented agriculture.

As far as the space colonization is concerned, it's a long term solution to save civilization from nanoweapons (And comet strikes, solar failure, monocultures, etc.).

But this is all mostly obvious and I'm preaching to the converted.

Mike Deering

I think you exaggerate the risks of molecular manufacturing. There are no restrictions on availability of biotechnology and yet we haven't had the designer plague forecasted by doomsayers. While nanotech weapons will be more powerful than biotech weapons they will also be very technically challenging to design. It is much easier to design useful stuff than harmful stuff with nanotech. There are risks but I think restricting molecular manufacturing technology is the wrong answer. For one thing it prevents the open source community from collaborating on technological solutions. We need an active defensive system managed by the private sector similar to the one used to keep computer viruses from destroying society. The government's role should be limited to enforcement in cases where actual damage has occurred. The technology and the safety measures should be in the hands of the private citizen. If the government has sole control of molecular manufacturing the inevitable result will be a totalitarian state. No government, not ours, not even a good government, can be trusted with this kind of power. Power is meant to be abused. Read Machiavelli. The founders of the United States knew this and put in place limits on government power, checks and balances. One of the limits they established is the right of private citizens to bare arms, which were the ultimate weapons of their time. It started out as "well regulated militias" but has evolved into private ownership of firearms. This is a credible check on the power of the government. Nanotechnology upsets this balance. If the government prohibits personal molecular manufacturing technology it will result in the continued dependence of the citizenry on the current centralized economy. I don't care how cheap you make products, if I still have to go to work to make money to buy necessities from big corporations who own the politicians that run the government, this is not acceptable. Any country with a government who restricts the capability of personal molecular manufacturing, I must declare my independence from. I can envision the establishment of a new sovereignty, The United Persons of Free Space Colony (UP for short). We will take what lessons have been learned in this greatest yet experiment in freedom, the U.S., build on it's strengths and correct it's errors. I see a constitutionally limited government with a Bill of Rights that truly guarantees the freedom of action to the individual until that freedom harms another person. Of course, the current power structures cannot abide the existence of an independent nanotech/biotech/AI capability outside of their control, so there is a war coming, a war of freedom and independence.

Chris Phoenix, CRN

Mike, we have not had a biotech plague, but we have had plenty of computer plagues. Biotech is hard to do; molecular manufacturing could be as easy as copying a file.

I agree with you that the open source community should be able to develop molecular manufacturing designs. If you read our "Systems" paper you'll see that.
Don't make assumptions based on Janessa's claims that CRN wants a Big Brother system, a world government, or whatever. She does not speak for us.

It seems to me that some limits will be necessary. And that a pre-positioned system will probably be better than one that emerges randomly. We have made some preliminary suggestions as to how limits could be implemented and some aspects of system design. Please read what we've written before you assume that we intend for all products to be purchased from the Powers That Be; that is not our intention.


Chris Phoenix, CRN

Mr. Farlops: Please say more about these policing technologies. What kinds of malcontents can (and can't) they discover or deter? For example, would more community-integrated police have been able to prevent Columbine?

And how do you police sub-populations that simply do not like governmental authority?


Brett Bellmore

In the case of nanotech, the problem wouldn't be copying the file, it would be designing the file. While there's no question but that nanotech could be used to create weapons of terrifying power and sophistication, a huge amount of design work would have to go into them, compared to authoring computer viruses. Until we've got fantasticly sophisticated design tools, almost sentient in their own right, the lone madman isn't going to be the threat, design teams recruited by governments and possibly international organizations are.

In fact, the greater threat actually IS computer viruses. A viral infection of my computer might destroy some data, maybe run up my phone bill, but a nanofactory could be driven by a virus to pump out virulent toxins, or accumulate explosive chemicals. Whatever system is used for distributing designs is going to have to be hugely more secure against hackers than normal computers.

Mr. Farlops


Actually I have nothing much to offer.

But maybe instead of malcontents we should be looking for the tools they might use. Spotting someone like the Unabomber, the perfect example of a malcontent in a affluent and stable society, was very, very hard until he sent his manifesto to the NYT. But spotting the tools might be easier.

Perhaps we should think along the lines of something like the highway detectors they are putting in place to track suspicious radiation. Another example would be taggants in fertilizers, gunpowder and other potential explosives.

There may be some privacy problems with taggants (In ways related to RFIDs) but the radiation detectors violate no-one's privacy. They just scan for radiation signatures (I mean really, what reason could possibly justify an individual owning a nuclear weapon or dirty bomb?). If your truck comes up positive, the cops are going to want to talk to you. This is all within the realm of current technology.

They are developing ways to track biological and chemical poisons too.

Using profiles to find malcontents has always been faulty, just ask any respectible African American doctor or engineer who has been pulled over because the police had "a bad feeling about him." Bruce Schneider (Mr. Counterpane himself.) says verifying ID cards will not deter terrorism. There is something to be said for community policing (Neighbors will notice if someone starts building a tank or a cruise missile in their back yard and alert the police.), hence my rather wistful rant about it, but I doubt people in the States will go for it.

Maybe a lot of it depends on culture. In Japan and the UK, the cliche goes, they are more willing to accept a very common presence of police mothering their affairs. I've read in Japan it's not uncommon for police to wander the streets of neighborhoods (That they've been in for years.) and chide homeowners to lock their windows. There are probably very similar stories in the UK. In the States this would be viewed as incredibly patronizing.

Sigh. As I said, I really don't have anything to offer. I just read the Web and see that there is a lot of activity going in these areas now and this gives me some cause for hope.

Brett Bellmore

"(I mean really, what reason could possibly justify an individual owning a nuclear weapon or dirty bomb?)"

Well, some of us might just have hobbies whose existance you're unaware of. Such as building fusion reactors in our basements.

Janessa Ravenwood

Yeah, I know. I'd hate to give up that antimatter pulse drive in my basement as well. :-)

Brett Bellmore

Hey, follow the link, this is no joke. Some people DO build fusion reactors in their basements. Too bad nobody has managed to achieve breakeven with one... Producing enough radiation to give somebody a really bad day, though, THAT does get done.

Janessa Ravenwood

Holy moly! I thought you were kidding!

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