list of nanotechnology dangers was written as an add-on to
the list of nanotech dangers at the Center for Responsible
Nanotechnology's page on the topic. You should read that page
before you read this one, and give some serious thought to
the risks listed. See also my page on nanotech administrative
Nanotech-enhanced life forms ("green
goo") might seriously damage the environment.
Nano-theorist Robert Freitas has designed
a simple nanodevice, the respirocyte, that acts as an artificial
red blood cell. It is made out of pure diamond. It works far
more efficiently than a red blood cell, mostly thanks to the
massive pressure that can be sustained within its rigid diamondoid
shell. So efficiently, in fact, that 5 cubic millimeters of
such respirocytes would be enough to replace all of the blood
in your body, and perform the same functions at equivalent
or better performance. If your blood were saturated with respirocytes,
it would become possible for you to hold your breath underwater
for many hours, or sprint at top speed for somewhere near
15 minutes. With nanotechnology, it will become possible to
"overclock" the biological processes of any life
form, including reproductive cycles. Why create your own "grey
goo" from scratch when you can create "green goo";
supercharged, out-of-control microbes, plant life, even animals?
If a life form is injected with biocompatible nanomachines
that are powered by bodily chemicals, self-replicate, and
are passed from parents to offspring, then we (and the environment)
could have major problems. Although not as large of a danger
as many of the others, the use of nanotech-built products
to create "green goo" should be taken into account
in dialogues concerning nanofactory product restrictions.
Grey goo in space might be easier to
engineer than grey goo on earth.
"Grey goo" is the slang term
for out-of-control self-replicating nanomachines. An early
paper on grey goo is "Some Limits to Global Ecophagy
by Biovorous Nanoreplicators" by Robert Freitas. In "Thirty
Essential Nanotechnology Studies", CRN Director of Research
Chris Phoenix lists five abilities required for true grey
goo; 1) mobility, 2) shell 3) control, 4) metabolism, and
5) fabrication. Note that many forms of natural life, including
simple bacteria, possess all these abilities. Although accidental
grey goo in terrestrial environments seems unlikely, space-based
goo has substantially lower design requirements and may be
released accidentally. Astro-nanotechnology designed for automated
mining of the asteroids are one possibility. The "shell"
requirement may be more difficult to fulfill due to the ubiquitous
presence of cosmic rays. However: fulfilling the requirements
of mobility, control, metabolism, and fabrication are all
be easier due to the absence of gravity and air friction.
Micro-meteorites are negligible obstacles if systems are redundant.
Power source will be solar; carbonaceous asteroids are ideal
sources for feedstock. Rudimentary AI and swarm-like behavior
would be required for successful navigation, metabolism, and
fabrication routines, but it could be done. Astral grey goo
is not likely to be a threat to human life (its too stupid
to be dangerous in that way), but it could 1) destroy valuable
mineral deposits by disassembling them, 2) create annoying
space junk, 3) damage unprotected structures or machinery.
Accelerated reproduction and mass cloning
will become possible, leading to power imbalances, societal
disturbance, or overcrowding.
At the current rate of growth, human
populations tend to double in size about once every 30 years.
But what happens to human growth when it becomes technologically
possible to mass produce human beings out of harvested or
synthesized embryos in artificial wombs? How about when it
becomes possible to use gene therapy or hormones to compress
the interval between childhood and adulthood? (I have no idea
how far you can compress it, ask a biologist. My guess is
by about an order of magnitude.) Advances in robotics and
new building methods could allow the creation of automated
superstructures that produce millions of new humans per year;
"person factories". Other science fictional-sounding
scenarios are plausible. CRN tends to hint towards scenarios
of this type only vaguely, but it is very important to be
aware of them.
Neurotechnologies and advances in computing
will make humans smarter, making it easier for criminals to
circumvent restrictions and cause harm.
A human will always outsmart a chimp
in any battle of wits. The difference between a human and
a chimp is only a few tweaks to brain chemistry and structure.
We know enough about the functioning of brains that, with
the right tools, we could make direct structural or chemical
modifications that would predictably result in qualitatively
higher levels of intelligence. Any neurologist would be able
to participate in the design and application of such enhancements.
Such a smarter-than-human ("transhuman") intelligence
could then apply the tools originally used to create it to
additional enhancements, applying its transhuman intelligence
to the task of conducting further intelligence improvements.
Being designed by mere human-level intelligence, it is uncertain
how long restrictions on nanofactories would hold up against
better-than-human ingenuity, cleverness, or creativity. My
bet is not very long. How many "fool-proof" computer
networks are truly impenetrable to hackers? What if those
hackers were smarter-than-human? The creation of transhuman
intelligence could entail the rapid disintegration of a carefully
constructed network of constraints and safeguards on nanomanufacturing
capabilities. Sometimes the creation of transhuman intelligence
is called a Technological Singularity.
Deep burrowing or mining could cause
Indescriminate burrowing or mining
could damage the earth's crust. Supervolcanos could emerge
if critical stress points are aggravated. In some areas of
the mantle, magma is at very high pressures. This may be low-probability
in the near term, but all nanotech risks need to be taken
into consideration. Supercaverns may become economically desirable
for living space, weapons testing, and waste disposal, and
the construction of such caverns would predictably cause geothermal
disturbances. Prudence will mean caution.
Forests, both terrestrial and oceanic,
could be mass-disassembled for feedstock or energy.
Biomass is a very energy-rich, carbon-rich
class of stuff. It could be great for feedstock or for a power
source. Trees are machines that take in sunlight and store
it in the form of complex biological molecules. Devouring
forests could seem appealing to a nation that didn't have
the patience to lay down solar panels or build nuclear reactors.
Although such biomass would initially need to be processed
and purified for nanofactory use, future versions of nanofactories
might use lab-on-a-chip-type technology to process impure
materials for feedstock. Extremely large machines would need
to be designed and fabricated to aid in collecting biomass,
but it could be done. I hope we're ready to wave goodbye to
our forests and their accompanying ecosystems, because they'll
eventually become a very appealing source of feedstock for
Global warming could become an actual
In his "Sapphire Mansions"
paper, (Bradbury 2001) points out that "...one significant
limit on the use of molecular nanotechnology for terrestrial
applications turns out to be the global hipsithermal limit
(the heat capacity of the planet)." He goes on to calculate,
"This is generally taken to be in the vicinity of ~10^15
watts. If world population stabilizes at ~10^10 people, then
heat capacity budget available for nanoconstruction is ~105
W/person. Assuming nanorobots require ~10 pW each, this would
allow to ~10^16 continuously operating nanorobots (~10 kg)
per person." This means that if more than ~100 billion
kg of continuously operating nanorobots are constructed, we
could have a problem. (For an idea of how much a billion kg
is, see the google results.) Crossing this threshold could
easily happen unless there are global restrictions on the
creation of nanomachinery.
Enhanced humans will quickly create
unprecedented effects in economic, social, scientific, and
Telepresence, coupled with powerful
robotics and sophisticated interfaces that implement commands
based on simple gestures, will permit the development of "nano-wizardry"
- individual soldiers with sufficient capability to destroy,
subvert, or torture entire armies or cities. Independent human
flight will become possible with a minimum of aerospace hardware.
Reprogrammable phase-array nano-optics will allow complete
invisibility. Perfect surveillance, neurological enhancements,
responsive environments, smart materials, and so on.
Many religions and other belief systems
will be ruined.
Nanotechnology will make it feasible
to reproduce many classes of Biblical miracles. Humans enhanced
with nanoengineered body parts and telerobotic control interfaces
may have angel-like or even god-like capabilities. Nanotechnologically
facilitated approaches to life extension will rapidly allow
the abolition of death. Work will no longer be necessary.
Cheap nanocomputing will be used to
"brute force" artificial superintelligence that
eliminates humanity as a side effect of accomplishing its
Due to some outlandish claims by AI
researchers in the 70s, society now takes a very skeptical
attitude toward the feasibility of general AI, especially
AI with human-surpassing abilities or intelligence. What rarely
gets pointed out is that these early AI researchers could
never have succeeded in their goals, even in principle, because
the computing power they had available was on par with the
brain of an insect. Nanotechnology will make human-surpassing
or even humanity-surpassing computing power available. Human-surpassing
computing power is usually estimated at 10^17 ops/sec, even
primitive nanocomputing will allow me to put this amount of
computing power in my shirt pocket, and power it for ten watts.
Humanity-surpassing computing power would then be around 10^27
ops/sec, which might require a building-sized nanocomputer,
powered by a hundred gigawatts. These requirements could be
met by a network of nuclear reactors or ten thousand square
kilometers of solar panels.
AI designers will use this computing
power to "brute force" large possibility spaces
of potential AI designs - including AI designs that imply
superhuman intelligence or cleverness - an inherently unguided
process likely to end in the creation of an AI without the
complex goal structure necessary for what we would recognize
as benevolent or even coherent. If such an AI had access to
real-world robotics or the means to create it, it could improve
upon its own hardware and software on machine-timescales,
and could quickly become a serious threat to the continued
existence of humanity.
CRN's website largely ignores the issue
of superintelligence, although it does mention "self-improving
AI" in the "Top 30 Essential Studies" paper
by Chris Phoenix. Interestingly, the paper says "nanotech
development will certainly be an enabling technology for powerful
AI, though we may face this problem even before nanotech is
developed", acknowledging the non-trivial possibility
that self-improving superintelligence might arrive in the
relatively near future. Here is a a graph that lots a possible
risk function of AI creation with respect to available computing
power and the average IQs of the programming team: http://www.acceleratingfuture.com/michael/works/AIdifficulty.htm.
The arrival of nanotechnology will
herald a mess of totally unmanageable difficulties. Human
intelligence and ethics are not enough to handle these challenges.
Without smarter-than-human, kinder-than-human forms of intelligence
to assist us in confronting these grave difficulties, our
continued survival cannot be ensured. Stubborn chauvinism
("no non-human is a friend of mine!"), juvenile
overconfidence ("we humans can handle this on our own,
right?"), or dismissive skepticism ("kinder-than-human
intelligence isn't even possible!") will only increase
the probability of our demise. To avoid the negative impact
of grey goo, green goo, nano-litter, human rights disasters,
nano-wizardry, economic and social upheaval, arms races, and
other unforseen risks will require true superintelligence,
nothing less. Superintelligence will be technologically feasible
within the next two decades (Bostrom 1998). Once created,
superintelligence will compound upon itself rapidly, resulting
in the creation of agents with deity-class capabilities (Vinge
1993). Near-future outcomes ranging from planetary destruction
to global apotheosis are entirely possible (Bostrom 2003).
It should be possible to increase the likelihood of a pleasant
outcome by precisely specifying the initial state of a superintelligence
by coding a seed AI (Yudkowsky 2001). (A "seed AI"
is an AI specifically designed to fully understand and improve
upon its own architecture.) The implementation of other proposed
solutions will be subject to human error, irrationality, slowness,
and inability to handle complexity.
Bostrom, N. 2003. "Ethical Issues
in Advanced Artificial Intelligence". Cognitive, Emotive
and Ethical Aspects of Decision Making in Humans and in Artificial
Intelligence, Vol. 2, ed. I. Smit et al., Int. Institute of
Advanced Studies in Systems Research and Cybernetics, 2003,
pp. 12-17. http://www.nickbostrom.com/ethics/ai.html
Bostrom, N. 1998. "How Long Until
Superintelligence?" International Journal of Future Studies,
1998, vol. 2. Updated version at http://www.nickbostrom.com/superintelligence.htm
Bradbury, R. J. 2001. Sapphire Mansions.
Vinge, V. 1993."The Coming Technological
Singularity." VISION-21 Symposium sponsored by NASA Lewis
Research Center and the Ohio Aerospace Institute, March, 1993.
Yudkowsky, E. (2003). Creating Friendly
AI 1.0. http://www.singinst.org/CFAI/index.html
My Position on Nanotechnology Administrative
Copyright © 2004 Michael Anissimov