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« After empire, then what? | Main | Radical Technologies, Rapid Change, Real World »

January 22, 2008


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Most of the basic needs should be satisfied cheaply. Energy would be dirt cheap. Any new products coming into the market would become cheap very quickly. So economical reasons for wars would not be there.

Productivity of people should be very high. So income will be very high and commodities would be very cheap. People would not need to work long hours even to satisfy their costly wants. Poverty would not be there because poor people will be uplifted by government. People will have more time. Idle mind would not be a devil's workshop if there is no incentive to do bad things.

Brian Wang

If there is no strategic shift then there is a stable situation.
ie. If it is the big powers like the US and China that get comparable levels of molecular nanotechnology then top countries stay the top countries and there is no need to fight over what you already own.

Even if one country is behind with molecular nanotech if they have enough molecular nanotech to help safeguard nuclear or other deterrent then again the situation is stable.

Recent developments that metamaterials could be used to make subs invisible to sonar. Means that subs with nukes would become further protected as safe deterrent.

With the solar system opened up with powerful nanotech, there is more room when everyone is not kept in a one planet cage match.

Mike Treder, CRN

Good points from both of you.

Brian, I agree that if levels of strategic power do not change significantly, then an equilibrium might be maintained and a continuation of relative peace and stability could result. So, should we simply hope that there is "no strategic shift," as you put it, or is it appropriate in your view to consider positive steps that might ensure stability?


I was a little surprised that there wasn't a scenario that covered nano-based warfare, but it may simply be that there is a mini-singularity here that we have a hard time seeing beyond the real strategic and tactical impact of nano-tech potential will have on how warfare is conducted. The sheer number of possible alternatives, from a single power gaining a significant edge to a complex mix of nano-capable powers vying for dominance in a neo-arms race.

Who is it and can they overcome the standing powers' nuclear capabilities? Playing with the bio-weapon scenario is something we've seen and isn't outside our experience (or at least our imagination.)

Perhaps as we begin to see more precursors of nano-tech capabilities, like rapid manufacturing, come on-line we'll be able to start extrapolating and imagining how the pieces come together into a complex strategic patchwork. Somehow I just feel that we're a long way from being able to internalize it though...forecasting and future story telling is often a lot of gut level intuition down a path from a few single assumptions (extrapolate the "what if?") I think there are just too many variables in play and the complexity gets away from us...trying to grasp liquid in your hand. Each time I think I can get a sense of how nano might impact geo-politics I lose it with a new thought that transforms my core expectations. Maybe if I quit reading your and Brian's blogs I could get my head back in the sand and think I know what the future holds.

We certainly face a lot of change and turbulence in the years and decades ahead of us. I believe it is significantly more than prior generations, but I'm sure every generation thinks that...

Brian Wang

Strategic shifts by themselves do not mean war.

I think the overall forces of technological and societal change involved are too big so we cannot know for sure "what are the positive steps that might ensure stability"

We can analyze history to see what were the forces that led to wars that should have been avoided.
= could WW2 have been avoided and should it have been
= if the UK and France had made better economic and military decisions, then Germany might have been stopped early. If France did not make the maginot line but built up big tanks and other arms.
= If the opposition to the Nazis within Germany had been more effective to prevent their election or to prevent them from siezing power.
= If Germany had been cut a slightly better or worse deal after WW1, where it did not go into hyperinflation etc...
= If world economic policy was better to avoid the Depression

We can also see if there were times when wars did not happen but where there was a high risk or great expectation of it and what were the influences and people that helped avert war.
= analysis of the cold war
- just a lot of new weapons and an arms race does not guarantee war.
- leader hotlines and communication can prevent things from boiling over
- cultural and other exchanges at the grass roots level can help provide layers of understanding and a deeper well of goodwill
= analysis of India/UK during the time of Mohatma Ghandi.

Deeper analysis of current and potential hotspots (both in terms of locations and people) but also things that might be the motivation for conflict.
- resource conflicts, oil and water
- tribalism, nationalism, religion

Trim things down by looking at only ones that would effect the bigger nations. Wars in Africa while tragic will not matter to the overall global situation unless they are a trigger for a bigger conflict.

what I think matters
1. Better and more competent government in general
2. Being able to get the meme out about other options beyond conflict
3. More exchanges with counterparts in China, India, Russia, Europe etc...
4. Influence the leading edge tech by being personally involved in developing or exploiting it. Tellar had a lot of influence on nuclear policy.
5. Gather more power, influence and money for yourself and your organizations. Less people would listen to Bill Gates if he did not have tens of billions of dollars. Politicians pay attention to organizations with millions of members.

Tom Craver

I don't want to go all Pollyanna, but we should consider the possibility that the age of Global War might have been just that - a transitory phase, actually the final extension of the formerly common inter-state wars to encompass the whole world. The Cold War and it's end without nuclear holocaust settled the question of whether it makes any sense to wage global total war in pretty much everyone's mind, making it even more attractive for small states to have a nuclear deterrent.

The current global conflict between the few remaining major players is primarily economic - Europe unifying, China expanding rapidly, the US seeking to leverage it's old-fashioned military power to maintain it's wealth and economic power and finding that it's just too expensive.

And our current economic troubles - superficially blamed on sub-prime mortgage lending (which is only a symptom of our overall debt) - will in retrospect be seen as the failure of the US strategy of economic health through military might, with the War on Terror merely being our mis-interpretation of the situation into military terms, focused on a tiny slice of the overall conflict.

Mike Treder, CRN

Wow, Tom, very good insight. Why aren't you running for President?!


Tom has a good point that the threat of nuclear Armageddon is just as much present in the future as in the past, and will serve forever as a deterrent against full scale war between major powers.

However I would expect warfare at some scale to continue, mostly in the third world, and for nanotech and other technologies to be deployed and exploited there as they become available, just as we see infotech being used, with its own potential to revolutionize certain kinds of war fighting.

Surveillance via smart dust and insect-sized sensors is one example that is on the near horizon. Greater use of robotics and autonomous fighting machines is another possibility. Smart weapons that can seek out particular targets may become possible before too long as well.

Now I do expect that some of these potentials will cross a line and not be accepted by the public. Already there are controversies over whether autonomous machines should be allowed to kill without human orders (although arguably mines have done so for decades). Bio active nanotech would probably be forbidden by the biowarfare protocols. But what happens if a nanotech DNA or smell sensor is combined with a smart bomb so that it only explodes when Osama bin Laden (or the U.S. President!) walks by? Lots of gray areas ahead.

Brian Wang

I wrote something substantially motived by Tom Craver's article.
I agree that overspending on defense is leaving the US more vulnerable

the US is buying the modern equivalent of a Maginot line.

The US needs some but a lot less traditional defense spending and more technological spending and a stronger economy.

Hal: Nuclear weapons will lose deterrent value with sufficiently advanced technology. If you have billions of tons of utility fog around a city, space travel capabilities up to 10% of light speed and other MNT you can defend against nuclear weapons. Plus you would be able to do a lot of offense with advanced tech using kinetic energy that is stronger and more robust than nuclear.

John B

Vinayagamoorthy - Your approach seems pretty optimistic. How'd people get rich, if commodities are cheap? What'd they sell, what service do/did they provide, that made them rich when commodities are now so cheap?

How will they STAY rich if there's nothing to do but feed nanofactories producing cheap commodities? *curious look* Or am I missing an assumption or something here?

Brian Wang - Your first comment is based on what seems to me to be pretty shaky ground - that there will be no strategic change. I'm unconvinced that's a valid assumption. (more below)

Hawkeye - I would suggest that every generation has its trauma and turmoil. Just because we're not used to thinking in medieval or 'dark ages' terms, and we see no significant changes from our rather distant remove, doesn't mean that the inhabitants of that time didn't have turmoil. I would posit that even barring plague, war, and famine, a serf or townsman could be stressed over the next local lord - will he or she be better'n the current ruler? What different rules will come into play? Who's going to become the new court favorites and whipping-boys? Other 'fun' from the time includes the weather and all the other uncontrollable portions of life.

Brian Wang - In your second post, you state, "Wars in Africa while tragic will not matter to the overall global situation unless they are a trigger for a bigger conflict." If that war is a nano/bio/chem war, brought about in part due to the OLPC & follow on capabilities via nanofac, I would suggest that it's quite possible that it WOULD affect the rest of the world through potential splatter, development of new techniques/capabilities, and the like.

I would also suggest that if a military or rebellion becomes capable of better arming and sustaining their people via nanofac, the potential mayhem increases dramatically, potentially leading to 'more efficient' / horrible slaughter of perceived enemies. There may become a greater outcry to intervene in order to prevent such atrocities.

I would also suggest that your "what matters" list has a couple problems. #2 has been tried in many ways in the middle east, for instance, and the Israeli/Islamic struggle continues. It may be possible that #2 MIGHT work amongst non-ideologues, but I would suggest that there are lots and lots of different types and flavors of ideologue out there.

I would agree in general with #3, but would be cautious of sharing information with those who do not return the generosity. If it's a one-way street, it may easily be the beginnings or worsening of a strategic shift.

Tom Craver - We're talking about a nanoboom. Why would current expenses figure into such a situation? Unless nanotech is incapable of producing high-hardness moderate-mass materials, propellants of one form or another, and/or high precision manufacture, military costs becomes almost purely personnel expenditures. With the ongoing effort to automate warfare, even that drops rapidly in such a scenario.

Hal, I would point to the lack of major armed conflict between first-world powers in the last 30-40 years (since Korea, maybe Vietnam, unless I'm missing something) and instead suggest that the more likely conflict would mirror insurrection, subversion, terrorism and the like - modern Afghanistan, Iraq, scattered hotspots through Africa and others. In a situation where technology is rapidly changing and it is potentially possible that one bright mind on any side can create a weapon that the other side cannot effectively defend against, the situation is at least dangerous.

I would heartily agree, however, that there are going to be lots of grey areas ahead.

I would agree with Brian's post that with sufficiently advanced technology, nukes are much less of a threat. However, getting to that point will be a long and perilous road, in my opinion. (Plus there's always Clarke's Law - Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.)

Going back to Mike's original question: Low intensity conflict, terror, sabotage, blackmail and similar would be what I'd consider most likely. After that something along a Bostrom-esque "scream" scenario - one group gaining the capability to deny effective defensive technologies to other groups and bringing it into play for whatever reason (fear, greed, 'in everyones best interest', whatever). Note that this may not be a full humanity-wide 'scream' scenario - it could be limited to specific areas and times, potentially be overthrown by outside forces (non-subjugated regions, unexpected tech breakthroughs, etc), or the like. (For instance, I'd be surprised if there weren't some US military types who'd love to invoke a 'scream' like condition in Iraq & Afghanistan, for quite understandable reasons!)

I would also suggest that there are potentially many quite nasty effects possible from 'beneficial' nanotechnology without intent. A 'grey goo' scenario doesn't need to eat the world or even all the people, there are lots of other ways it could disturb/destroy large swaths of human endeavor. A self-replicating, and therefore exponentially-growing carbon-scavenging free-floater is one particular nightmare - if it goes 'grey', 1) how do you detect every last bit of it, scattered to the seven winds? 2) How do you stop all of it? 3) How much CO2 can we afford to loose before there are negative ramifications? How much can we deal with before there are negative ramifications to sunlight, atmospheric conditions, etc?

Just off the top of my head. *wry grin*


Brian Wang


Here is some more on my reasoning for strategic stability.
I think the odds of a current technological laggard nation getting MNT and a nanotechnological lead are remote. More than winning the big prize in a lottery remote. The developing and enabling technologies and research are well under way. If you have a leading edge microscope research lab and supercomputers for modelling etc... and are already doing major work at the nanoscale then you are near the lead. Having a solid MEMS and lab on a chip industry to build upon is also important. US, China, Europe, Israel, South Korea, Japan, Canada and maybe a few others are doing well

John B

We rather drastically disagree on the odds of that happening, Brian, but let's assume at first that your odds are correct. (I'll look at reasons why I set a much higher probability on it happening lower down.) After all, there *are* multiple big lottery winners every day, and all it takes is one malicious user to get 'lucky' for a reasonably secure, publicly available nanofac capability to be broken free of whatever protections it may include. Once one is broken free, a logical next step would be creating more that are free of whatever protections there may be.

If you prefer to look at it as a much smaller number of 'players', I would point you to the history of the iPhone unlocks for recent (ongoing!) examples of what a small number of dedicated technologists can accomplish against a large, highly skilled corporation's products. Extend this to nanofactories - which IMO would be hacked a LOT harder than any iPhone might ever be.

Assuming one success, it's still an open question IMO as to how many systems will be transported before such a hardware cracker's caught. If the cracker manages to successfully ship at least two unprotected systems, exponential growth comes into play. If it's many more than two, or if instructions on how to perform the crack are released, then the situation is quite dire.

Please note that I'm following the premise that there's a commercially available nanofac system available, as per many of the CRNano scenarios.

(If you're talking today's capabilities, I would point out the relatively successful ban on atomic weapons technology transfers, along with the growing number of nations with such capabilities over the last 60 years. Alternately the 'hacker' culture of portions of the FOSS movement may be a better example within a much shorter timespan.)

Malicious behavior then becomes (still IMO) a matter of time & motivation.

As to why I posit much greater odds: I expect there to be the typical problems with any novel technology's acceptance. Look at the problems with personal computers over the last 30-40 years - there was no one predicting this level of dependance on the things back with ENIAC, not in the way we carry multiple high-powered systems around in our pockets, strapped to our bodies, and everywhere around us.

The latest IPod Classic contains what's probably a Samsung ARM processor with ~26,000 transistors and a 160gb harddrive in the palm of your hand compared to the 18,000 vaccuum tubes and effective lack of storage of the 30-ton ENIAC, 64 years ago.

I'm not saying that people will integrate with nanofacs to the same degree we have with CPUs. I don't know whether or not that'll happen, and it doesn't really matter for the purposes of this discussion. Instead, I'm saying that technological progress and 'malicious' behaviors both are very rapid, but at this point the advantage is still on the attacker (hacker)'s side of the battle.

Tom Craver

Thanks Mike and Brian - I'll be making an announcement later today - stay tuned! :-)

Here's an interesting data point. The move to individual empowerment, with military overtones, has already started. However, note that it was the *assumption* that such a major DOS attack had to be state-implemented that escalated this to a major issue.

John B: My comment regarding expensive war was directed to the current global environment, but your question is interesting for a future with nanofacturing.

Expenses, even today, can mostly be calculated in terms of just "manpower and energy". For any finite amount of those available, anything that takes a large fraction can be considered "expensive". That will remain true in a world with advanced nano.

The US has greatly increased it's perception of the value of human lives vs the value of energy in warfare. We spend increasing amounts of energy protecting soldiers, keeping them farther from harm, maximizing their effectiveness so we can use fewer, avoiding civilian casualties, etc. But that attitude is largely based on a now-passing era of plentiful energy.

The only attractive means to keep that era going is the quick arrival of fusion power. Fusion is much more impactful than nanotech, in determining major future directions for humanity.

Get it, and everything accelerates in the same (generally decent) direction we've been heading for about a century.

Fail to achieve effective fusion power, and everything must change drastically to match a new "flat or declining energy budget" world. We may not like that world very much - human life may become relatively cheap again.

On the other hand, it does look like we'll have viable solar power, and nanofacturing will make it basically as cheap as the cost of open space to set up collectors - but it is inherently low density energy.

Humans could concentrate tightly - in arcologies for example, to conserve energy. Or - if there's no one forcing them to stay tightly packed - they could spread out. On land that'd be an ecological disaster, but perhaps many could go to sea, as Chris Phoenix suggested.

Brian Wang

I also do not think that full fledged hackable nanofactories will be the mode of distribution.

I think that there will be non-molecularly precise systems, that get molecularly precise building blocks. There will also be some more advanced versions of current fabbers, rapid prototypers, rapid manufacturing, reel to reel production systems.

I fail to see the profit (to the producer) and motivations for widespread desktop nanofactories.

I am quite optimistic about the progress and work on the IEC (bussard) fusion system I also think if that has problems tri-alpha energies colliding beam fusion could work or later the rapid fire z-pinch.

Even without fusion, improved nuclear fission can work.

the Fuji Molten salt reactor The MSR can generate 1000 times less uranium and plutonium waste and everything else that is left over has a halflife of less than 50 years. 25% cheaper per kwh.

The mass produceable Uranium hydride reactor

the transition also has microwaving or other lowcost oilsand and oil shale methods. Then widespread electrification with better ultracapacitors and better betteries.

Tom Craver

Yep, all those non-fusion technologies are important - but none would be as revolutionary as practical fusion.

I think it's likely that we'd find that those measures mostly get applied to ameliorate the effects of flattening/declining fossil fuel energy, as fuel prices increase.

And then there's CO2 - if we finally start to get serious about cutting back CO2, that'll make it much harder to keep our energy production expanding. Fusion would help fix that as a side-effect.

I agree though - the outlook for fusion is brighter than it's been for ~50 years. And even without it, cheap solar from nanofactories would probably let people do pretty well - but at the expense of crowding out a lot more of the natural world.

Tom Craver

I said I'd have an announcement, and here it is:

I'm now officially running for President!

(On U4Prez.com - The internet has EVERYTHING!)

(-: VOTE FOR ME! :-)

I haven't set any specific policy on nanotechnolgy, as yet -- though likely it would be one of the areas for which Prizes are offered.

Mike Treder, CRN

That's very cool, Tom. You're right, the Internets do have everything!

Tom Craver

This article is about a potential shake-up in NATO.

It's pretty clearly a symptom of a changing world - but what exactly does it mean?

It appears to be responding to multiple areas of change, to which the generals believe NATO must adapt, and in particular is related to the question of deterrence and how the major powers will react to attempts of lesser powers to obtain that capability.

Shawn C.

If history really does repeat itself, then nanotech "will" be used for war. When, or what form it will take is hard to predict. I would think that it would have to be very covert and swift when it happens. I believe that a micro device can be designed for easy dispersion into the lives of the enemy through multiple means, food, water, air, products, or the environment in general. Like small insects that are smaller then the human senses can detect that will find there way to there target and hibernate inside them until D-day. The enemy can all be taken out at the same time, without them being any the wiser and with minimal effort and no retaliation. If there are a few survivors due to isolated conditions they can be controlled, or disposed of in a plan B. After all what use will people be if technology can do everything better? I also think that it will be an inquisition of some sort. We will be forced to conform or be tortured or at best just killed by the powers that control the first strike. Can there be a defense against such an attack? Small sensors or devices will act like watch dogs and hunt down foreign objects and reverse engineer them for better security intelligence against other waves of attack. What if these defenses are fooled or overwhelmed? The future looks like evolution on steroids, as we try to eek out a survival strategy that probably won't work. I agree with what someone else wrote that space is the only way to survive each other! We have to put lots of space between enemies, and we must have many societies going in different directions just in case some get destroyed by the dangers lurking in space. Like seeds spread onto the land, some will make it and some won't. This planet is doomed, but at least God gave us the rest of the Universe to live in! Perhaps nanotech will just subdue us slowly so that we don't even notice, like the boiled frog scenario. I am already feeling a bit controlled, and dependent on technology in ways that I don't even realize. The sheer number of gadgets that have come into existence just in my small lifetime is staggering. In the future there will be more and many unseen working behind the scenes. I just learned that the "Cable Guys" can look at how I click my remote, and what I am watching, and how I am watching it. Just one more example of how technology will invade our privacy without our knowledge. When will this slippery slope end? Perhaps until there is nothing left to learn about me, or until they can no longer exploit me further.

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