Re: poly: Modeling Economic Singularities

From: Robin Hanson <>
Date: Thu Apr 23 1998 - 09:33:07 PDT

Peter McCluskey writes:
> It is easy to imagine how nearly all the benefits of the technology
>that produces a "singularity" could be unowned, which would significantly
>reduce the race to be first.
> A general purpose molecular assembler, if sufficiently easy to replicate,
>would provide no easy way for a company that developed it to charge for
>once a fair number are in use, since it would provide the ability to
>produce nearly unlimited copies of itself.

A lack of ownership would deter investment, but would not stop a race to
be first with any investment privately worth taking.
As with your example of galaxy colonization, let me focus your attention on
the possibility that there would be less capable versions available before
an easy to program, easy to replicate assembler. We expect investors to
work with the earliest assemblers that can make them the marginal return,
even if doing so tends to lock in standards that make easier assemblers
more difficult to develop and market, and may even use up most of the "sand"
you hope the better version to build from.

>from ...
> If you're only analyzing high growth rates in things people value,
>and ignoring possibilities such as gray goo destroying the world,
>then I suspect you are correct here.

Yes, that paper is about economic growth, i.e. growth in "things people value".

>>must dramatically improve the productivity of almost all forms of
>>capital, not just a few.
>I think there has been a trend towards increasing fungibility of capital,
>which might reach the point where it is appropriate to think of capital
>as a single commodity whose productivity could be uniformly enhanced by
>a single technology change. Or to put it in more technological terms,
>the diversity of bottlenecks is decreasing and might effectively approach

I can't see why you think the liquidity of markets for capital does anythinng
to reduce the potential for capital bottlenecks. Even if I can trade my
computer for a fatter water pipe quickly and at low transaction cost, I can still
need both computers and water inputs into my production process. If computers
get cheaper and water doesn't, water becomes a bottleneck.

> Most arguments for a sudden singularity assume that a general-purpose
>assembler will convert most existing bottlenecks into programming

There is a sense in which most existing bottlenecks are already programming
problems. That doesn't make them go away any faster.

> Here's a scenario which I would guess has a 0.1 to 10% chance of happening:
> 1) a self-replicating molecular assembler becomes able to manufacture
>computing power from readily available raw materials (such as sand) that
>can run much existing software. This eliminates most bottlenecks on creating
>computing power.
> 2) This drop in the cost of computing power triggers a breakthrough in
>machine intelligence, because the cost of computing was the main bottleneck
>by the time assemblers became general purpose enough to affect the cost
>of computing.

There are so many things this scenario leaves out!
1. How *fast* do assemblers, nanocomputers, nanominers, and software
"intelligence" get better? Sure *eventually* most bottlenecks may get reduced,
but how long is eventually?
2. How many kinds of "intelligence" are there, and how sure are you they are
all limited mainly by CPU cycles?
3. A nano production economy has lots of parts, and it only takes slow
improvement in one part to slow down the whole game. Consider: mining atoms,
sorting, storing, and transporting small building blocks, collecting, storing
and transporting input energy and waste heat, quality control, crash recovery,
retooling, design prototyping, design testing, assembling, packaging and
transporting finished products, etc.
4. There really are other inputs besides raw production and computation:
raw materials, energy, volume, marketing, advertizing, tech support, regulatory
support, military defense, and figuring out what people will pay how much for.

Robin Hanson
RWJF Health Policy Scholar, Sch. of Public Health 510-643-1884
140 Warren Hall, UC Berkeley, CA 94720-7360 FAX: 510-643-8614
Received on Thu Apr 23 16:38:02 1998

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