Let’s prevail

Martyn Amos draws our attention to the collection of dangerous ideas on The Edge – the website of every popular science writer’s favourite literary agent, John Brockman. He asked a collection of writer-scientists to nominate their dangerous idea for 2006, and the result has something for everyone. Like Martyn, I very much like Lynn Margulis’s comments about the bacterial origins of our sensory perceptions. I’d want to go further, with the statement that human brains have more in common with colonies of social bacteria than with microprocessors.

Devotees of the nanobot have Ray Kurzweil arguing that radical life extension and expansion, enabled by radical nanotechnology, is as inevitable as it is desirable. The apparent problems of overpopulation will be overcome because “molecular nanoassembly devices will be able to manufacture a wide range of products, just about everything we need, with inexpensive tabletop devices. “ Readers of Soft Machines will already know why I think Drexlerian nanotechnology isn’t going to lead us to this particular cornucopia. To my mind, though, the biggest danger of radical life extension isn’t overpopulation; it’s stagnation and boredom. Every generation has needed its angry young men and women, its punk rockers, to spark its creativity, and even as I grow older the thought of the world being run by a gerontocracy doesn’t cheer me up.

So I’m with Joel Garreau, in hoping that despite environmental challenges and the frightening speed of technological change, we’ll see “the ragged human convoy of divergent perceptions, piqued honor, posturing, insecurity and humor once again wending its way to glory”. In the nice phrase Garreau used in his book Radical Evolution – let’s prevail.

16 thoughts on “Let’s prevail”

  1. The various debates that have taken place here (and on a few other sites) between MM proponents and materials researchers have been the best melding of hard engineering and MM systems architecture, that I’ve seen anywhere.
    It was concluded that Drexlerian systems might be impossible if diamondoid surfaces don’t reconstruct as desired. But it was also mentioned methods of utilizing electricity to depassivated surfaces or for other molecular manipulations were not Drexlerian and thus not for discussion at the moment. Should STMs and other manipulations utilizing voltage (if successful) be excluded? Such systems would draw way more energy, and not scale nearly as quickly. But if a desert grid of polymer solar cells or even large arrays of panels in space; if these are a potential product once the decades or longer it takes to scale-up the manufacturing technology has passed, why couldn’t molecular manufacturing encompass voltage aided molecular reactions? If these types of molecular reactions are actually in the labs now whereas mechanosynthesis is still an abstraction, why shouldn’t MM enthusiasts look towards STM-aided engineering conceptions?

  2. I read the garreau book and found it quite disappointing. Naam’s book “More Than Human” is much. much better. I find Garreau’s “prevail” scenario as farsical as “heaven” and “hell”. In the “prevail” scenario, he assumes that everyone must make the same choices about what technology we can use. Like a kind of group think. He does not allow for the possibility that individuals have different dreams and goals in life and, therefor, will make different choices about what technologies that they will use. Some people are into radical life extension, some aren’t. Why then, the requirement that everyone must make the same personal choice about these matters? There is no reason for a politician or bureaucrat to make these choices for people. The problem with Garreau is his quasi collectivist/socialistic approach to bio-enhancement choices.

    I read the Kurzweil singularity book. With regards to computer technology, I think he is spot on. With regards to nanotechnology, I think he is half right and half wrong. I am still skeptical of the possibility of the “dry” (i.e. Drexlerian) nanotechnology that he obviously believes is coming. I do think is has a point about self-enhancement, if you assume that the technology is based on “wet” or biomemetic nanotechnology. I do think that wet or biomemetic nanotech will eventually accomplish most of the feats, in terms of socio-economic impact, that Drexler’s technology is supposed to do. So, I’m not so sure that Kurzweil is way off base with his predictions about this.

    I do think he is way off in La-la land when he talks about uploading and enhancing our brains a million-fold with “non-biological” intelligence.

    To his credit, Kurzweil does address the issue of neurobiology and thinking being based on the dendritic connectivity between neurons and that these connections are dynamic by nature. They are also “analog” in that human intelligence is chemical in nature, rather than electronic. However, I think he under-estimates the difficulty of replicating these characteristics in nano-electronic form. I think we will be “biological” for a long time to come (at least several centuries).

    I atribute his shortcomings in these areas to the fact that he is a computer scientist/software specialist and that he has little or no experience in biology/material science.

  3. Mr Jones, I’d be interested to know your rationale for discounting the importance of overpopulation without also discounting quality of life. How will Earth support so many people with a decent quality of life? Should we expect some technology, if it isn’t Drexlerian nanotechnology, to step in with a solution?

  4. Jonathan, I didn’t say that overpopulation wouldn’t be a problem, just that it wouldn’t be the biggest one that radical life extension would lead to. Clearly the carrying capacity of the earth is finite at qualities of life that people have a right to expect; we’re probably not yet at capacity but the margins aren’t big. Managing the transition to a stable population all living both well and sustainably is the biggest challenge we face now, and we’re going to need to rely on technology to achieve that. This transition is going to need to take place over the next 50 years. On this timescale I don’t think radical life extension is going to be an important contributory factor; I don’t see any evidence, beyond boomer wishful thinking, that it’s going to be possible any time soon.

    Phillip, I have some sympathy with what you say. Applying electric fields is a very powerful tool at the nanoscale, and it’s something that Nanosystems never really gets to grips with (as the discussion of the electrostatic motor design hints at). Perhaps the other Philip (Moriarty that is) might have something to say about it; it’s his field.

  5. I believe Kurzweil’s singularity is also called the “Rapture for Geeks”.

    Sorry, but I couldn’t resist it.

  6. Chris, you can take that as evidence of imminent radical life extension if you like, but I’m still going to be putting money aside for my funeral.

    Indeed, Kurt. In fact I think the original (slightly more euphonious) expression was “rapture of the nerds”, coined, I believe, by the SF writer Cory Doctorow.

  7. I didn’t find Lynn’s article that impressive. Reacting to stimuli doesn’t mean conscious in my circles, where animal consciousness is debated, as is that of a computer hypothetically passing the Turing test.

    Kurzweil’s singularity is lifted from Vernor Vinge, people. And I think Timothy May was talking about the “Techno-Rapture” on the extropians list in the early 1990s, if not earlier. Ken MacLeod used “rapture for nerds” in _The Cassini Division_; I don’t know if he predates Doctorow. Ken specializes in ambiguity though, and the “Rapture” actually happened. Pbbt. There may be emotional similiarity to religious dreams, but argument by ridicule is no substitute for criticizing the technological extrapolations on their merits.

    By my estimates, 10 billion people can probably be supported at US standards of living — the energy is certainly there, I just worry about diverting or adding a few percent of the Earth’s heat budget. I’d note that given developed fertility rates overpopulation doesn’t seem a very immediate problem in that scenario.

    I think the “post-scarcity” visions of nanotopia actually owe less to the molecular control, though that’s a component, than to the self-replicating machines. Take away nanobots and you can still have bigger ones turning Arizona into solar panels.

    *I’m* not going to make any claims about the timing of immortality. But I’ll note that people don’t want to die, and the body is a big soft machine, not a mystical object. It’s complex, but it’s not getting any more complex as we try to figure it out. (That is, we may find it was more complex than we thought it was, but the body is the body, it’s not trying to evade our understanding.) So I think it’s pretty pessimistic to not expect the conquest of aging at some point.

  8. To be fair, I can see why you’d bridle at the claim that bacteria are conscious if you’re spending time thinking about what makes an animal or a computer conscious. I think the important message I took from the Margulis comment is the realisation that, in the (always misleading) analogy between a brain and a computer, it’s not a neuron that corresponds to a logic gate, it’s a molecule.

    I’d go along with your 10 billion as an order of magnitude carrying capacity – I’ve been impressed by Vaclav Smil’s calculations in his books “Feeding the Earth” and “Energy at the Crossroads”, though I think he is conservative about the potential impact of new technology. As for turning Arizona into solar panels, I don’t actually think you need any fundamentally new techology to do this, if organic solar cells or other devices for which reel-to-reel processing is possible can be perfected. A single commercial film line annually produces areas measured in many square kilometers.

    Indeed, I’m fundamentally a materialist so I agree that dealing with many major causes of death and ageing will be possible in principle. I just don’t believe it’s going to happen soon. I spent this morning talking to the amyloid group in our molecular biology department about what needed to be done to disentangle the molecular level processes underlying neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s, and it is clear that we are a long way off a really fundamental understanding of what’s going on in these conditions, let alone finding treatments that go beyond the palliative.

  9. Dr Jones,

    “I think Drexlerian nanotechnology isn’t going to lead us to this particular cornucopia.”

    In one of your other articles, you say it makes sense to be inspired by biology in our nanoscale designs (please correct me if I’m wrong), since it’s “highly optimal” within enviroments akin to those found in human biology.

    As far as I understand, Drexler’s efforts are on creating manufacturing systems, that will enable new ways of building things that might actually operate at those desired ambient conditions.

    Why do you think a technological singularity will not take place?

    “the ragged human convoy of divergent perceptions, piqued honor, posturing, insecurity and humor once again wending its way to glory”

    Does this just mean “we will prevail”?
    Thank you.


  10. Sorry to be slow replying.

    My reasons for thinking that the Drexler proposals will be, at best, much more difficult to implement than many people think are summarised here and here.

    I guess a translation of that rather grandiloquent sentence into British English would be “we’ll muddle through somehow”.

  11. Unfortunately my copy of “The cassini division” is in my parents attic I think. Rapture of the nerds is the title of a story by Doctorow and Charles Stross, apparently, according to the omnipotent internet (How about omniponet for short?) but they did nick the title off Macleod in the first place. So thats that sorted. I recall reading Vinges singularity from school, it made an odd sort of impression, the trouble looking back being that he didnt go into any great detail about the technology nor how it bootstrapped itself into presumed godhood and disappeared up its own fundament or something.

    My understanding of the technolgical singularity is kind of weak, but, doesnt it basically presume that we will develop both an incredibly powerful and flexible nanotechnology, coupled with AI’s that will be capable of self improvement and thinking in ways that we never thought possible and with vastly greater intelligence than our own. So, yeah, given those things I think we will have a singularity. But I have yet to see convinving evidence that self bootstrapping AI’s are possible, and the nanotech that we do have is simultaneously impressive and rather limited.
    (I mean ourselves and other lifeforms.)

    Anyway, now I have sort of responded to the responses, my eye was caught in the original post by Dr Jones writing:

    “To my mind, though, the biggest danger of radical life extension isn’t overpopulation; it’s stagnation and boredom. Every generation has needed its angry young men and women, its punk rockers, to spark its creativity, and even as I grow older the thought of the world being run by a gerontocracy doesn’t cheer me up.”

    I would agree that some boredom is possible, but havnt many great artists and indeed not so great artists, created all the way through their lives? Or take authors for example. Wells was creative and impressive for most of his life, Charles Stross has been getting published for 20 years but only made it into the really big time early in 2005, so you can work out yourself how old he is. OK, most epoch making scientific breakthroughs seem to need younger people to do them, but in cultural terms, I dont think there is such a problem. The problem would be more keeping people thinking differently and in more creative ways, which might link in with what age they can get gerontological treatments- I would suggest that getting it younger might freeze whatever things are going on in brain and body at that age that help make you more “angry”, would be a good thing.

  12. Thanks for that literary detective work! I’m glad we’ve got that sorted out.

    One way of thinking about the singularity is purely mathematical, in that it is the result of some quantity growing at some rate of growth that is itself increasing – this results in the formal divergence of that quantity. Kurzweil argues that various measures of computer power behave in that way, and regards the singularity as the mathematical result of that convergence. This leaves two open questions – does the data up to now actually indicate such super-exponential growth, and are there any factors in the future that might reduce the growth rate? The first question is entirely empirical – in the area of computing, I know that there has been some careful study of whether Moore’s law actually has been obeyed up to now, and that the answer isn’t that straightforward, and it would be interesting to see similar critical analyses of Kurzweil’s other examples. The other factor brings to mind a famous comment by an economist whose name escapes me, along the lines of “if something can’t go on like this for ever, it won’t”. The comment was made in the context of bubble economies, of course, when it proved entirely prescient.

    I’m not sure how you would freeze in those factors that make people think creatively and differently when they’re young – maybe you need to reproduce those features of teenager-dom and early adulthood – wildly unbalanced hormones, sexual frustration and a general uncertainty of one’s place in the world. Of course, you’d have to remove all those sociological factors that favour conservatism, too, like accumulated wealth and status.

  13. But with regards to computer processing power, I can see that looks exponential, but then that doesnt necessarily mean that a computer running at 200Ghz with a terabyte harddrive and 8gigs of ram will be “Intelligent”. Perhaps with apprpriate software it could simulate intelligence, (or would the software be intelligent?) but I am not convinced that that will lead to something like a rapture of the nerds. Its a nice concept, but one I am increasingly at odds with, in fact some of the SF I am trying to write is more down to earth kind of post singularity, with charaacters going “Wow, its happened! Oh wait a minute, I’m still here, uumm, what can I do with my life now?”

  14. “Singularity eats the world in hours” requires an AI+Drextech combo; I’m not sure how many instances really exist. Drexler himself, Greg Bear’s _Blood Music_? Not sure.

    Vinge’s core idea is pretty abstract, tied specifically to the idea that we’ll understand how intelligence works, and be able to improve that, and that that process will recurse. How that’ll happen is left open, with possibilities being pure AI, big networks “waking up”, computer enhancement of humans, or purely biological improvements in humans (whether chemosurgical or genetic.) The Singularity for him is basically a society getting smarter and smarter, beyond our ability to describe; what other technologies might be involved are neither specified nor that important.

    Ideas mutate, so you also get stuff like MacLeod’s _The Sky Road_, where one character claims they’re living in a post-Singularity world, with some posthumans but also nanotech immortality; I think of this as the “lots of cool tech (especially immortality)” Singularity.

  15. In many developed countries, governments are trying to create incentives for people to breed. I say this. What we in all of the developed nations need to do is to try not to reproduce! By bringing the birth rates even lower, we could create a powerful incentive for governments to seriously consider funding, or attracting investment and talent, for radical life extension. If, for instance, Japan is going to die as a nation in 500 years or less at present birth/death rates, well , if 500 years from today, Japan still had 15 or 20% of its present 60 year old and younger populaton, it obviously would still exist.

    I am proud to be 50 year old American who has contributed painlessly to reducing the supply of new people and creating an incentive to preserve us ( although the United States isn’t declining, and we have pin heads like Frances Fukuyami and Leon Kass who think “death is good” on the presidents bio ethics counsel). By not reproducing I have more disposable income than otherwise would be the case, I am not at risk of being divorced and paying a woman over half of my income for being a vehicle for the selfish gene, and I am not contributing to the supply of labor in the future which improves my chances of earning a decent living even when I am older. All this while contributing to market forces that will find it in the interest of the nation and economy to preserve existing conscious life and to eventually break the birth, school, reproduction, sickness, and death cycle that has been to bane of non-fissioning reproducing life for hundreds of millions of years.

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