In my last post, Mitchell Porter (whose mailing list postings I’ve been reading for nearly a decade), argues that my vision for a Neo-Carboniferous world is “deliberately low-key”, and he paraphrases it as, “Hey, greens! You shouldn’t fear us robot-swarm, mind-uploading, planet dismantling transhumanists! Look at this vision of a leafy green Carboniferous world that we’ve conjured up for you!” Then he remarks, “It says nothing about, say, how we meet the WMD-fabber-on-every-desktop problem without outright relinquishment, nor does it really tackle the problem of whether having as many trees and human beings as possible truly seems like a good thing, when you have truly godlike power and insight”.
Mitchell’s comment, and Sebastian Hagen’s before his, are on the mark. By transhumanist standards, the vision I present is boring and conservative. My point is to attempt to flesh out the wide range of possibilities inherent when intelligence commands self-replicating machinery. For myself, I’d appreciate a Neo-Carboniferous Earth just as easily as if it were a computer simulation on a matchbox-sized nanotechnological computer, as if it actually existed in the “real world”, but that’s just my preference. Matter is probably more usefully spent on implementing conscious beings living worthwhile lives, rather than as filler molecules of lignin doing little more than serving as an elaborate decoration for the consumption of qualiabearing beings.
As for the challenge of a WMD-fabber on every desktop, I’ve argued for the solution before, and it’s still the same — we require a benevolent singleton. A top-level decision making entity that can act with extreme speed and reliability to put down threats before they emerge. Naturally, the unimaginative might directly associate such an agency with communist dictators, but what I am talking about is as different from a communist dictator as an animal is from a prion. With immense power must come immense responsibility and intelligence, far more than can be held in the three pound lump of flesh we call the human brain. The inherent hazard of stating this is exposing myself to ridicule by those who immediately associate recognition of human limitations as misanthropy, which it is not. Such logic is like saying that those who criticize elements of America’s foreign policy are innately anti-American.
What is remarkable are those that seem to argue, like Ray Kurzweil, the Foresight Institute, and the Center for Responsible Nanotechnology, that humanity is inherently capable of managing universal self-replicating constructors without a near-certain likelihood of disaster. Currently Mumbai is under attack by unidentified terrorists — they are sacrificing their lives to kill, what, 125 people? I can envision a scenario in 2020 or 2025 that is far more destructive and results in the deaths of not hundreds, but millions or even billions of people. There are toxins with an LD50 of one nanogram per kilogram of body weight. A casualty count exceeding World War II could theoretically be achieved with just a single kilogram of toxin and several tonnes of delivery mechanisms. We know that complex robotics can exist on the microscopic scale — microwhip scorpions, parasitic wasps, fairyflies and the like — merely copying these designs without any intelligent thought will become possible when we can scan and construct on the atomic level. Enclosing every human being in an active membrane may be the only imaginable solution to this challenge. Offense will be easier than defense, as offense needs only to succeed once, even after a million failures.
Instead of just saying, “we’re screwed”, the clear course of action seems to be to contribute to the construction of a benevolent singleton. Given current resources, this should be possible in a few decades or less. Those who think that things will fall into place with the current political and economic order are simply fooling themselves, and putting their lives at risk.