The Singleton Solution

Rules for the advanced edition of the MNT Game: During the first minute only Player One can talk but then anyone gets to speak. Whoever first shouts the word “Master” makes everyone else his slave.

You’re Player One—what strategy dare you deploy?

Mutual assured destruction kept the peace during the Cold War because both the United States and the Soviet Union believed that a first strike attack couldn’t knock out a rival’s ability to land a devastating counterblow. A military armed with advanced molecular nanotechnology (MNT), however, probably could neutralize an enemy’s retaliatory capacity.

Submarines running silent and deep in the oceans are today’s most secure weapons platforms. But a nation with advanced MNT could drop trillions of tiny hunter-killer probes in the oceans that could secretly find and latch onto all of its rival’s naval vessels and then wait for a destruct order. Similar probes could position themselves to disable the rest of an enemy’s long-range weapons, most of which could almost certainly be neutered by cutting a few wires. By combining this offensive weaponry with billions of anti-missile projectiles spread throughout its own territory, a nation that had a monopoly on advanced MNT could safely defang its rivals and become a singleton.

Nick Bostrom defines a singleton as:

“a world order in which there is a single decision-making agency at the highest level” that can “prevent any threats (internal or external) to its own existence,” and “exert effective control over major features of its domain.”

A nation that used advanced MNT to eliminate all military threats could further employ this terrifying technology to monitor and punish anyone who didn’t obey its dictates. Should we want a relatively benevolent power such as the United States to turn itself into a singleton? Our answer should depend on what would happen in a conflict among forces armed with advanced MNT.

1. Whoever Attacks First Wins.

If advanced MNT allowed quick conversion of mass into weapons then whoever attacked first would seize a decisive advantage. For example, if in times of war a military could double its weaponry stock every minute then a twenty-minutes head start would translate into a millionfold advantage. Even without a self-replicating edge, a military with advanced MNT could launch a decapitating surprise attack by, perhaps, sending tiny bombs that simultaneously severed the heads of all of its enemies.

Under (1) if the United States military develops advanced MNT before anyone else then it will effectively become Player One in the game described at the beginning of this essay. The strategy of “yelling master” would become the United States’ only sane response if it estimated that hundreds of organizations would someday join the game.

2. Whoever Has the Most Weapons Wins.

Under this scenario once multiple adversaries acquired advanced MNT they would each likely convert large quantities of the earth’s mass into weapons in preparation for a possible war; for example much of the carbon in the biosphere would be converted into diamondoid missiles and shields. Even if a hot war never broke out, a cold war would consume an enormous percentage of mankind’s resources. If the United States first develops advanced MNT and calculates that this situation will come into play once rival militaries master the nanoscale, the United States would best serve mankind by becoming a singleton.

3. Anyone Can Destroy the World.

Advanced MNT might make offense insanely easier than defense by, for example, allowing anyone to create hydrogen bombs or release unstoppable grey goo. Under (3), civilization wouldn’t survive if a singleton didn’t emerge.

4. Defense Holds

The case for a singleton is the weakest if advanced MNT benefits defense over offense. Scenario (4) would occur if nanotech allowed a nation to cheaply create effective shields that could protect it from threats both large and small.


In 1945 John von Neumann, the founder of both game theory and the modern computer, said “if we are going to have to risk war, it will be better to risk it while we have the A-bomb and [the Soviets] don’t.” Although the U.S. didn’t follow von Neumann’s advice it did survive—though perhaps only with an assist from quantum immortality.

We don’t yet know how advanced MNT would impact the military balance of power. If we’re fortunate, the technology will handicap aggressors and reduce the marginal benefit of defense spending. But the laws of physics, not the need of mankind, will determine the interplay between military power and nano-technology. If the United States becomes the first nation to develop advanced MNT then it should work out the strategic implications of what would happen if multiple nations acquired this technology. If the cold logic of game theory showed that the proliferation of nano-technology would lead to horrendous outcomes then the United States should turn itself into a singleton. As a United States citizen I say with some pride that a powerful reason why the United States would make a decent singleton is that if given the chance to become a singleton by maintaining a monopoly on the dominant weapons technology of the day, my country would probably reject the opportunity.

James D. Miller is an Associate Professor of Economics at Smith College. He is currently writing a book on how increases in human and machine intelligence will impact our economy.

7 Responses

  1. Oh, I see “economics professor”, just the perfect kind of person for making a statement about ideal social order. Else, who in his right mind would speak of a totalitarian regime as if it were a good thing?

  2. Homer500 says:

    “Should we want a relatively benevolent power such as the United States to turn itself into a singleton?”

    Benevolent by whose standards? Certainly not Iraq’s! I can’t imagine the destruction Georgie would have wrought if he had access to more powerful technology.

  3. DutchCon says:

    If MNT works or not, warfare could still change completely this century.
    What if everyone has a 3D-printer at home that can produce arms, explosives, drones? It doesn’t have to be hightech to be effective and it makes it very expensive to keep an area under control.
    Or what if those 3D-printers get hijacked and start producing small, simple killer drones by an invading army…
    Civil wars, ethnic cleansing, genocide. You don’t need nanomachines or smart viruses. A few hundred machines that can produce low quality guns and ammo, combined with a network of smartphones for communication, is enough.
    I suspect with this cheap and easy technology there will be many very bloody small scale conflicts around. It is going to be an interesting century.

  4. Mark Plus says:

    Of course, if MNT can’t exist in our universe because it gets the physics wrong, then Miller has just described a fantasy, not a realistic scenario.

    By contrast, just look at the rapid development of technologies which get the physics right from the very beginning. The laser went from an idea to a lab demo to a real technology in a handful of years. The same goes for computing, magnetic resonance imaging, metamaterials with their odd optical properties and so forth. Once you find the right principles and get them working for you, then the new technology based on these principles practically invents and develops itself, and without excuses about the lack of funding.

    I’ve concluded from the improgression in MNT after 30 years that it has become a rent-seeking and work-avoiding scam for people who can’t do, or don’t want to do, real engineering.

  5. Serious_N00b says:

    How did you become an associate professor with only 6 low quality peer-reviewed publications?

    “Power Markets: Transferring Systematic Risk to Lottery Players.”
    “Using Greek Mythology to Teach Game Theory.”
    “Truth Inducement In Greek Myth.”
    “Perjury and Information Weighting.” “Creating A Subpoena-Proof Diary: A Technological Solution to A Legal Problem.” “Using Lotteries To Expand The Range of Litigation Settlements.”

  1. September 12, 2011

    […] When a self replicating weaponry stock can double its size every minute then a twenty-minutes head start = millionfold advantage.  Read about it here. […]

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