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« Personal Electronics Convergence | Main | Human Nature, Part 3 »

July 07, 2006


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James Green

Don't worry guys...no human will ever lay a finger on a fully operational nanofactory.

Why would we let them?

Chris Phoenix, CRN

Who is "we" who won't let any human touch a nanofactory? And how is "we" going to stop it? It'd take a lot of oppression and wasted opportunity to keep nanofactories out of people's hands forever.


James Green

It's highly likely that genetic enhancements, ones that will significantly increase intelligence, will come before nanofactories.

I've yet to see one scrap of evidence that humans are intelligent enough to build AND program a machine system so complex as to be on the order of a living creature!

Nanofactories will be built by genetically (intelligence) enhanced persons...not humans.

I said "we" because I will be genetically enhanced (and you too, I hope); it will be my genetically enhanced brothers and sisters who will build and program the first nanofactory. We will not be a small group of elites either; rapid uptake will ensure that our numbers reach well into the millions in just a few years.

Only we will be able to materialize and manage this "wish box". To suggest that any group of humans, however talented, would ever be able to manage such a device, much less a vast distributed network of them, is patently absurd!

It's highly unlikely that humans will ever know about the "wish box" -- why, in the name of Richard Feyman, would we ever tell them about it? -- but they will most definitely feel the effects; a sudden increase in world wide prosperity, the eradication of hunger, etc.

Chris Phoenix, CRN

Well, I've seen no evidence at all that nanofactories have to be anywhere near as complex as a living system. I expect them to be less complex than a modern Pentium.

Intelligence is necessary, but not sufficient, to deal responsibly with nanofactories. I hope transhuman levels of intelligence are not necessary. Because I think we'll get nanofactories before we figure out how to improve our brains that much.


Paul Nurse

As far as I can tell the only tricky part of making a NF is creating the first assembler after that its purely an engineering problem and not a particularly tricky one at that. The first NF doesn't have to be efficient or elegant, it just has to work after that things will snowball very, very quickly.

Getting the person with the first NF to share ... now that's another story altogether.

James Green

I hope "transhuman" levels of intelligence are necessary to acheive MM. The thought of human leaders, like the ones we now suffer, getting thier filthy mits on a nanofactory absolutely terrifies me!

If, by some curse, humans do acheive MM systems...I prophesy a very dark age for mankind; an unbreakable totalitarian nightmare that would make Orwells' 1984 seem like a pleasant lucid dream.

There are innumerable examples, sprinkled throughout human history, of massive abuses of even small levels of power. Indeed, I believe it's a psycological law governing human (genetics) behavior.

"Power tends to corrupt; absolute power corrupts absolutely" - Lord Acton

...but somehow you think that it'll be different this time?

Dan S

No chance that "genetic brain enhancements" will arrive before MM. We still don't understand how human brain works after all. Little chance such modifications can work for adults. Anyway no one going to distribute such a thing freely - these with power would probably decide to keep it for private use.

John B

Paul -

The tricky part is making the first assembler that can make all the parts it takes to make another assembler. We already have assemblers, but they require a room's worth of gear that cannot be directly replicated by the assembler itself. Various forms of DNA are examples of this.

And yeah, getting the first nanofactory 'shared' is going to be a non-trivial problem. *wry grin*


James Green

@Paul, Dan and John: Thanks for joining in guys! Let me make my position a little clearer. First of all let me say that I do believe humans could, over the next 20-30 years, cobble together a primitive nanofactory -like device; one that could build simple objects like forks or circuit boards (minus the processors) or lacy thong panties. Programming this creature and making it work will be another matter all together!

This, I think, is where we'll run into some major problems. The reason I feel this is true is because a computer program capable of breathing life into that thing would have to be vastly more complex than anything we can comprehend of right now; hundreds of millions - billions even - of lines of well crafted, very highly polished code! Hehe, good luck on that fellas!

That said, if I see that a high functioning debugging-AI has been invented, before 2020 , I will immediately reverse my position ...and begin building my underground bunker that very day!

Even now, as I peck out these few words, the world teeters, perilously, on the brink of WW III; one miscalculation and it's game over guys! It's perfectly clear to me that human beings will never ever be able to handle the kinds of power that the NBIC technologies will bring them.

Therefore it is absolutely a moralimperative that we accelerate the development of genetic enhancements and, through the dissemination of the appropriate memes, the corollary market.

It's time to drop the fantasies of being the stalwart, lantern-holding, vanguard and understand that no one will never stand in the way of those who seek these technologies for purposes of bloodthirsty world domination.

"Death solves all problems...no man, no problem." Joseph Stalin

John B

given that we have such software out there as LDraw I really do not think that a nanoblock system will be hard to use once the nanoblocks are available.

And *if* NanoEngineer-1 from NanoRex is up to its pre-press buzz, it MAY be useful for other nano-system designs, possibly including the design of novel nanoblocks. (Which could rather muck up part of the security posture of nanoblocks before the starting line is even in sight...)

We'll see, won't we? *grin*


James Green

@Dan: Actually Dan there are several pharmaceutical companies that have cogniceuticals in phase III (final) clinical trials. Check out saegispharma.com and memorypharma.com to learn more.

These cogniceuticals will significantly enhance memory and cognition of those suffering with Alzheimer’s...but that won't stop college kids, or me and you for that matter, from taking them to enhance our cognitive abilities. No need to reverse engineer the brain to make people smarter. It's all about the genes and the proteins they produce.

One of the most exciting developments in the past few years has been area of High-Throughput DNA Sequencing and Genotyping. With these techniques researchers can compare the DNA samples of thousands of people simultaneously; enabling them to check for commonalities at the genetic level. Take a group of geniuses and compare their DNA against a control group of non-geniuses and see which genes are on (or off)in the genius group; this gives you a pretty good idea which genes (and very soon now, which proteins) are involved in the expression of high intelligence.

So, long-story-short, we already know which genes are involved in the expression of high intelligence, memory and many other desirable traits. We also have the technological know-how to turn individual genes on and off. Check out Sangamo BioSciences at www.sangamo.com to learn more.

The Human Proteome Folding project has already moved into phase2. Understanding how and why proteins fold will eventually give us the ability to eradicate ALL physical afflictions and enhance our abilities even more. If you would like to help in The Human Proteome Folding project go to worldcommunitygrid.org and join the distributed computing project.

It is widely believed by many members of the International Olympic Committee that the Chinese will have genetically enhanced athletes in the 2008 summer games. The only way to check for this is to do a muscle biopsy...that ain't gonna happen. Please see this article to find out more...

I believe that both Russia and China have had highly advanced and thriving genetic enhancement programs for some time now.

Time will tell.

James Green

@ John: The software you cite is for 3D modeling - good for designing a nanofactory, but useless as a nanofactory operating system.

John B

Assuming I can design a nanofactory, that would involve designing the computing portion of the device as well. If the computing portion is hardwired logic (as it probably should be, for numerous reasons), then I've designed both the physical portions and the operating system.


Paul Nurse

It would be rather easy to develop a basic operating system for a nanofactory. Sure it might look complex with millions of operations happening in parellel, but these are well understood problems that are handled all the time when designing computer chips.

One possible implementation ...

Stage 1,
The nanofactory has a million assembler arms, we give each of them instructions to make a 200nm by 200nm block containing whatever is needed, e.g. memory, processing power etc. These blocks would have standard fixings and communication channels on each side.

Stage 2,
The next layer of the nanofactory consists of larger assembler arms which wait for the 4 blocks to be delivered from its assigned Stage 1 assembler arms. It then takes the blocks and fixes them in the programmed manner, resulting in a 400nm by 400nm block which is delivered to the next stage.

Stage 3,
A scaled up repeat of Stage 2 ... this continues until we have a finished product.

The above approach is very simple and it will work and the only thing it depends on is an operating system for a single assembler arm and I can't imagine that being more complex then the operating system for lego's mindstorm.

The problem isn't the operating system, the real issue is the design software ... after all it needs to work out in which order each of the atoms for a single cube need to be added so that each intermediate step is stable (probably a similiar order of complexity as protein folding). This also isn't a show stopper, it wont matter in the long run if it takes a trillion dollar computer 6 months to 'compile' the design for a single CPU. It'll increase the cost and slow things down a little, but ultimately once that first assembler is completed the rest is trival ... oh and slowing things down a little at that point actually seems desirable.

Dan S

James,I think you oversimplify the problem.

Drugs like GABA-B antagonists can improve memory and attention to certain extent (about 20% max). These things are important for treatment of brain diseases. But using them as you propose can lead to problems:
1. Not every individual will observe significant effect from these drugs (that can make some people “better” than others – new version of racism).
2. Side effects due to prolonged use are not known. What will happen to brain after 3 years of use? 5 years?
These drugs would not make you a “superhuman”, at best they shift you abilities toward the right of normal variation curve. At worst they can kill you.
For your purposes 20-50% improvement in memory is not enough. What you need is about ten fold improvement in all cognitive abilities, especially human-specific ones.
High-throughput sequencing and microarray profiling are important but not enough. The problem is in non-linear gene interaction effects. If you get one gene that improves memory by 20% and second that improves attention by 10% chances are that taken together they would produce 40% decrease in both. This is the reason why there is no effective therapy for multi-factor diseases like arterial hypertension. Many different drugs exist but no real cure.
However, I must admit that there are many ways to augment human intelligence. Better computer interfaces (possibly even direct brain-computer interfaces) can result in appearance of hybrid human-machine intelligence (we already have it in rudimentary form). There are other options as well.
OK, let me assume that we do have such technologies. As you noted they are most likely to be developed by secret military project. So, who could benefit from them? Would they be available to public? What can prevent someone from using brain enhancements for malicious purposes?
Brain enhancements are unlikely to solve safe MM-utilization problem. In fact, there is a problem of safe utilization of brain enhancements.

Yes, and I agree with Paul that programming a nanofactory is not very complicated problem. If you know reaction sequence needed to build desired molecular block, and you have positioning mechanism and necessary molecular tools, then you can make anything you want. The problem here is chemistry, not programming.

Chris Phoenix, CRN

1) I agree that programming a nanofactory is likely not to be very difficult. Levels of abstraction will go a very long way, as in software... at the cost of performance, as in software... but we'll have many orders of magnitude of performance to use this way... as in software.

2) Dan, a random subset of people winning a genetic lottery is not racism. Racism is a state of mind, not a state of biology. If some random scattering of people are helped more than others by a particular medicine, then by all means let's develop more medicines to help the rest, but helping the people who can be helped is not racism--it's common sense. Refusing to help them is similar to Communism.

3) James, in my pessimistic moments I agree with you that we can't expect to be able to change the--rather negative--way the world works now. In my more positive moments I think that if we can just keep things from blowing up, we'll come out OK, because the negative people aren't the only major player. Any suggestions for how to enhance the influence of the positive players will be greatly appreciated. Hm... Europe has been resisting software patents... perhaps we could encourage them to resist MM design patents as well, leaving more room for creativity and less infrastructure for rent-seeking.



Chris makes an excellent point that there is a possible scenario where development of the molecular manufacturing device occurs and the basic technology is available to many independent agencies and/or countries. This has the potential to be a positive to development of useful products in that each of the individual entities or countries will likely have their own opinions and agendas for the technology. Thereby leading us to a possible scenario where unrestricted development of useful products and the widespread use of said products could occur in different locations outside of a governing agency.

This has the potential to be a positive impact and also the possibility of a negative impact. In the positive side we would see the potential for a large group of individuals to become trained and capable of using the given software and perhaps many versions of a given software to produce useful product designs varying in complexity and usability. From the negative standpoint it would allow specialized groups to become more enthusiastic on their position and how it relates to those around them.

Looking to the past we have seen instances where new technology is developed in a given area IE location on the globe. And simultaneously at another location the technology is only a few days behind and will soon be developed on its own. In the case of molecular manufacturing we have a multidisciplinary technology but the similarities in my opinion outweigh the differences in the development paths one would take to produce a tabletop device. I would also speculate that many groups are talking amongst themselves and sharing information relevant to the construction of the device. Mostly I'm speaking of universities doing nanotechnology as to how it relates to whatever research they are pursuing. As these groups to communicate it is not without reason that a handful of these groups would arrive at the same technical conclusions at some point prior to the development of the actual MM device. As these groups typically are also within the United States and Great Britain and Germany and India and perhaps a half a dozen other countries around the world. It is not without a possibility that once the general outline of the device has been tested within computer modeling and the bootstrapping capabilities for placement of molecules has been described that we would not shortly see thereafter several of these groups attempt to construct the device. Although many may be weeks or even months behind others as I'm sure everyone here realizes there will likely be a thousand ways to construct the device as to the specific locations of any given part within the device. So I would see a scenario where three or four groups arrive at A. primitive molecular manufacturing device within a fairly short period of time after the device “ could be built “ .

As of today I am encouraged with the development of many of the disciplines and their far-reaching ramifications to our current way of life.


Dan S


I could not disagree more on your understanding of racism. If we were speaking about curing diseases than you would be right. But we are speaking about using these drugs to deliberately enhance abilities of human mind, making a race of "chosen" by "genetic lottery". Don't you think this is a horrible perspective, especially to the losers?

Chris Phoenix, CRN

Dan, if someone went looking for a brain-enhancer that would preferentially enhance people of a certain skin color, that would be racism.

If someone found a brain-enhancer that improved a random percentage of people, regardless of any identifiable "racial" group, that would not be racism. I would encourage them to 1) sell the treatment to those it could help, and 2) develop a treatment for the rest as soon as possible.

I think I would feel this way regardless of whether I was in the first or last group to be helped.

Before we talk farther: What is your definition of racism?

Going from dictionary.reference.com:
Race: A ... population distinguished as a more or less distinct group by genetically transmitted physical characteristics.

Suppose there were a gene, call it Ment, that made people more susceptible to a certain improvement treatment. Once the treatment was identified, this Ment gene might be the basis for identifying that group as a race.

Racism: The belief that race accounts for differences in human character or ability and that a particular race is superior to others.

People with the Ment gene and the treatment would be superior, not because of their gene, but because of their treatment--just as people who take steroids are stronger. If untreated people possessing the Ment gene were believed to be superior, that might be considered racism. But that's a pretty indirect and speculative effect.

A big part of why racism is horrible is that it's irrational; another part of why it's horrible is that it's used as an excuse to oppress people. In the case of mental treatment that helps some more than others, there would be a rational basis for the division; and it's far from clear that mentally-improved people would oppress others.

Here's a question: Height is at least partly genetic--people are "chosen" to be tall by genetic lottery. Tall people have a variety of advantages, including being eligible for pro sports. Is it racism that prevents short people from making millions as pro basketball players?

Finally, I'll argue that the modern untreated human mind is pretty diseased. Nearly everyone suffers from irrationality, counterproductive and unwanted moods, fear of harmless change, lack of intellectual curiosity, and so on. A treatment that improved mental abilities could be viewed as a cure for a disease.


Chris Phoenix, CRN

"Our greatest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our greatest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, who am I to be brilliant, fabulous, gorgeous, talented? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small doesn't serve the world. There's nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won't feel insecure around you. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that's within us. It's not just in some of us. It's in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we automatically give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fears, our presence automatically liberates others."
--Nelson Mandela

Let's not fear either improving ourselves, or seeing other people improve themselves.


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