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Covering technological, scientific, and cultural trends that are changing–and will change–human beings in fundamental ways.

Editor's Blog

Josh Hall
March 17, 2010


Engines of Creation by Eric Drexler. Photo: nano-scientist.orgThe question of the relative roles of nanotechnology and AI in forging the shape of the future has been argued in techno-futurist circles for decades. Eric Drexler mentioned AI as a potentially disruptive technology in his seminal 1986 book Engines of Creation, and it was discussed at the very first Foresight conference 20 years ago.

It is generally assumed that a self-improving super-human level of AI is part and parcel of the Singularity, and indeed, such was the basis of I. J. Good’s and Vernor Vinge’s conception of the “intelligence explosion.” But let’s assume, for the sake of a scenario, that creating self-improving AI is just a lot harder than we think, and that we aren’t going to invent it until well after we have flat-out molecular nanotech with the ability to build fast self-replicating diamondoid nanomachines. What then?

One thing Drexler predicted in Engines was that without needing to create true human-level intelligence, automated design systems — narrow as opposed to general AI — would enable the creation of highly complex nanosystems, well beyond the capabilities of mere human designers. How did that prediction pan out? I would have to say that it was so accurate, and happened so soon, that it’s taken for granted today — human designers with only pencil and paper would have no chance of designing, say, a modern computer, or indeed any of today’s complex engineered systems. Like many areas, design automation is an area that was once considered AI, but isn’t any more.

What does a Singularity look like with just nanotech and narrow AI? Let’s consider the standard list of transhumanist concerns:

LIFE EXTENSION: Playing around with the interiors of our cells and so forth is clearly a nanotech application. Uploading or radical body improvement is the same.

AI: Ultimately, we get AI by uploading, doing lots of neuroscience, and understanding how the brain works. We get human-level AI but not super-intelligent ones. We do ultimately get faster ones — but our uploads can be faster too.



PERSONAL NANOFACTORIES AND UBIQUITOUS WEALTH: Nanofactories wouldn’t be quite as powerful without a superintelligence to drive them. They could only make what someone invented and designed, rather than inventing things themselves. But that would be enough to kick the entire physical economy over into a Moore’s Law-like growth mode, eradicating hunger and poverty in a decade or two.

FLYING CARS, SPACE TRAVEL, OCEAN AND SPACE COLONIZATION: Again, these are clearly nanotech applications. The modifications to the standard human body necessary to thrive in space require significant nanotech capabilities.

ROBOTS: Robots with human mental capabilities and virtually any physical capabilities would be straightforward, and would rapidly become affordable for everyone.

All of these areas require more scientific knowledge than we have now, but not more than the current rate of scientific progress human scientists are likely to produce in the next few decades. The current techniques of narrow AI are capable of automating pretty much any well-defined task, albeit with more programming effort than would be necessary if the machine could learn for itself.

The modifications to the standard human body necessary to thrive in space require significant nanotech capabilities.

With its Moore’s Law rates of increasing capability and reducing costs for really high-tech physical equipment, one of the things that a nanotech revolution could do is to make scientific instrumentation ever more available. Existing efforts toward open-source science would be enhanced and given more headroom. The scientific knowledge, ingenuity, and experience necessary for the full utilization of the physical capabilities of nanotech could grow as rapidly as the Internet and cell phone use has over the past couple of decades.

So, back to the present. I don’t really expect AI to lag behind nanotech as much as this analysis suggests. In fact, I think it will precede it. But even if AI were to stall at roughly its current level of capability, something like a Singularity, a reprise of the Industrial Revolution that boosts our civilization from terrestrial to solar, making us all long-lived, healthy, wealthy, and maybe a little bit wiser, is not only possible but very likely.

J. Storrs (“Josh”) Hall, PhD., is president of the Foresight Institute, founding Chief Scientist of Nanorex, and author of Beyond AI and Nanofuture.

21 Comments

    What happened to genetic engineering? With a dumb population there can be barely an improvement.

    Thank you JoSH for backing up what I've been saying for over a decade.

    I have said repeatedly that the majority of people don't truly understand that the Singularity is nothing more than a point in time beyond which we cannot as yet make predictions. As such, as our knowledge continues to grow, it will continue to recede. It's a nebulous term that is used to cover far too many possible futures. In my opinion, we are already involved in the Singularity, and have been since the Internet was created.

    The stages of development between where we are and the singularity is not going to be a period in which humanity stagnates until a savior AI comes along. Unlike you, I think AI is unlikely to be created before we understand FAR more about not only our biology, but our brains. As Drexler himself pointed out recently, we are at the infancy of true Nanotech, whereas we are still very far away from a full understanding of our brains. Also, every step of the way to AI is a double edged discovery. We already effectively augment our intelligence with computers. We Wiki information to support our conversations, we keep track of our friends with Facebook, we use the internet to expand our knowledge of the world beyond our physical environment. As we discover each step towards true AI, we immediately put it to use to augment ourselves. By the time AI comes we may simply no longer be able to tell the difference between an AI and ourselves.

    We're going to have VR, Nanotech, Robots, and high level Genetic Engineering long before a true AI. We can't sit back and expect that AI will solve humanity's problems. We're going to have to solve those problems ourself before we will ever make it to the Singularity. We're going to have people with augmented brains, genetic reconstruction of adult humans, fully functional cybernetics, life extension, nanofactories, and robots everywhere, and none of it will wait till we have some AI messiah come and show us poor tool making apes the "Way".

    We will make it though. We're already making the tools that will help us face our demons of the ID, and while it will be tumultuous, chaotic, and maybe even violent, we will emerge from our childhood into a future beyond Rodenberry's wildest dreams.

    The simple fact of the matter is that a scenario as described in your article will never occur, or at least not within our lifetime. Why would the people who hold the power in our society, the corporate leaders, permit us to take away their wealth?

    How do you monetise a personal nanofactory; the designs? Will be quickly taken over by the open source community. The machines themselves? A one-time infusion of cash which itself quickly becomes worthless as more people purchase PNFs.

    Our society rewards wealth with power and influence. If you make everyone equally wealthy, which is what happens when people no longer need to earn money to buy necessities, then everyone is equally influential. So what we have is a situation where the only people who, under our current societal and economic model, have the capacity to bring PNFs, life extension and all the other beneficial aspects of nanotechnology, are the very people who would be hurt most by those technologies becoming commonly available.

    It's safe to assume then, that they will do everything in their (considerable) power to prevent the tech from becoming commonly available.

    Wow, you really have no concept of exactly how shortsighted, greedy, and cutthroat corporations are do you?

    The moment any company sees a advantage for themselves, no matter how many other corporations might get hurt by it, they will jump on it. You really think the individual billionares themselves are any different? Your little scenario would require a conspiracy in which no-individual member would look to their own self interest first. Human nature being what it is, thats pretty impossible.

    One man's evil is another mans good. It doesn't matter what the technology is, so long as SOMEONE sees a personal advantage to themselves, it will be researched, developed, and sold. So what if five years down the road it means universal replicators, unlimited wealth, and destruction of the status quo? If they can MAKE A BUCK RIGHT NOW, it's going to get done.

    Dog eats dog and all that, dontchano. Corporate Greed is inevitably making the Singularity happen.

    Want proof? HP is already selling a 3d fabricator at half the cost of it's competitors. Makerbot is making one for 1/10 the cost for DIY's. RepRap is making them for half of Makerbot's. Electronics printing is now a reality. The ability to print entire electronics devices on a printing press is in the process of commercialization. They already have a commercial printing press that makes flexible OLED touchscreen displays on plastic.

    Why? When all these things are inevitably leading to an economy of abundance and PNFs? BECAUSE SOMEONE IS MAKING A BUCK NOW!

    And NOW is all the corporate machine cares about.

    Man's technological history tends to show one thing pretty clearly, that there is no wide-spread appreciation of what is coming; genuine paradigm shifts catch everyone by surprise. It's nice that people talk about what problems they believe the future will bring but their worries will be ludicrously inaccurate.

    I call B.S. they'd let us have power, but learn how to pyramid scheme it like how google does with our internet apps and ads. Our participation only brings smart minds more money.

    Hey Aspie... it sounds like democracy.. or socialism... or humanitarianism... or whatever you want to call it. What every society with aspirations to bringing a better life to people, no matter what the ideological basis, really wants... And you think that's so bad it'll never happen. I think maybe we are to far down the line for a top-down stopping of it. XXXXXXXXXX

    I would tend to agree with this viewpoint/assessment. The real conversation is the one surrounding AAI (Artificially Augmented Intelligence). It may be that in some distant time machines will become complex enough, and through basic evolutionary requirement, come to truly independent consciousness. But if they do, it will likely be only because of our integrated systems, doubtlessly programmed to learn from their 'host' consciousnesses develop the ability out of simple need to deal with the complexities and vagaries of dealing with and serving the needs of a human host on a daily basis.

    This says absolutely nothing about recent discoveries in genetic evolution concerning the relationship between everyday habit and inheritable traits. In short, your behaviors, habits, tendencies, and abilities as induced by the environment can and do become codified in your genes, and can then be passed down to your offspring. For all we know, the term 'opposites attract' may refer to an evolutionary drive to seek out genes to moderate extremes in expression of one trait or another that they may pass on to offspring. We and the machines we use will in fact adapt to each other organically. We will be one in a way that's taken for granted as we take gravity for granted.

    And all of it will be for no grander reasons than someone saying: "I want to see in infrared!" Or ultraviolet, or radio. Or athletes being required to harbor a colony of medical nano-machines that repair damage after each game, and maintains their bodies in optimal conditions for the duration of their contract. Or some hacker who gets his hands on good info on simple (at the time) at-home techniques for mass production of nano-machines, and decides to spread it everywhere he or she can for a buck.

    The questions of what we could gain from such a series of events are slowly being answered. But the real thing people fear, the thing that makes them reflexively recoil, is the question of what we could lose. The scariest part is, like death, there's only one way to find out...

    Valkyrie Ice,

    Saying we need to know a LOT more about our biology and brains to create AI is like saying in 1900 that we would need to know a LOT more about birds and feather microstructure before we could create a flying machine. See also "Artificial Flight and Other Myths".

    Wow, really, the Greed Is Good argument? Sure, I suppose that's why the music, film and games industries, rather than attempting to adapt and monetize new methods of content acquisition instead attempt litigation, legislation and legitimate consumer-punishing DRM. I suppose that's why large conglomerates have people dedicated to searching out and purchasing the patents for everything from technology to your very genes, not so they can profit from it in the short term, as you suggest, but so they can prevent anyone else from using those ideas. I suppose that's why courts across the globe are constantly filled with cases of price fixing between major corporations and other violations of Anti-Trust laws.

    Or perhaps YOU simply underestimate the lengths to which corporations will go to remain in business, even if that means sacrificing short-term gain and the goodwill of a public so hooked on advertising and consumption that they willingly line up to be fed reconstituted meat-related products from retailers staffed entirely by incompetent teens.

    As to your 3D printer argument; yep, a device which allows small businesses and amateurs to fabricate cheap componants currently manufactured primarily in China is completely comparable to a device which would potentially take care of every basic human need bar companionship(until the Japanese get involved, some of the stuff they come up with is downright terrifying), permanently remove the Class Divide, solve world hunger and so on and so forth.

    The first costs people who don't work for your company in a different economy(because for some reason, nobody is keen on Globalism when you bring China into things) a paycut and the odd job loss, the second completely eliminates the need for the entire retail sector, their supply chain, the suppliers, the manufacturers and indeed, the entire economy as currently defined in the western world.

    I am aware Im being a bit confrontational here, but Britain is still suffering from the last bout of tossers who subscribed to the idea that Greed Is Good and private interests can fix any problem, and it now looks as if we're going to get the same again, so forgive me if Im a little anti-Corporate at the moment.

    Valkyrie Ice is too far left to be taken seriously as a thinker.

    At what point did I say Greed is good? I said it was inevitably bringing about the Singularity.

    Let's take your DRM example. What has been the ACTUAL PRACTICAL RESULT of DRM? Has it prevented people from accessing non-drm content? No. Has it slowed down piracy? No. Has it resulted in a world where DRM using businesses rule everything and you are only able to listen to DRM content? No. The RIAA has spent billions, for next to no result... except that DRM is in worse shape than ever, has a worse reputation than ever, and is not likely to survive for much longer, particularly as the RIAA tries ever more draconian measures that are doomed to backfire.

    The recording industry is going bankrupt trying to protect their cash cow, and all it's done is speed up the development of alternative paths connecting musicians and their public as the gate keepers crash and slowly burn. Their greed is enormous. Their efforts Herculean. Their death inevitable.

    You see corporations tightening their grip. I see them desperately gripping every lifeline they think they can grasp as they are going under for the last time. The public isn't as ignorant as it once was, and becoming less so as the internet continues to connect more and more of the world. The Corporations don't want to change, but those which refuse to will fail. That's reality. They may desperately cling onto life for a decade, but current trends show clearly that they can no longer continue to expect a future of "business as usual." Those companies which change and grow more responsive to the public will survive and thrive, and more than happily cut the throats of those companies which refuse to.

    I don't support corporations, and you obviously mistook the point I was making. I relish watching them cut each others throats in their efforts to survive, knowing that it's hopeless for them, and that the day of the Corporation is fast ending.

    As for RepRap, you are right. At present, it's not much. But it has the potential to be far more than you may suspect it can be as the technology matures and combines with other printing technologies such as cell printing and electronics printing. Before we reach a true Nanofacturing device, 3D printers could very well be in widespread use making everything from body parts to food items, to our everyday electronics. What difference really is there from printing a heart, or printing a steak? Or a steak tomato? Don't dismiss the potential impacts of a lesser tech just because you are only looking at the holy grail of the universal replicator.

    The world is changing, and it's changing in precisely the ways I see as inevitably bringing about the sorts of fundamental restructuring of world society that we will need to reach the Singularity.

    Will people suffer? Sad to say, yes. No one is protected against possible short term chaos, calamity, and collapse. I've been homeless for 3 years now, surviving solely on the charity of a few friends while I struggle to get back on my feet. The economic situation in America is sheer hell right now. But in the long term, even these disasters will serve the greater good by forcing our world and it's nations to create coping strategies to bring us through the death of the industrial revolution and it's economy of scarcity, and into a new age of abundance.

    Because it is coming. It's been way too late to stop it for a few decades now. The Republicans have been trying to stop it for a decade, and all they seem to have really accomplished is hurrying along the destruction of the Corporate State by turning the public against it. Watch and see. At present, I doubt the Republicans will still exist by 2016, and the Corporations they were bought by will be chained and harnessed, and brought to heel by the early 20's. It will take time, but it will happen.

    And they are doing it to themselves for us. All to make a buck NOW.

    Aha, I see, I apologise for misinterpreting your point there. I believe the issue stems from the Atlantic Divide, over here in Britain the current government(and both the other major parties, if one of them were to win the coming elections) has already caved in to the recording and movie industry pressure and are passing the Digital Economy Act, which in short turns our ISPs into Enforcers for said recording and movie industry, able to disconnect customers on the word of the BPI(our RIAA) and even add consumers to a Blacklist which prevents them for signing up to ANY ISP for a currently undefined period of time.

    This system will feature such wonderous concepts as Guilty until proven Innocent, in that the accused member of the public will be forced to institute a court case against their ISP and -prove they didn't do anything wrong- in order to get back online. In addition, the wording of the new laws regarding responsibility for owners of a wi-fi network will mean the end of public wi-fi hotspots in cafes, universities and libraries, because they could very well find themselves sued for vast amounts of money if a random person on a laptop downloads a music track unlawfully.

    On top of that, our Parliament is likely about to be taken over by the Conservative party, the same group who very nearly ruined us in the 80's and early 90's by buying wholesale into Raganite philosophies with a dose of Macarthyism, and in Europe as a whole, right-wing nutters driven by bigotry and racism are gaining more power with every year. From our perspective, things are very much going backwards with regard to the singularity.

    I do take your point regarding 3D Printing, I wasn't thinking of the wider picture; I admit I had a little tingle of excitement when I read the article here about Bioprinting(especially as Im a smoker, ahaha).

    I actually am already taking that into account. The DigiEcon act is what I was referring to as "even more Draconian measures"

    And as much as I pity those who will be caught and ground up in this horrorshow, it's going to be televised, and netted, and blogged, and covered nine ways from Sunday, and seen as the corporate bid to control the public that it is. It may last five years, it may last ten, but the lawsuits, public outcry, and eventual rejection of the act that will come will mark the end of DRM. Intellectual property laws have needed to be re-written for decades, and this will force that to occur by public demand.

    We are in a transition period. Things that worked in the Industrial Revolution are breaking because we have outgrown that technological phase. There are going to be those who don't understand change, and resist it with all their might, and right now, that element is the Republican Party, in the US, and the Conservatives in Europe. These are the people who fear change, because they don't have the intelligence to understand our ever more complex technological base, or because the old ways have provided them with wealth. They respond out of fear. And in transition times like these, they will be the loudest voices and seem like the biggest threats, because that fear is driving them insane. But history proves that progress cannot be stopped. At best it can delay things, but in a world which is increasingly connected, that delay cannot last long. A few years at most. But that delay will come at a cost which fewer and fewer people will be willing to accept the longer and more draconian it gets.

    But every transition period ends. The Printing Press caused 100 years of turmoil. The Industrial Revolution's turmoil only lasted 30 years. If we're lucky, maybe it's just going to be the Terrible Teens.

    Hi Micheal.

    I know AI and it's philosophies are your meat and drink, but I have serious doubts that a breakthrough of the magnitude needed to create a true, functional AI will occur prior to the development of functional Nanotech. AI has too many fundamental uncertainties which must still be researched. I don't deny that a breakthrough could occur, nor do I doubt that incremental steps will eventually reach true AI, but nanotech is rapidly approaching the point where it's an engineering issue, not research. Based on the current development trends, it seems nanoelectronics is about to emerge as early as mid decade, with extremely rapid conversions of existing manufacturing plants to nanoscale and graphene based production lines due to the minimal retooling needed or the existing production lines. While these developments will indeed speed up the research of AI, I simply do not see the development speed in AI which I see in Nanotech. We will undoubtedly continue to create better and better narrow AI's but a true unlimited, universal AI is not likely for the near term foreseeable future.

    It's quite true we may not need to understand everything about our biology, or how our brain works to create a working AI, but we are seeking to create a machine that thinks like us, and we are still trying to figure out why WE think like us. We are still trying to figure out how to create an AI which won't trigger our animalistic fears of being out-competed, and how to ensure that a sentient AI will be happy to be a slave, rather than even contemplating that any AI that qualifies as Sentient should be accorded equality not enslavement. When such basic issues have yet to be solved, I simply cannot see AI reaching maturity prior to nanotech, nor do I foresee a spontaneous emergence of a Sentient AI regardless of the complexity of the network or even enormous leaps in computing power.

    I freely admit I am not an AI expert, but barring some as yet unpublicized breakthrough, AI looks like it still needs more information, particularly in regards to how human brains create the emergent phenomena of thinking. Or, like the Wright's, someone has a brilliant idea which creates a breakthrough... but no-one can predict when that will happen.

    I can wish for the creation of an all benevolent, all intelligent superior AI, but I can't predict one, all I can do is look at where we are, and where we need to go to get to where we want to be. And based on that information, I believe my statement to be accurate. Barring a breakthrough, we need to learn too much to make AI a reality for it to occur prior to the development of nanotechnology.

    Oh thats a funny one, considering that most "lefts" despise me as a "Rightwinger" because I don't believe in AGW.

    Nice try, but so sorry, try again.

    Well, I would be very happy to see a world where all people lived as equals and all facilities available to all and not to the “privileged few”!! But, the million dollar question is when is this going to happen?? Of course, science is fast developing and there are new inventions and innovations being discovered by our brilliant scientists as we speak!! But Nanotech can be nurtured only by AI so let us not forget that for a minute that without the “super computer” of our brain nothing is possible!!
    Mathews from Medical Alarm.com

    When technology advances to the stage that we can no longer predict the ramifications. The time when social, political, cultural, technical, and/or religious preconceptions no longer apply. The break between what we know and what we cannot fathom. An event--or events--that cause massive change in the very fabric of our human-ness. Generally thought to foreshadow across-the-board positive changes, yielding many advances in science, longevity, survival of the species, social responsibility, and the like. Also considered evolutionary -- as in the next stage of human development. kenya

    I think with Moore’s Law applying to the development of almost all things high tech the growth of both the AI and nanotech disciplines will leap forward at a great pace over the coming years. Whether they will keep pace with each other or one wil take a substantial lead is not so clear. Exciting times in either area however. Julity

    The fact that the federal government is now backing the R&D of nanotech, there is the driving force for private sector innovation and could continue on the path of Moore's Law, or maybe even accelerate it. I don't know about some of the futuristic technologies or applications described above, but public awareness could be shifted and adoption quicker for more consumer applications. There will be overlap between AI and nanotech, what technologies are currently funded also for our armed forces? James - Arcade Games Junkie

    I would tend to agree with this viewpoint/assessment. The real conversation is the one surrounding AAI (Artificially Augmented Intelligence). It may be that in some distant time machines will become complex enough, and through basic evolutionary requirement, come to truly independent consciousness. But if they do, it will likely be only because of our integrated systems, doubtlessly programmed to learn from their 'host' consciousnesses develop the ability out of simple need to deal with the complexities and vagaries of dealing with and serving the needs of a human host on a daily basis.

    This says absolutely nothing about recent discoveries in genetic evolution concerning the relationship between everyday habit and inheritable traits. In short, your behaviors, habits, tendencies, and abilities as induced by the environment can and do become codified in your genes, and can then be passed down to your offspring. For all we know, the term 'opposites attract' may refer to an evolutionary drive to seek out genes to moderate extremes in expression of one trait or another that they may pass on to offspring. We and the machines we use will in fact adapt to each other organically. We will be one in a way that's taken for granted as we take gravity for granted.

    And all of it will be for no grander reasons than someone saying: "I want to see in infrared!" Or ultraviolet, or radio. Or athletes being required to harbor a colony of medical nano-machines that repair damage after each game, and maintains their bodies in optimal conditions for the duration of their contract. Or some hacker who gets his hands on good info on simple (at the time) at-home techniques for mass production of nano-machines, and decides to spread it everywhere he or she can for a buck.

    The questions of what we could gain from such a series of events are slowly being answered. But the real thing people fear, the thing that makes them reflexively recoil, is the question of what we could lose. The scariest part is, like death, there's only one way to find out...
    Vedavyas@ Best coffee makers

One Trackback

  1. By El Andi (andresconrado) | Pearltrees on January 19, 2012 at 8:19 am

    [...] With its Moore’s Law rates of increasing capability and reducing costs for really high-tech physical equipment, one of the things that a nanotech revolution could do is to make scientific instrumentation ever more available. Existing efforts toward open-source science would be enhanced and given more headroom. The scientific knowledge, ingenuity, and experience necessary for the full utilization of the physical capabilities of nanotech could grow as rapidly as the Internet and cell phone use has over the past couple of decades. So, back to the present. I don’t really expect AI to lag behind nanotech as much as this analysis suggests. In fact, I think it will precede it. Singularity: Nanotech or AI? [...]

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