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Nanotechnology in the Fractal Cosmos universe

I think that the best way for us to discuss the issue of technology is to create a topic for each specific technological field and than join everything in an unified timeline.

Today, I want to talk about Nanotechnology.

I think that it’s pretty clear that this will be a real game-changer, but we have no way of knowing how powerful will it actually be.

Some science-fiction writers depict universes in which nanotech is so advanced that we can create almost aything out little more than thin air, while others are quite more conservative.

As Fractal Cosmos is a worldbuilding project that spans through several dozens of years, we can perfectly portray both extremes. Nanotechnology will very limited in the beggining but than those limitations will gradualy whidraw as times passes by.

In my opinion the driving factors in the evolution of this technology will be the size and the capacity of self-replication.

I propose that we adopt a three-stage scenario:

Stage 1 (2030-2045)

Nanotech starts becoming a part of our reality, but it’s still in its humble begginings.

It’s used mainly for medical purposes (detecting deseases, repairing damaged tissues, destroying cancer cells, assinting surgical procedures, etc), althought it’s already used to create some pretty useful new materials for several purposes.

The nanodevices are far smaller than biological cells but they aren’t small enough to manipulate matter on the molecular scale yet.
Self-replication of nanomachines is still a very distant concept.

Stage 2 (2045-2065)

It’s the age of molecular nanotechnology. Most families own now Matter Compilers which can create almost anything if given an adequate supply of basic molecules.

The economy is largely transformed by this major revolution.

The first self-replicating nanomachines start appearing, but their self-replication is still rough.

Stage 3 (2065- onwards)

Nanaotechnology can now shape matter on the atomic scale.
Self-replication has become a reality.

What do you think of this approach?

There are also other things related to nanotech that I would to discuss with you:

  • In Neal Stephenson’s The Diamond Age we are introduced to an interesting dichotomy between two antagonical technologies: the Feed and the Seed. The Feed is a centralized network that provides Matter Compilers with the basic molecules that they use to create stuff, while the Seed is a technology that can create almost anything without being connected to any Network, it extracts all the raw materials it need from nature itself. I think that this dichotomy fits very well in our Second Cold War scenario. The X bloc would pursue the Seed technology because it’s decentralized, while the C bloc would stick strongly to the Feed.
  • We should introduce a few nanoplagues in our timeline, but nothing apocalyptic. Just some local disasters that would kill lots of people but not lead to the end of the world. This disasters would sparkle controversy over the issue of nanotech, leading many governments to impose limits on the self-replication capacities of nanomachines.
  • nanotechnology will certainly be used for war purposes in the future. We shouldn’t ignore that.
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Nice, nanotechnology and atomically precise manufacturing are certainly key technologies for the future, so it makes a lot of sense to start taking a look at them. My approach here is to take a look at different technologies and when they will be introduced. For each technology I suggest three dates, which denote:

  1. Experimental use: The technology is able to be applied in bleeding edge laboratories, but not very much outside of them.
  2. Mainstream use: The technology has reached mass markets and is used frequently. It’s not perfected yet, but it’s good enough to be used widely.
  3. Perfection: At this stage there isn’t much room for improvement for this technology. It’s about as good as it gets. About anyone has access to it and it’s rather cheap.

Here are the different technologies:

DNA origami machines (2015, 2030, 2040): Functional DNA strands shaped into very specific forms to fulfil certain functions like detection of substances, medicine delivery, transportation of substances, and so on. Nothing self-replicating, of course, and no real intelligence, but simple operation on the level of molecular biology.

Atomic printers (2030, 2045, 2055): Atomically precise 3d-printers stacking atoms on atoms to build nanomachines. They can create the best products possible, but they are also relatively slow.

Nanofactories (2035, 2045, 2055): Nanofactories assemble atoms into the right configurations to create bigger standardized blocks, which are then arranged into even bigger blocks, and so on, out of which usable products are made. They work faster than atomic printers, but don’t have quite their perfect product quality (which isn’t really needed in most cases).

Advanced nanobots (2035, 2050, 2060): Nano-scale robots with seriously powerful AI fulfilling all kinds of functions within the body and in other systems. Usually, the are not self-replicating, because they are built by atomic printers.

Macroscopic nanobot swarms (2040, 2055, 2065): Self-replicating nanobots sticking together to form all kinds of macroscopic structures. They can be used to quickly create macroscopic machines, or avatars, or furniture. In practice, this kind of technology comes closest to the “Seed” technology from “Diamond Age”.

Replicators (2045, 2060, 2070): The technology inspired by Star Trek that provides a quick alternative to the slow atomic printers. Replicators use matter beams to create products with roughly atomic precision. There’s a trade-off between speed and quality: The faster you print your product, the less you can be sure that you have exactly the right atoms in exactly the right spot. A replicator is usually a box that creates a vacuum within itself in order not to get problems with air molecules interfering with the construction process.

Dispensers (2055, 2070, 2080): Dispensers are like replicators, but they simply project their matter means outwards to the location where the desired product should be created. They will create a temporary vacuum using (plasma) force fields between themselves and the target location (unless they work in space, in which case that step is unnecessary). Towards the end of the 21st century handheld dispensers will be used, or dispensers attached to one’s body. They gather their building materials via feeding beams. So, dispensers can quickly dispense objects that are vastly bigger than the dispensers themselves.

Materializers (2070, 2085, 2095): Materializers are about the craziest version of nanotechnology available. They use about all of the technologies above, and then some, to virtually materialize objects seemingly out of thin air. Materializers are so miniaturized that they are essentially invisible. You just want something to be there, and the next second it’s actually there. It looks like magic, but actually uses the most hardcore technology there is. Materializers are extremely fast and precise, but not necessarily the most energy efficient way to create things, so the older technologies will still have their use cases.

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Sounds good, although I’m not sure about the Materializers.

They sound too crazy to be avaible by the end of the 21st century.

It’s a bit hard to say how fast such technologies will develop without including political, economic, and most importantly other technological considerations: How will Moore’s law fare in the future? Will it decelerate? Stay the same? Accelerate? And even if it accelerates, will that necessarily make a big impact? After all, it could turn out that no matter how fast technology (and intelligence) develops, the difficulty of getting to the next big technological step will just rise faster (this is what we are seeing in medicine/pharmazeutics today with “Eroom’s law”).

We could also ask this way: When is “peak technology”? Meaning, when does technological progress start decelerating, instead of accelerating? Some pessimists say this happened somewhere around the mid of the 20st century already. I am much more optimistic and say it will happen sometime around 2100. I’d like to hear the opinions of more futurists on this matter.

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Things are not as simple as technology accelarating vs technology decelerating.
As time passes by some fields boom while other stagnate, that’s why these
things are so hard to predict.

So, I guess that means that nanotech in the Fractal Cosmos universe will develop just as much as we want it to.

The only reason why I’m reticent about the materializers is because they seem too magic-like (especially because they work instantaneously), and that might make it difficult to write stories set in the end of the century. How are we going to create narrative tension if humans can get nearly everything they want in a matter of seconds?

But maybe we can pull it off. Even the materializers must have some weakness, something we can exploit to make things interesting.

Yes, that is correct in general, but some future technologies will be real game changers in that they will enable almost all fields to bloom much more than they ever have: Nanotechnology and artificial general intelligence. With more intelligence, our ability to create ever more complex, efficient, and effective technologies increases dramatically. And with nanotechnology our control of matters will reach levels of near perfection. Together, both will change the playing field dramatically. That’s why I am assuming near constant exponential progress throughout the decades and throughout most areas of technology – until we reach peak technology somewhere around 2100, or later in the 22nd century.

Well, you would need to think about plausible factors which could effectively slow down development of nanotechnology. Do you have any ideas in mind, other than sheer difficulty, which is a nut that will eventually be cracked by sufficiently powerful AGI.

My own thinking goes towards the direction that materializers are a technology that is developed and used by the system V civilizations – in part to demonstrate their economic and technological superiority. Watching materializers in action will be a real shock to the self-worth of system D civilizations which just marvel at the magic-like technology employed by the system V civilizations (and criticize it as excessive).

Hehe, that is a good question, and it’s one that the writers of Star Trek - The Next Generation had to deal with all the time in a civilization that doesn’t use money and replicates all the goods it wants and needs. Narrative tension comes from conflicts of interest. The conflicts in a system V civilization are not about material wealth or knowledge, but about relative influence and power, because those are among the few things that will still be relatively scarce. What we will likely see are memetic conflicts, which consist in one faction trying to convince the members of other factions to convert, or at least to make acceptable compromises.

Anyway, the material wealth even of system V civilizations is not absolute. Getting the materials to print a billion star ships will still be a non trivial task.

Yes, as I said, their energy efficiency is suboptimal. They are excessively wasteful in that sense compared to more energy efficient machines like replicators or nanobot swarms.

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Yes I have, fear.

Nanotechnology will certainly be a very controversial topic in the future (it already is in many futurist circles). Many people will certainly dislike the idea of any kid being able to build a mass distruction weapon in his basement.

Also, the idea of self-replicating nanobots taking over the world (grey-goo) is a pretty scary one, and if we assume that a few nanoplagues will happen in the future, many groups will have reasons to be afraid of nanotechnology.

Yeah, that may work, but in that case we’ll have to postpone a little the dates for the materializers, since system V will only start emerging in the late 2090s. Blame it on the factors I mentioned above.

Sounds good.

Ok, now we have a very intersting theme on our hands: How will the “Nano Scare” turn out in the Fractal Cosmos? And: Would it suffice to postpone the development of advanced nanotechnology by decades?

I think, a Nano Scare period is at least somewhat realistic and would maybe postpone atomically precise high throughput nanotechnology by about a decade or two, because of the lack of research into that direction during the Nano Scare.

What kind of nanotechnology would have to be tightly regulated or outlawed?

  • Atomic printers, because they can be used to create self-replicating nanobots in theory.
  • General purpose nanofactories. Specialized nanofactories, which could only build specific products would still be allowed
  • Advanced nanobots that are not explicitly legalized (of course, self-replicating ones are totally outlawed during the Nano Scare)
  • Replicators, of course

Could this be pulled off? In theory, yes, but it would really require a tight global surveillance network to prevent the development and use of such technology underground. That in itself would be a quite dystopian outcome of the Nano Scare. Maintaining effective performance of this network throughout the entirety of the Second Cold War seems difficult, but not impossible, if both sides fear the development and use of dangerous nanotechnology more than being subject to a surveillance network that would somehow have to be politically neutral, or a very special common organization.

With a real Nano Scare period progress would be delayed in the Fractal Cosmos. It would be more epic, but also less utopian. For storytelling purposes, it would be a rather useful plot device, I think. Also, it would come with a period of oppressive surveillance, which isn’t too unrealistic, either. In some sense, we would get many interesting themes at once. The Nano Scare could even be combined with a general fear of powerful artificial general intelligence.

From the perspective of potential for drama, a Nano Scare would be very good. As for being maximally utopian – well, perhaps a rougher path to a really utopian world sounds more believable, after all.

Edit: It might actually be a good idea not to be maximally utopian in Fractal Cosmos, so that there’s still a slight chance for optimists that reality will turn out actually better than our Fractal Cosmos stories!

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Not necessarily. Developing adavanced nanotechnology will probably require massive amounts of resources (even if AGIs manage to make it easier), which means it would be very difficult to do it without the support of governments and large corporations.

Do you know many groundbreaking technologies that were developed by criminals?

I dont think the Nano Scare needs to be a period of opressive global surveillance. We can portray it as a combination of several less extreme factors:

  • Absence of government funding in the vast majority of the countries. Some countries would be more forward-thinking but they would lack the resources to move the research forward at a decent pace. In adition, constant pressure by the global superpowers would eventually force these governments to quit.
  • Tight regulation of private institutions in most countries. Some would be more liberal but they would lack the resources and be under a lot of pressure.
  • Generalized popular hysteria, leading to suspicion against the companies that pursue any kind of research in this field.
  • Large waves of neo-luddite terrorism.

I think that these are more than enough to slow down progress in nanotech. And they also have plenty of dramatic potential.

I’m uncertain about that. At the moment it would seem to the that way. I’m wondering about the possibilities of DIY APM (Do it yourself atomically precise manufacturing). Something like that may be possible by the 2040s or so, at which point it may become really difficult to keep Pandora’s box shut.

When it comes to APM I see two ways to developing and maturing this technology:

  1. Simulation. This is certainly extremely difficult with today’s computers, since the dynamics of atoms and molecules are determined by quantum mechanics. However, if we develop quantum computers, the situation might change dramatically, and we will be able to simulate increasingly complex molecular machines very quickly without having to actually build them.
  2. Experimental trial and error. Just build nanomachines, see how they work out, and gradually improve on those which turn out to work ok. This approach works, but it’s probably slower than simulating nanomachines with quantum computers. Of course, for this approach you need to build the nanomachines in the first place, which is of course a significant problem, until we get DIY APM technology.

Perhaps this would be the first stage of the Nano Scare, which would work until about 2045 or so. Afterwards, it would need to employ a very intrusive surveillance state, which might delay advanced nanotechnology by about another 20 years or so. That is, if we really want to use both ways for delaying progress for dramatic effect or so.

You mean people building atomic printers in their houses all by themselves?!

I find it hard to believe that something like that could be possible by that decade. Especially since, even in your original prevision, which assumed that nothing would delay progress in nanotech for its early years, APM devices would only become mainstream by 2045.

And even we assumed that it would be possible for people to buil atomic printers by that date, it would still take them several decades to get to the next stage all by themselves.

Do you know of any major technological leap that happened without someone investing massive amounts of resources on it?

Nowdays, many (regular) people can build computers by themselves but I don’t see any of those people fueling any technological revolution.

Anyway, even we assume that when DIY APM becomes possible Pandora’s Box opens, all we need to do is delay DIY APM, which could be done without massive surveillance.

Contrarily to what it may seem (nowdays), technological progress is not easy. It requires a lot of resources. It allways did and it allways will. The only reason why we’re progressing faster nowdays than we were a hundred years ago is because now we allocate our resources in a far better way.

No, I meant that atomic printers are commercially available sometime in the 2040s (in the situation of no previous Nano Scare), so that they can be used by certain people to create nanomachines in their basements.

In a Nano Scare situation, use of atomic printers would probably be tightly controlled, and they wouldn’t be commercially available for normal persons.

Probably, but you never know. And that’s exactly what those afraid of uncontrolled nanoweapons will tell the population: We can’t know what the DIY people will come up with or when, so we must totally control this techhnology!

  • Fire! :smiley:
  • What about the Wright Brothers and heaver than air flight?
  • Penicillin was totally discovered by accident and triggered the boom and success of antibiotics
  • The world wide web? It was only a side-effect of a big expensive project, but it could have been done without it, in principle.

It’s really hard to say, though. Often, what you need is put the things that are already around at the current level of development and prosperity and combine then in novel ways. You don’t necessarily need a specific project with huge dedicated resources for that. If the environment is advanced and prosperous enough, even a small project can suffice for a real breakthrough.

I think the open source community is at least slightly revolutionary. Also, the hardware people have, and the internet, makes it possible for them to greatly influence the world by writing innovative software.

Yes, that’s entirely plausible and possible!

Those resources are dispersed within the economy. You just need to get the right resources together somehow. In an affluent society, that can be relatively easy! The contemporary general level of affluence in industrial nations is staggering even compared to the level of affluence of kinds during the middle ages! It’s still totally poor compared to what system D or even system V could provide!

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I’m interested in Stage 0 (now - 2030) - and building up scenarios covering the possible/probable/preferred situations based on the evolving nanotechnology developments.

Is there already a good place that captures this that you know of?

You can try CRN, or more specifically, CRN’s Nanotech Scenarios Series. It’s a very interesting project by a group of well known futurists that explores several different scenarios of how nanotech may develop and affect society.

They are a lot more optimistic than us (postulating that nanofactories will emerge no later than 2022) and make a pretty good covering of the period prior to 2030.

If you want more conservative previsions for the very near future the best thing you have to do is check out a few scientific publications. Futurists and sci-fi writers allways trend to take their imagination a little further.

Ok, so let’s focus on delaying DIY APM.

I think the nanoscare will probably start when the first atomic printers are developed (around 2035), but it’ll only become a major issue when this technology hits the market (early 2040s probably).

By this time, governmets all around the world completely stop funding nanotechnological research and write the first laws to serously regulate this field.

Atomic printers can’t be sold to regular and only licensed facilities are allowed to have one. In theory, these atomic printers could be used to create anything, but in practice there are still many (complex) obejcts that they can’t manufacture. This includes nanomachines, so DIY APM is still a distant dream (or nightmare, depending on the prespective).

Research labs are not allowed to develop any project that would lead to the emergence of self-replicating nanotechnology and the penalties for doing so are very high.

To prevent the sale of atomic printers in the black market the police installs a tracker in each one of them. This tracker is located near a very important and very fragile component of the device, so it’s very difficult to disable it without damaging the printer. I think this could be a good way for governments to control this problem without installing massive surveillance over the general population.

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Ok, I like your scenario, Joao. It sounds fairly realistic – even scarily realistic! :smiley: With atomic printers tightly regulated, progress in APM will be slowed down significantly.

It is one issue to deal with potential misuse of nanotechnology by individuals, but another issue are the incentives for states to develop advanced nanotech. Especially during the Second Cold War these incentives will be rather high. So, what would prevent the different blocs to develop self-replicating nanotech on their own to possess superior offensive and defensive nanoweapons and manufacturing capabilities? They would also be tempted to put a lot of resources into that kind of research – if not officially, then as secret “black projects”. And since this technology does not only have destructive potential, but provides really great productive promises, the incentives to do this kind of research will be immense. Would a popular “Nano Scare” be enough to suppress such research? I think not. There would really need to be a global “Nano Horror” that implements a global control system that would prevent any nation even from doing secret research into that direction.

There aren’t many realistic scenarios which would lead to a true Nano Horror, except for a really bad “grey goo” scenario (which isn’t too likely anyway, but we could invoke it for dramatic effect nevertheless), which is stopped by a tactical nuke or EMP or something. But anyway, once the technology is so advanced that a grey goo scenario is possible, Pandora’s box is already wide open. So… what do you think?

They would proabably be afraid that the technology could slip off their control. This would be a comprehensible fear, especially due to the fact that both blocs were targets of massive espionage programmes, and it could lead to some kind of global agreement to regulate nanotech.

This agreement could also be motivated for an increasement of the popularity of the global environmentalist movement. I think that it’s safe to say that the prospect of self-replicating machines taking over the world is the worst nightmare of the common environmentalist.

I don’t see that as very plausible. Hostile espionage is not a sufficient reason not to do secret research. I mean, even if it came out that one side did secret research, what would be the consequences? Economic sanctions? All out war? This is the Second Cold War we are talking about. Things are already pretty nasty between the different blocs, and each side will probably expect the other to do secret nanotech (and AI) research.

What could really change the game is a global transparency movement that used cheap sensors and drones to get information about nearly everything. It could be a totally decentralized intelligence network, something like a mixture Anonymous and WikiLeaks, but with better technology and more popular backing. A force that both blocs fear and are unable to suppress sufficiently. This network might create and foster the public awareness that finally leads to the Nano Scale legislation.

That may be true, but there will certainly also bright green environmentalists (“technogaians”) who embrace nanotechnology as our last chance to save nature, or what’s left of it, or even to improve nature.

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I like that. Sounds plausible as well as cool

Yeah but I sincerely doubt technogaians will ever be more than a tiny minority in the mainstream environmentalist movement.

Greenpeace’s Nature vs Technology bullshit is just a lot easier to sell than bright green philosophy. Most greens are so much in love with what they consider “natural” that they trend to repudiate anything “artificial” (especially technology), it’s basic human psychology.

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