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The first nanofactories

Over at Accelerating Future, Michael Anissimov is worried about what we might call a hard nano-takeoff:

The first nanofactories will be both impressive (in their exponential qualities and complete automation of manufacturing) and unimpressive (their chemical inflexibility, possible cooling requirements, electricity consumption, limited initial design space, etc.) I predict they will be revolutionary enough that the first model may also be one of the most widely distributed. Unless there are serious restrictions on nanofactory self-replication, a near-exponential flood of nanofactories and nanoproducts will follow, flowing from the first system to cross that adoption tipping point.

I beg to differ. The first nanofactories will probably be DNA/RNA/protein gadgets requiring thousands of steps by skilled scientists to coax them to build a new gadget (which will consist only of DNA/RNA/protein), or diamondoid gadgets in high vacuum requiring thousands of steps by skilled scientists to coax them to build a new gadget (which will consist only of diamondoid), or possibly even tungsten carbide gadgets doing EDM with nanotubes, requiring thousands of steps by skilled scientists to coax them to build a new gadget (which will consist only of tungsten carbide, the nanotubes having to be supplied from outside). Early nanofactories will be cranky and experimental, expensive, require expensive inputs, be able to produce only very limited products, and be very lucky to replicate themselves before they break down.

And they won’t be able to build anything like the conquer-the-world whizbangs that Michael is worried about.

And that’s if we arbitrarily define a nanofactory as being something that’s theoretically capable of replicating itself in the first place.

Having a nanofactory will be a lot like having an ENIAC. In 1946. There’ll be no need to worry about the Internet viruses and spam for a little while. Very, very few people will have the skill to get anything useful out of it at all. Think first generation, second generation, etc. computers — decades of development. It’s easy for software people to forget just how hard it is to make things work in the real, physical world. Rates of development in computers — the Moore’s Law curve — have been ten times corresponding growth rates in general industrial development. When the nano/AI revolution gets going in earnest, physical-world rates may catch up, but we have to get there first.

So, expect nanofactories to go through a long series of generations of increasing speed and capabilities — and of the capabilities of their products. The people who will get down that path the fastest are very likely to be the same ones who already have nuclear weapons — the governments of the major world powers. There will be no real reason for them to upset the applecart. They already have a jaundiced eye out for others trying to steal a march with advanced technology, and their having nanotech will make that kind of watching only easier to do. Sure, in the long run, nations that are on the verge of being able to build nuclear weapons now will be likely to be able to build nanoweapons.

If you had an advanced nanofactory today, you’d be in the position of someone in 1946 being given an IBM Blue Gene with no software, and no interface beyond panel lights and console switches (i.e. you enter your program in binary). There’s a lot of work between that and a TTY command line, much less a widgets-and-windows GUI.

By the time we have working nanofactories, I opine, we’ll have fairly capable AI that will help us develop that kind of software — the product designs and manufacturing methods for them — faster and less expensively than otherwise. But consider: nanocomputers are very likely to be among the earliest products from nanotech as it develops. Which means that there will be AI in not only the nanofactories, but, wherever necessary, in the products. Which means that, by the time someone’s nano-assassin floats over on the jet stream, it’ll find smart nano-cops (already busy herding errant salmonella) waiting for it.

6 Responses to “The first nanofactories”

  1. Accelerating Future » Nanofactories Will Be Powerful and Cheap If They Work at All Says:

    [...] Foresight Institute President J. Storrs Hall gave a response to my concern about what might be called a “hard nano take-off”. I said: The first nanofactories will be both impressive (in their exponential qualities and complete automation of manufacturing) and unimpressive (their chemical inflexibility, possible cooling requirements, electricity consumption, limited initial design space, etc.) I predict they will be revolutionary enough that the first model may also be one of the most widely distributed. Unless there are serious restrictions on nanofactory self-replication, a near-exponential flood of nanofactories and nanoproducts will follow, flowing from the first system to cross that adoption tipping point. [...]

  2. Says:

    That is a good response, Josh. I tend to see the MNT developing along those lines, too. PS: When do I get my first pocket nanoknife with molecular diamondoid and tungsten carbide edges to take camping? =)

    I think that a greater threat will be from nefarious persons armed with biotechnological devices at first, as there is already a basis for biotech reengineering of virii and bacteria and stuff along those lines. Also, the ability to cheaply extract uranium from seawater and other sources, and to put together dirty bombs is something that needs to be watched from potential threats.

  3. JamesG Says:

    Yes I agree that AI is almost certainly a prerequisite for nanofabs/nanobots. But there is still a danger, whoever controls the AI will control the world. Unfortunately people can’t take this subject seriously because of their own ignorance, so in some sense I can see a hard-takeoff happening and some potential bad outcomes. This is why this work needs some leadership, a real nano-agency, government or corporate that commits to studying, defining policy and executing that policy, and making nanofabs/nanobots and AI with that policy being their creed.

  4. Says:

    Heck with the pocketknife. I want a diamond-edged telescoping chainsaw that fits into my pocket. It would be nice to be able to chop down trees with a single stroke.

    And it would be nice to have a body that can survive having a tree land on it when I misjudge the direction it’s going to fall.

  5. Says:

    How about some down-to-earth solution to our mandane earthly problems ..eh like-
    When will we be able to send in a couple of cheap nano robot to seek out the source of roof leak or basement water seepage. All we need is some means to tarck them when these nano-robot traces its path following the flow of water. Surely these are very basic nano part to produce but could well solve our century-old problem. Anyone out there looking at this?

    Or nano-robot coaxing the moisture in the air to produce water in drought stricken areas like we are experiencing currently in our county. I know AWG already exists now to produce water from thin air but they rely on expensive energy. Anyone pursuing this in the nanotech field?

    Or have I misunderstood the capability of nanotechnology?

    from a layman in nanotech

  6. Says:

    These nanites could produce monoatomic items. Super strong and durable. Don’t they have technology to “eat’ the out out of the water on spills?

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