Molecular manufacturing (MM) will provide spectacular opportunities for humanity’s gain -- and also will pose grave threats. Benefits range from clean energy, clean water, and vastly more productive agriculture, to greatly improved human health and longevity, seamless universal access to high-bandwidth computing, low-cost access to space, and more. But in order to realize all these gains, plans first must be made to contain the dangers.
Molecular manufacturing still is not “on the radar” of many organizations, including businesses, governments, and national militaries. The effects of MM could be extreme, resulting from a sudden dramatic increase in manufacturing capacity, product performance, and ease of new product design. Implications may include severe economic disruption, social chaos, oppressive restrictions, black market trafficking, ubiquitous surveillance, and an accelerated, unstable arms race.
It appears likely that MM will arrive sooner than most organizations expect. Reactions to this may be varied, and perhaps panicked. In order to understand how the effects of MM will play out, CRN would like to know how a variety of organizations might react if they are taken by surprise.
One method for gaining this knowledge is to conduct an old-fashioned survey. In fact, we are currently designing a project to do just that. But another method -- a 21st century approach -- would be to conduct a high-level computer simulation. And that leads us to this fascinating report:
If computers could create a society, what kind of world would they make? Thanks to the work of an ambitious project that adds a whole new meaning to the phrase, ‘computer society’, in which millions of software agents will potentially evolve their own culture, we could be about to find out.
With funding from the European Commission’s Future and Emerging Technologies (FET) initiative of the IST programme, five European research institutes are collaborating on the NEW TIES project to create a thoroughly 21st-century brave new world – one populated by randomly generated software beings, capable of developing their own language and culture.
This kind of social interaction is a tantalising prospect for the artificial intelligence (AI) experts, computer scientists, sociologists and linguists working on NEW TIES. The keyword here is ‘social.’ “While individual (or machine) learning and evolutionary behaviour have been quite well studied, social learning is still an unknown quantity,” says project coordinator Gusz Eiben, an AI professor at the Vrije Universiteit, Amsterdam.
“No one has ever created an engine of this complexity,” says Eiben, adding that it will support about 1,000 agents at first, building up to millions – each one a unique entity with its own characteristics, including gender, life expectancy, fertility, size, and metabolism. The agents will not be labelled, but will have their own distinguishing characteristics to make them recognisable. Their traits will be inherited from their parents, and passed on to their offspring, but they will be able to learn from their own experiences and from each other.
“It’s a given of the NEW TIES project that we are not hardwiring agents,” says Eiben. “We are not programming how they behave. Each entity has its own ‘controller,’ analogous to a brain. And because we want to create an interesting controller, we have to produce a challenging world – otherwise there would be no impetus for development. So, in one scenario, we have created a world with seasons – so that the agents have to learn to find, transport and store food. And there are two rival groups, so they will have to learn to tell friend from foe.”
As computer processing power continues to grow exponentially, simulations of much greater complexity and far finer detail will become possible. It's not yet clear how soon we'll be able to use this method to answer difficult questions and design practical solutions, but it certainly bears watching.
And, who knows? As David Brin suggests in this story, there may be some surprises in store as we use simulations to discover the future.
Or, as Nick Bostrom wonders, who's simming who?