Interview with John Robert Marlow on the Superswarm Option

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Rocky Rawstern

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Feb 20, 2004, 11:02:01 PM2/20/04
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Published in hardback in February 2004, John Robert Marlow's
techno-thriller Nano is a tale about humanity's close brush with
extinction at the hands of "the Final Technology."

The book tells a seat-gripping story, describing one possible
"advanced nanotechnology" scenario. And while society as a whole must
start discussing the possibilities that Marlow raises, there are
issues, such as the economic disruption (discussed to a lesser extent
in Marlow's book) that could accompany near-term limited nanotech,
that have a more urgent need. To learn more about near-term issues,
there is no better place to go than CRN (the Center for Responsible
Nanotechnology).

In Nano's appendix, Marlow postulates something he calls the
"Superswarm," a means by which we may find a measure of safety once we
achieve advanced nanotechnology. The following interview was conducted
to address this concept.

http://nanotech-now.com/John-Marlow-Superswarm-interview-Feb04.htm

Gordon D. Pusch

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Feb 21, 2004, 1:46:55 PM2/21/04
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Mr. Marlow's book and interviews _GROSSLY_ overstate the maximum possible
rate that rogue nanobots can replicate. Based on extremely general physical
principles, such as the conservation of energy and the limits of available
energy vs. the characteristic energies of chemical bonds, Dr. Robert Frietas
has shown that the maximum possible "biomass to nanobot" conversion rate of
self-replicating nanobots cannot possibly be greatly larger than that of
already-existing self-replicating organic lifeforms such as bacteria, so
that far from "destroy[ing] the planet in a matter of days," the timescale
for complete "ecophagy" (conversion of the entire biosphere into nanobots)
is in fact quite long --- on the order of _TWO YEARS_, not two days.
In particular, exponential growth of a nanite infestation cannot possibly be
sustained past the earliest, initial stage of the infestation, due to energy
and resource limitations, as well as production of waste heat by the nanobots;
hence, late growth can only occur at polynomial rather than exponential
rates, and at the surface of the expanding colony rather than throughout
its volume. Therefore, the response time required to deal with a rogue
nanotech infestation will _NOT_ be on the order of "minutes" as Mr. Marlow
claims, but rather on the order of days or weeks --- i.e., comparable to
the response time currently required to deal with an epidemic outbreak of a
typical infectious disease.

Please see <http://www.foresight.org/NanoRev/Ecophagy.html> for
Dr. Frietas' complete analysis.

In short, Mr. Marlow has paid too much attention to the overblown and
scientifically inaccurate claims of doomsday science fiction writers
(many of whom are scientifically illiterate luddites), and too little
attention to the physical limitations imposed on _ALL_ forms of nanotech
by real-world physical laws.


-- Gordon D. Pusch

perl -e '$_ = "gdpusch\@NO.xnet.SPAM.com\n"; s/NO\.//; s/SPAM\.//; print;'

John Larkin

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Feb 21, 2004, 1:45:30 PM2/21/04
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On 21 Feb 2004 04:02:01 GMT, ro...@future-is-here.com (Rocky Rawstern)
wrote:


JRM: complex technologies are inherently totalitarian because most
people do not understand them and are therefore not competent to
oversee their use. As technologies become more complex, the number of
people who understand them fully-and who will therefore control them,
and through them the societies which cannot survive without those
technologies-diminishes. In this way, complex technologies drive us
toward totalitarian technocracies.

======

That's a very strange thing to say. A tiny fraction of the population
understands printing, copy machines, fax machines, telephones,
airplanes, or how the Web works. But all of these things have been
enormous forces for spreading learning and for democratizing the
world.

Besides, any complex technology needs a lot of practitioners, and any
useful technology will be taught in trade schools and colleges en
mass.

But, for Pete's sake, this guy is a techno-thriller novelist.

John

Bootstrap Bill

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Feb 21, 2004, 5:16:31 PM2/21/04
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"Gordon D. Pusch" <g_d_pusch_remo...@xnet.com> wrote in message
news:c1892...@enews3.newsguy.com...


> Mr. Marlow's book and interviews _GROSSLY_ overstate the maximum possible
> rate that rogue nanobots can replicate. Based on extremely general
physical
> principles, such as the conservation of energy and the limits of available
> energy vs. the characteristic energies of chemical bonds, Dr. Robert
Frietas
> has shown that the maximum possible "biomass to nanobot" conversion rate
of
> self-replicating nanobots cannot possibly be greatly larger than that of
> already-existing self-replicating organic lifeforms such as bacteria, so
> that far from "destroy[ing] the planet in a matter of days," the timescale
> for complete "ecophagy" (conversion of the entire biosphere into nanobots)
> is in fact quite long --- on the order of _TWO YEARS_, not two days.

I read somewhere that assemblers should be able to replicate themselves in
about 20 minutes, and that given enough raw materials and energy they would
be able to fill the solar system in a matter of days.


John S. Novak, III

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Feb 22, 2004, 12:01:01 AM2/22/04
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In article <c18lb...@enews4.newsguy.com>, Bootstrap Bill wrote:

> I read somewhere that assemblers should be able to replicate themselves in
> about 20 minutes, and that given enough raw materials and energy they would
> be able to fill the solar system in a matter of days.

First, go read Freitas' paper on the subject. It's really rather
interesting.

Second, ask yourself this very important question: Fill the solar
system *with what*? There's not each stuff in the solar system to fill
it now...!

--
John S. Novak, III j...@cegt201.bradley.edu
The Humblest Man on the Net

Bootstrap Bill

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Feb 22, 2004, 3:02:48 PM2/22/04
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"John S. Novak, III" <j...@panix.com> wrote in message
news:c19d2...@enews1.newsguy.com...


>
> In article <c18lb...@enews4.newsguy.com>, Bootstrap Bill wrote:
>
> > I read somewhere that assemblers should be able to replicate themselves
in
> > about 20 minutes, and that given enough raw materials and energy they
would
> > be able to fill the solar system in a matter of days.
>
> First, go read Freitas' paper on the subject. It's really rather
> interesting.
>
> Second, ask yourself this very important question: Fill the solar
> system *with what*? There's not each stuff in the solar system to fill
> it now...!
>

"given enough raw materials and energy", if assemblers can double their
numbers every 20 minutes, they would outweigh the solar system in a matter
of days.

Do you have a link to the paper?

John Robert Marlow

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Feb 22, 2004, 3:04:35 PM2/22/04
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John Larkin <jjla...@highlandSNIPtechTHISnologyPLEASE.com> wrote in message
news:<c1890...@enews1.newsguy.com>...

#####

In response, I would have to say that your post makes my point: How
many people understand the inner workings of the phone system, fax
machines, broadcast transmissions, or--most importantly--the internet?
Relatively few (a "tiny fraction of the population," as you put
it)--which is why those few can develop and deploy technological tools
with totalitarian implications. Tools such as ECHELON, Carnivore,
TIAS, Magic Lantern, and a host of other mechanisms which effectively
monitor and selectively trace and record electronic communications
(some would say ALL electronic communications) at will.

And this is but the beginning; societies would survive if these
complex technologies--even the internet--failed tomorrow. Soon, we
will have no choice but to rely upon far more complex technologies,
without which our societies will not be able to survive--and even
fewer people will understand those.

Which, of course, leads us ever farther down the path toward
totalitarian technocracies...

John Robert Marlow
www.johnrobertmarlow.com

Robert V Hill

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Feb 22, 2004, 3:05:09 PM2/22/04
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"Bootstrap Bill" <wrco...@yahoo.com> wrote in message
news:c18lb...@enews4.newsguy.com...

There are bacteria that replicate themselves in much less then 20 minutes. I
do not see green goo over taking me as I type this. Besides a neutron bomb
or any other nuclear device would most like take them out, EMP is a great
thing.


Chris Phoenix

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Feb 22, 2004, 3:33:52 PM2/22/04
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Gordon D. Pusch wrote:

> Mr. Marlow's book and interviews _GROSSLY_ overstate the maximum possible
> rate that rogue nanobots can replicate. Based on extremely general physical
> principles, such as the conservation of energy and the limits of available
> energy vs. the characteristic energies of chemical bonds, Dr. Robert Frietas
> has shown that the maximum possible "biomass to nanobot" conversion rate of
> self-replicating nanobots cannot possibly be greatly larger than that of
> already-existing self-replicating organic lifeforms such as bacteria,

Um, I don't think he said that. He said that waste heat was "a major
restriction." He cited Drexler's estimate of 100 MJ/kg of final
product. And he also assumed that the goo would be working slowly to
avoid detection. Under this assumption, it would indeed take 40 months
(20 in the final cycle). If it's working at the same efficiency but
just under the boiling point of water, it'd be 50 times as fast.

But Freitas also pointed out that Drexler says that energy dissipation
may in theory be as low as 0.1 MJ/kg for carefully planned reactions.
Thermal-limited speed decreases in inverse proportion to efficiency, so
this would allow conversion to happen 1000 times as fast.

Natural enzyme chemistries are closer to 100 MJ/kg; plants fix biomass
at 38 MJ/kg, and plants have evolved for eons for efficiency. And so
even a moderately more efficient 10 MJ/kg would allow a factor of 10
speedup on top of the 50.

In my opinion, plants should not be taken as the gold standard for
efficiency. They have to raise significant amounts of water; resist
parasite attack; use photons in a wide energy range; and maintain
metabolism overnight. So I think 10 MJ/kg cannot be ruled out.

So a moderately efficient goo, not trying to avoid detection, could in
theory convert the biosphere in 2.44 days. Note that at the _start_ of
this period, according to the scenario, the biosphere would already be
near-boiling, and the damage we care about would already be done. But
note also that this scenario requires global dispersal of the initial
goo-bots, which, I think, most goo designs (including Marlow's) do not
adequately take into account. The real issue is not how quickly goo can
work. And how quickly it reaches its thermal limits is totally
irrelevant, since it'll reach the thermal limits of living biomass
first. The important question is whether nanobots or larger nano-built
weapons can access the globe without being intercepted. If so, anyone
with an enemy is toast.

> In particular, exponential growth of a nanite infestation cannot possibly be
> sustained past the earliest, initial stage of the infestation, due to energy
> and resource limitations, as well as production of waste heat by the nanobots;
> hence, late growth can only occur at polynomial rather than exponential
> rates, and at the surface of the expanding colony rather than throughout
> its volume. Therefore, the response time required to deal with a rogue
> nanotech infestation will _NOT_ be on the order of "minutes" as Mr. Marlow
> claims, but rather on the order of days or weeks --- i.e., comparable to
> the response time currently required to deal with an epidemic outbreak of a
> typical infectious disease.

A gray goo will be very hard to build. It'll need a metabolism, a
fabricator, a control computer with full blueprints, and an
environmental shell with chemical/mechanical interfaces... all in a very
small package. Note that this means that there's no way a nanofactory
can accidentally mutate into a gray goo. If gray goo happens, it will
be deliberate.

Long before goo is designable, it'll be possible to design UAV's
(unmanned aerial vehicles; think cruise missiles) that can spread it
very quickly. But why bother spreading goo? With much simpler
robotics/avionics, you can just kill the person (or city) you want to
kill; no need to destroy the world in the process.

If we ever get to the point where script kiddies can release dangerous
gray goo, we're probably doomed--since it'll surely be harder to stop
goo than to stop slow-moving slow-thinking meat robots from pushing the
wrong buttons. But we will have much more severe dangers to deal with
before that point. Like nano-arms races with weapons much more rapidly
destructive than gray goo--and much more controllable, hence easier to
justify using.

> In short, Mr. Marlow has paid too much attention to the overblown and
> scientifically inaccurate claims of doomsday science fiction writers
> (many of whom are scientifically illiterate luddites), and too little
> attention to the physical limitations imposed on _ALL_ forms of nanotech
> by real-world physical laws.

I'd feel more comfortable with this assertion if I didn't think you had
misread Freitas' paper. Again, the 20 month final cycle time was
apparently the most optimistic one he could come up with--not anywhere
close to the physical limits. The least optimistic scenarios make it
clear that, without a very rapid response prepared, a widely distributed
goo would be extremely bad news for any biomass within the contaminated
zone.

Even though John Marlow has his nanobots doing impossible things--like
rapidly eating low-energy materials, and building things too fast--I
don't think it would change the book much if he had written it to
conform to reasonable physical limitations. Less chemistry, more
micro-scale robotics... and you'd get much the same impact.

Another question is how quickly advanced nanotech designs could be
developed. I think he's very over-optimistic there, but he invokes a
wildcard that I can't say is absolutely impossible.

In any event, the book actually scared me--and I've been thinking about
this stuff for a long time, and I know all about doing the math on
physical limitations, and I spotted lots of places where things couldn't
work the way he wrote them. But the strength of the story is that it
doesn't really depend on the technological details. Make a powerful
enough technology--and diamondoid molecular manufacturing certainly
qualifies--and you're opening the door to all sorts of human-invoked
destruction.

I think gray goo is not a big concern, at least initially--but only
because other, more dangerous possibilities must be survived first.

Chris

--
Chris Phoenix cpho...@CRNano.org
Director of Research
Center for Responsible Nanotechnology http://CRNano.org

John Larkin

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Feb 22, 2004, 7:49:41 PM2/22/04
to

On 22 Feb 2004 20:04:35 GMT, john_q...@yahoo.com (John Robert
Marlow) wrote:

>
>#####
>
>In response, I would have to say that your post makes my point: How
>many people understand the inner workings of the phone system, fax
>machines, broadcast transmissions, or--most importantly--the internet?
>Relatively few (a "tiny fraction of the population," as you put
>it)--which is why those few can develop and deploy technological tools
>with totalitarian implications. Tools such as ECHELON, Carnivore,
>TIAS, Magic Lantern, and a host of other mechanisms which effectively
>monitor and selectively trace and record electronic communications
>(some would say ALL electronic communications) at will.
>

The truly large-scale development and deployment of new technologies
is increasingly commercial, not military. Consumer goods are where the
power and the money really lie. There is not one laser weapon (in the
sense of a laser itself destroying a target) deployed, but millions of
CD-burner VCSEL lasers are manufactured every day. A breakthrough
technology is *too valuable* to be restricted to military use.
Military hardware is increasingly COTS - commercial off-the shelf -
because the commercial stuff is ahead of the custom designs.

I can easily encrypt my email, using readily available, free
utilities, such that the CIA couldn't crack it in 10,000 years.

>And this is but the beginning; societies would survive if these
>complex technologies--even the internet--failed tomorrow. Soon, we
>will have no choice but to rely upon far more complex technologies,
>without which our societies will not be able to survive--and even
>fewer people will understand those.

Actually, society as we know it would be decimated if critical modern
technologies were somehow to fail. Key to feeding the current world
population are transportation; agricultural fuels, fertilizers,
pesticides; energy; industrial production. But I can't envision any
way any of these can suddenly "fail". We could certainly survive
without the internet; we'd likely get a lot *more* work done.

As far as spying goes, the more the better. Wars are caused as often
as not by lack of information - and resulting paranoia, or
over-confidence - about a potential enemy.

>Which, of course, leads us ever farther down the path toward
>totalitarian technocracies...

I think the bottom line is this: some people see technology as a
threat, and extrapolate cataclysmic results from its advances. There
is virtually no historical justification for this position, although
it may sell novels. The fax machine was an important tool in bringing
down the USSR; the Internet is democratizing China.

Imagine a plausible nanotech device: a tiny key-ring USB-2 device that
stores petabytes of data cheaply. Unlimited copies of books, movies,
lectures, computer programs, music, whatever could be copied and
transported anywhere, with no really practical means of interception.
The consequences of that will be anything but totalitarian.

John

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