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« Nanotechnology Progress | Main | Living Off-Grid »

August 31, 2004


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Mike Deering

Chris, I think your article on living off-grid is terrific! If you had time (clone yourself) you should expand this into a book with much more detailed plans options.

Chris Phoenix, CRN

Thanks, Mike!

I think the detailed plans for products will have to come after the detailed plans for mechanosynthesis and nanofactories. For now, we'll just have to look at basic capabilities.

And, as I find myself saying in so many different contexts, the real problem is policy. Will people be allowed to move to even the most unwanted land (or the most remote ocean) and live off-grid and self-sufficiently? Or will the owners and the Powers That Be keep everyone bottled up in the Old World Order?

Or will policy failures cause even bigger problems before we can reach that stage?

By the way, if one were to write a book, one could write very useful chapters on ocean living and outer-space living. But the current environmental mindset would not appreciate large-scale ocean living. And space living sounds too futuristic--and anyway I suspect the practicalities of deep space generally favor piracy, whereas the practicalities of on-planet living generally don't.


Karl Gallagher

Lots of people are off the grid now without the government getting upset. The Amish are very unplugged and don't get hassled. Okay, the Unabomber got hassled but that wasn't because he was in the isolated cabin. I think as long as you legally buy your land nobody's going to complain about you not using electricity, internet, etc.

Chris Phoenix, CRN

You're right that the Amish aren't hassled, and that's a hopeful note. But note that in America, religions are protected, while cults are hassled. Imagine the response to a cult that denied routine medical care to their children! But Christian Scientists do just that. What if being off-grid meant that you didn't have the most up-to-date medical care?

Or what if off-grid ownership of nanofactories made the government nervous? The whole movement might be defeated before it started.

And what about the millions of people too poor to buy land and pay taxes on it? The best solution under the current system would be for some charity to buy land and give it to them. That might even work...? except for the taxes...? But my impression is that in many countries today, large amounts of potentially-productive land are owned by people who won't let others move in and use it. Would molecular manufacturing make enough difference in the economics of land ownership?


Mike Deering

Piracy!? I don't think so. Continuous video feeds beamed at the speed of light to three of your neighbors should insure that any pirates are caught. Pirates are motivated by greed like everyone else. Why go to the trouble and risk of piracy when you have your own nanofactories and asteroids are free? Besides, you have no idea what technology the targets have. They could be armed to the teeth with weapons you've never even thought of. The unknowns after MM are going to be huge. A rational risk/benefit analysis shows piracy to be dumb choice. Dumb people don't live long in space, even with MM.

Brett Bellmore

"But note that in America, religions are protected, while cults are hassled."

Tautology alert! "Cults" are just what you call religions you intend to hassle.

Wes Du Charme

Bumper sticker wisdom, "A cult is a religion with fewer members."

Brett Bellmore

Piracy is unlikely, IMO:

1. The settlements are going to have strategic advantages over any pirates, who have to bring their resources across substantial distances to attack somebody at their home. Which is why pirates, historically, tended to attack ships in transit.

2. Vacuum is transparent. This somewhat reduces the element of suprise available to the pirates, who can't show up unexpected. Asteriods aren't transparent, so the pirates have no way of knowing what is under all that rubble. And unless it has to be on the surface, it WILL be buried under rubble, for protection against radiation and meteors.

3. The settlements, most likely, have to only survive one attack. The pirates, in order to be successful, must prevail in one attack after another, without fail.

4. Settlements can resort to doomsday weaponry, assuring that even victorious pirates do not profit.

5. The pacifistic have the option of fleeing to someplace beyond the reach of the pirates. Since they can concentrate on speed, while the pirates must also have weaponry, they can travel faster.

Nanotech enabled space colonization will have it's own forms of conflict, such as efforts to stop some people from taking control of arbitrarilly large resource bases by use of self-reproducing hardware, but piracy probably won't be one of them.

Chris Phoenix, CRN

It's easy to say that asteroids are free, but they require reaction mass and/or time to get to. Whatever's "closest" will be most valuable.

To a first approximation, everything in space is a "ship in transit."

The video feed idea only works if the attacking pirates are large and labeled. The attack could be small and anonymous. The robot disables the victim, then moves it to a point in space. If no one has noticed, the pirates show up and collect it. Or, a smarter robot beams out a forged message saying "Hi, I'm going to visit my new friends and political allies, the Citizen's Democratic Space Alliance. I hereby revoke all docking rights." And then flies the victim in plain view to attach itself to the pirate ship. If the attack doesn't work, you're out one small anonymous robot.

Any detailed scenario is silly. My point is that mass is likely to be scarce in space, either at the bottom of gravity wells or on the other end of a costly voyage. There will be strong incentive to steal it. To borrow a phrase from Jurassic Park, "Human nature will find a way." And space is big, making law enforcement costly and monitoring difficult.

This needs more study. But preliminary thought indicates that simple local measures won't keep you safe, and centralized enforcement will be hamstrung by distance and uncertainty, and failed attacks won't be very costly for the pirates.

BTW, about burrowing in asteroids to avoid radiation: I haven't run the numbers, but fault-tolerant design and efficient recycling can handle quite a lot of radiation. I calculated once that nanomachinery could sort century-old radioactive waste at quite low cost. So anyone who's being efficient with their mass won't be protected by inert rock; they'll have built the rock into silica nanocomputers. Not that that changes much, but it's interesting.


Brett Bellmore

There's a certain value to mass being close by, but there's also substantial value, depending on how friendly you expect your neighbors to be, to the mass you colonize NOT being close by.

Of course, if you're thinking purely solar power, you want a mass that's comparatively close to the sun. If fusion is a realistic option, then your options widen considerably.

I'm expecting a significant number of people to try to get out ahead of the wave of expansion by traveling light and fast, as the further you get ahead of everyone else, the more resources you're able to invest before competition arrives. Accordingly, there will be a substantial premium on speed.

Different incentives apply within the settled volume, of course.

Mike Deering

If you agree than it is impractical for a large pirate ship to attack a much larger established base due to detection, notification of allies, and active defenses of unknown design and capabilities but with certainly more power and material resources, then reducing the size of the attacking ship does not help your argument. There is no threshold below which detection is impractical with nanotechnology. The most sophisticated version of your approach would be nanite attack. Exactly the same fundamental relationships apply to nanite attack on Earth as in space. If you are vulnerable to nanite attack in space the same applies to you on Earth in the middle of the biggest city. Fortunately, defense beats offense in this and all other scenarios. Defense against nanite attack, or any attack for that matter, consists of a physical barrier designed to stop or slow the invading device, advance or in progress detection of attack and notification of allies and central resources, active defense capability advanced deployed at all points on barrier. Nanotechnology makes it practical surveillance down to the molecular level over the whole surface of the barrier. Nano-electronics makes notification of attack possible from the molecular level. Nano-machinery makes active defense capability available throughout the barrier. Exactly the same defensive measures developed for nanite attack on terrestrial installations or persons will work in space.

Mike Deering

"Of course, if you're thinking purely solar power, you want a mass that's comparatively close to the sun."

So you are saying that Mercury is going to be a hot property. Solar panels on the eternal dayside, habitation on the nightside or subterranean.

Brett Bellmore

The serious catch is, in that kind of defense scenario you can't leave any significant amount of matter lying around unguarded. Settle down on an asteroid, you HAVE to convert it's entire surface to nanomachinery, for all that you don't have to go very deep. Or else one replicator landing on an unconverted surface will multiply using local resources, and potentially be a real threat by the time you detect it.

The same goes for back on Earth... Any rock, tree, household pet, left completely in a state of nature, is a potential staging ground for an attack. So, ultimately, the key to defense is preemptively converting everything around you to nanomachinery YOU control.

Brett Bellmore

No, Mercury wouldn't be such hot property. (Setting aside the fact that Mercury doesn't have the same side facing the sun all the time; They just thought it did for a while because it was in a resonance with the Earth such that it has the same side facing the sun every time it was in a good position to take a look at.) The side that's iluminated lacks a decent heat sink. Ideally you want a smaller body, such that you can use the illuminated side for power, and the very close by dark side for heat rejection.

An asteriod in one of Mercury's Trojan points would be a hot property, though.

Of course, you could do well on Mercury by using the ground as a heat sink, since it DOES rotate; You could run a heat engine between the surface and interior, first one way then the other, except for that brief period near sunrise/sunset when they're the same temperature. But this wouldn't be nearly as efficient as being able to run a continuous setup on a small body.

Chris Phoenix, CRN

I'm not sure I agree that it's impractical for a relatively small weapon to do serious damage to a relatively large target, especially a target consisting of a shell surrounding a soft interior. You only have to heat a very small volume of the shell enough to vaporize or plasma-ize it. There are lots of ways of delivering concentrated energy. Even with chemical-vs-chemical energy, armor has to be vastly heavier than the projectile it's blocking, because you don't know where the projectile will hit!

On earth there's enough mass lying around to use a lot of inert mass for passive defense--or maybe even for hiding (e.g. underwater). In space, passive-mass defenses are a definite lose. So you have to actively defend... against a relativistic neutral particle beam shot from light-seconds away by something that can afford to accelerate faster than you can?

Looks to me like the best strategy is to disperse your functionality as much as you can within your structure, with plenty of backups, and physically disperse at the first hint of an attack. Makes you harder to track, harder to hit, and a less attractive resource. Of course anything as big as a human will be worth disabling and picking up.

I'm not at all sure that defense wins on earth either, by the way. Law enforcement might be possible if there's a sufficient asymmetry in technology and resources. And earth is small enough to enable detection and improve accountability. But there are so many kinds of attacks that it'll be really hard to defend against all of them, while the attacker can pick any one attack to concentrate on.


Brett Bellmore

You don't really have to make attacking impossible to prevent piracy. Piracy is a form of business, you just have to make it [i]uneconomic[/i] to stop it. Will there be some remaining background level of violence? Sure.

Mike Treder, CRN

Brett, use < > for HTML code, instead of [ ].

Brett Bellmore

Right. Too bad boards don't agree about which to use.


I was giveing some thought to the myriad of possible weapons systems and one keeps rising to the top. The use of robotics as weapons systems seems to be a given as the future unfolds. In the case of MNT A. interesting scenario comes to mind where a large replicator is carried inside of a robot whether it be a attack or defense unit. Given a replicator that can produce 6000 pounds of product per two-hour cycle we see a situation where in one hour it produces 3000 pounds this works out to 50 pounds per minute and 13.33 ounces per second. From the standpoint of firepower we see a situation where this particular unit could fire a 13 oz. projectile every second of every minute of every day given it has a power supply or fire 13 - 1 oz. projectile every second of every day. This is very interesting from the defense standpoint we see a situation where a group of robots standing defense would be able to maintain fire indefinitely.

Just a small thought :)

Tom Craver

The asteroid will presumably have a major edge in mass - else why is the pirate bothering them? So a decent defensive strategy might be to convert some of that mass into a large defensive cloud. Anything coming in at much less than the speed of light can be attacked.

Beam or other relativistic attacks might be shielded against with multiple fast-rotating shells (or one with really thick polar caps) - large enough to make the location of high value targets inside highly uncertain. Also immediately launch a fast moving counter attack wave in a cone surrounding the beam, wide enough to make it unlikely that the source will escape. (Even if you only get the pirate's remote beam platform, he's lost mass, you've gained mass. You win.)

Asteroid settlements also can have another major advantage over pirates - cooperation. Share defensive cloud mass, while still staying separate. Mutual defensive retaliation agreements may make sense - attack one, you get attacked by all in return.

Also worth considering - who will the pirates be? I'd guess that the pirates might be desperate people - looking for easy targets or one big gamble to win enough mass to settle on. The former are easy enough to defend against, the latter won't last more than one attack - either they win and settle, or they lose - either way, no more pirate. If they are stealing mass and "selling it", who is buying, and what are they paying that is worth more than the mass to the pirates?

Chris Phoenix, CRN

Brett, I agree piracy will be a problem only as long as it is economical to do so. That's what started this whole discussion! If I want mass, is it cheaper overall to buy and lift it from a planet, or fly to the Oort cloud, or steal it from someone else? Unless 1) there's a good way of tracking robot attackers back to their owners, or 2) the attack/defense effort balance and the reliability of defense are both significantly better than I think they are, it looks like piracy may be attractive.

Tom, a cone of *anything* light-seconds long will be extremely costly. Even photons. Mutual retaliation only works if you know who your attacker is. And no one in space will be truly desperate--closed-loop recycling will keep you going indefinitely, and advanced propulsion will get you anywhere. Pirates will be people who want *more* mass--to build more of themselves or their computers, to fly around faster or farther, or simply to sell. Brett is right--it's about economics.


Brett Bellmore

I think we disagree about the comparative ease of obtaining mass by theft vs travel, and the consequences of obtaining it by theft in an enviroment where anybody with a decent telescope can see what you're doing, and where you're going. Talk about a "transparent society"; You can't get much more transparent than vaccum.

In one of L. Neil Smith's books, "The Venus Belt", a company is formed to blow up Venus, so as to create another asteroid belt closer to the sun. Because, after all, all that mass is pretty useless when it's in the form of a planet. I suspect it will happen, if not to Venus, which might be terraformed, at least to Mercury.

John B

Targets for piracy:
- Mass
- Rare materials
- Data, specifically including templates for nanofacture
- Tools/weapons
- Trade goods, either electronic or physical
- Energy stores
- Luxuries
(admittedly, some of these categories overlap)

Now, several of these are easy to deny to an attacker with a little forethought and some properly cautious but paranoid planning - a demolition charge over your databank, perhaps, or a way to melt down your reactor core or crack your capacitors. (Just be careful not to trigger your final defense(s) with false-positives!)

So, it's more than just mass that the hypothetical 'bad guys' can use from a settlement. Which ups the reasons why they might want to wreck havoc upon the settlers.

Additionally, who would pay for mass? I expect that corporations will continue their cost-cutting ways. In which case, if a pirate may have less overhead than a miner (debatable) the pirate can undercut the miners and still make a profit.

Or, more likely, technology will be available to work some materials better than others - carbon, silicon, oxygen, etc are going to be more valuable than other materials for this reason. Thus, those with low stocks of such materials will feel a pinch on their capabilities - and may decide to help themselves to other materials.

Or (less likely but still possibly) technology will require relatively scarce 'trace elements' - Merkle's "vitamins" for his hydrocarbon suggestion, for one possible.


Brett Bellmore

All this assumes that you can not only successfully attack somebody, but that having attacked them, you can then make off with something of their's, without losing more than you gain from the victim's defenses, or subsequent acts of vengence.

The attack part is quite plausible. A directed energy weapon, or kinetic weapon, could inflict quite severe damage without any warning, from a safe distance, and if done carefully couldn't be traced back to the source.

But then comes the "making off with" part, and that's where you lose me. As I say, space IS transparent. So you blow loose a hunk of somebody's homestead, you're going to be SEEN collecting it, and they're going to SEE where you go with it. And maybe next week a few ounces of antimatter arrive on your doorstep from the settlers' collective defense association.

Assuming that your victim, having survived or having emplaced some kind of doomsday weapon, doesn't destroy your loot before you can collect it. Aw, too bad, the boulder you knocked loose just got vaporized/had a nuclear bomb hidden inside it. It's just not your day.

Suicidal defenses make a great deal of sense, in an enviroment where the prey vastly outnumbers the predators, because they subject the prey to a minute chance of death, and the predator to a very high chance. And the preditor has to attack repeatedly, multipling it's risks.

Now, what you might see are protection rackets. Given the potential for devastating, deniable attacks. But almost certainly not piracy.

Tom Craver


By "cone" I was describing the spatial/temporal shape of the maneuver needed to maximize the chance of locating the attacker before it can escape - or at least a significant piece of the attacker's mass. Not a physical cone. A large number of microcraft would be launched in a non-contiguous expanding ring formation (i.e the cone). These tiny microcraft would locate the aggressor and track it for a follow-up counter-attack.

The easiest way to find who to retaliate against is to "follow the mass". If the pirates try to frame someone by directing the mass to someone else, the victims of the frame-up need only return the mass to avoid retaliation. A cloud of cooperating (but otherwise independent) asteroid communities could take turns patrolling the periphery of the cloud, with those in the interior being relatively safer.

Note that we'll NEVER eliminate all potential for crime - but with enough safeguards it can be held to a tolerable level. After all, one could probably get into most houses with a chainsaw or jackhammer - but that doesn't mean there's no point in locking the door when one goes out.

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