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Foresight Update 7 (page 2)

A publication of the Foresight Institute

Table of Contents - Foresight Update 7

Profile: Marvin Minsky

by Dan Shafer

Marvin Minsky may be one of the few human beings alive today who can say, with a straight face, that he's been interested in nanotechnology his whole life and not produce knowing chuckles in his listeners. Minsky, who is Toshiba Professor of Media Arts and Sciences at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, is undeniably an elder statesman of American science and technology. Widely viewed as one of the fathers of Artificial Intelligence, Prof. Minsky has been a mathematician and scientist since the mid-1950s.

But he still says he was "always interested in nanotechnology, even as a child. I got a chemistry book when I was quite young. I learned a lot about organic chemistry and almost nothing about inorganic chemistry," he says with a deep chuckle. "I was always intrigued by the little machines one studied in organic chemistry."

Prof. Minsky, who is a member of the Foresight Institute Board of Advisors, is a strong supporter of the Institute and of the work Eric Drexler and his associates are doing today. "Traditionally, you've had scientists doing things and other people opposing them. Eric's attempt to be the responsible scientist, to combine both development of an important idea and thoughtful consideration of its consequences in one person, is admirable. I respect his view and his uniqueness," he said during an interview for Update. "Generally, the dream of the responsible scientist seems to me to emerge only accidentally, if at all."

In college in the 1940s, Prof. Minsky became interested in the nervous system and in how brain cells are connected to one another. He invented the first scanning microscope, for which he still holds the basic patent. This microscope was significant in large part because it permitted scientists to study thick sections rather than confining research to thin sections of specimens. He also developed a uniquely precise and fast electromagnetic micromanipulator. In the mid-1950s, he says, "I was hot on the track of what is now called the atomic force microscope" as a result of his efforts to increase resolution of the microscopic work he was doing.

He became increasingly interested in Artificial Intelligence, however, and did some of the early work in that field, notably the 1957 essay, "Heuristic Aspects of the Artificial Intelligence Problem." He and John McCarthy co-founded the MIT Artificial Intelligence Laboratory and in 1961, he published "Steps Toward Artificial Intelligence," a work that was to influence research directions in that field for the next 15 or 20 years.

His most recent work is a popular book, Society of Mind, which promulgates a new concept of human psychology based on his more than 30 years of research into intelligences of all kinds.

Prof. Minsky offered his views on a number of intriguing topics during the wide-ranging conversation. Here is a sampling.

On nanotechnology:

The most important single thing about nanotechnology can't be singled out. If you can actually build an assembler, then every aspect of the physical world will be touched and altered. The inability to do atomic rearrangement in the past has closed so many doors.

On Artificial Intelligence and molecular computing:

The two disciplines will complement each other in significant ways. Nanotechnology will help us to get at the brain's architecture, for example. Today, we use relatively large micron-sized needles to probe and analyze the brain's structure. We need to be able to use nano-sized needles so we can get at the neurons and the synapses. On the other side, AI will be important in developing better theories about what happens at the atomic bond level. Today, we can get at the structure of a protein but we can't understand yet how it interacts with its substrates. Heuristic chemistry is going to become a major factor in understanding how smaller molecular structures work. We need expert assistance with these complex problems and AI will help by suggesting how things work, proposing and testing new designs for the understanding and, ultimately, the manufacture of these little machines.

On Software:

It's hard to say if nanotechnology will have any specific impact on software. What is clear, though, is that we must move to more parallel software architectures and structures if we are going to solve the very complex problems involved in, say, simulating the behavior of even a relatively simple cell. Parallel computers like the Connection Machine are speeding things up about as fast as we want, so we just need to understand better how to make them work for us. New algorithms are emerging every couple of months from the research people are doing into parallel computer architectures. Once some of these very expensive processes like complex sorts become cheap, they will help us gain new insights into how we can model the naturally complicated processes of life. Then there's the whole issue of how memory will work for such structures. Clearly we need to do more work in associative memory, and such memory systems are going to be so massively parallel that we need to get them as small as possible to make them really usable.

On the heat dissipation problem in molecular computing:

The whole brain only generates 40 watts. We should be able to find a way to dissipate that little bit of heat once we understand how to model the real thing.

"The first large AIs will all be insane in one way or another."

On the possibility that people might place too much trust in Artificial Intelligences as they become real:

The first large AIs will all be insane in one way or another. I don't think there's much danger of people trusting them too much.

On Foresight Institute's performance and mission:

The simplest thing, which it is doing quite well, is to act as the public explainer of what nanotechnology is, what technological developments are needed, where to put the emphasis. If our goal is to speed the development of this technology, we need a place for someone to go who wonders, "Is there something in here for my company?" The Institute's approach should also ultimately prevent crackpot and science-fiction ideas from taking hold. This is a difficult task, particularly because this technology has such potential to impact everything. In the long run, it is doubtful if any one group is going to be able to have much influence. What we can and must do in the near term is help people focus on the important issues and provide a forum for their discussion and clarification.

On biostasis:

It's sort of a long shot, but it's not very costly to try. The real problem is that it's best to do the freezing just before death, but that raises all kinds of questions--gambling questions, let alone the ethical ones. A number of researchers have suggested that we may not, in the long run, have to keep the brain alive, just preserve enough of it to enable molecular machines to reconstruct it in another environment. Some people wonder if this reconstructed brain is really the same "person" as the cryogenically preserved one. For me, that's no problem. I've made up my mind that a person is a machine. If you make a copy of the machine, the copy is as good as the original. Would I want to be the subject of biostasis? Well, if it's done too late, I've lost a lot of what makes me who I am and makes me want to live on. But if we find a way to make periodic backup tapes, I'd go for it in a minute. In some number of decades, this subject will be a normal topic of discussion; the question won't be whether we should preserve people through biostasis, but when and how.

On preparing for a career involved in nanotechnology:

That's easy. Do all the math you can until you are sick of it. Do some computer hacking. Get involved with a research group that's actually making something so you get your hands into that process. Major in computer science, physics, biology, anything but nanotechnology. Most importantly, get rid of the idea that you have to choose a field. Change it instead to a feeling that you want to get good at something. That way you can expect to learn 20 or 30 important fields in your life instead of deciding what you want to be.

On modern philosophers of science:

The things these people say, I'd give a C to a sophomore for producing. Technical philosophers don't seem able to think about the really important issues at all.

Dan Shafer is an author and consultant in computation and emerging technologies.

Table of Contents - Foresight Update 7

The Economics of Rapidly Changing Technology (Part I)

Opinion by Jeffrey C. MacGillivray

Technological change at an accelerating rate is not a new phenomenon:
"It is an extraordinary era in which we live. It is altogether new. The world has seen nothing like it before. I will not pretend, nobody can pretend, to discern the end. But everyone knows that the age is remarkable for scientific research.... The ancients saw nothing like it. The moderns have seen nothing like it till the present generation."
These words apply to today and, with equal validity, to the 1950's, the 1920's, the 1890's, and the 1850's. They were spoken by Daniel Webster in 1847. The experience of 150 years of accelerating technological change, all at previously unprecedented rates, teaches us something about the likely economic effects of technological change, of whatever nature and magnitude.

The pace of technological change will continue to accelerate for sound economic reasons. The rising standard of living resulting from previous technological progress makes more resources available to research, develop, and produce technology. The high standard of living allows us to safely perform a large number of experiments, unlike a subsistence economy which must be conservative and tradition-bound lest a single failed experiment result in the destruction of an entire society.

Nanotechnology, like any other rapid change in technology, will dramatically change relative values and, as a result, lifestyles. However, technological change will not bring an end to economic activity. Economic exchanges will still occur.

It is extremely difficult to predict the effects of many simultaneous technological changes; it is even difficult to predict the effects of a single change. Larry Niven, in his story "Flash Crowd," describes a plausible society resulting from the introduction of teleportation--a technological change which lowers transportation costs, both in economic value and time, by several orders of magnitude. He describes how a serious investor, with full knowledge of the forthcoming technological change, could fail miserably in predicting the economic ramifications of the new technology.

Introducing only part of nanotechnology would not completely disrupt our current economic structure. Consider the economic effects of one unlikely partial breakthrough in nanotechnology. Assume that cell-repair machines exist, and can be tailored at zero additional cost for additional people; and assume that cell-replication machines exist, making food and clothing virtually free. However, assume no breakthroughs in design capabilities--no new genetic engineering, no new materials, no nanocomputers, and no macroscopic replicators. The cost of medical care, food, and clothing would drop drastically. However, most other material goods would not change dramatically in value; capital assets in unaffected industries such as housing and transportation would still be of significant value, and economic life might still largely resemble today's.

But nanotechnology promises much more: new materials created from common, plentiful building blocks such as carbon atoms, and self-replicating machines able to produce other machines that build skyscrapers as well as cells. Thus the production cost of non-biological material goods such as housing and transportation will also drop dramatically. When all physical goods can be produced at negligible cost, their economic value will become very small; when even custom on-site material handling and construction becomes literally dirt-cheap, many elements of today's economic structure will disappear.

What will retain value when materials are virtually free? When the cost of complicated constructed objects is not much more than that of raw materials, and plentiful raw materials are as useful as relatively rare materials? What forms of human labor will still be of value after self-replicating molecular machines provide material goods in virtually unlimited quantity at almost zero cost?

The most valuable types of labor will be very different from today's.

Production labor will not retain value; the traditional value of labor arising from its ability to contribute to the production of valuable material goods will disappear. When goods can be produced at virtually zero cost with no labor, neither labor which produces goods nor labor which further improves production technology will be of any significant economic value.

Production-design labor will also lose its value. Once the technology has been created, further advances are not economically necessary and will have no significant economic value. This will be true even without artificial intelligence advances inspired by nanotechnological computers; but it is extremely unlikely that there will be no further advances at all.

Only labor which contributes to entertainment--such as artistic design labor--will be of any value. Fortunately, the desire for such labor in any society is virtually unlimited.

In a nanotechnological society, the amount of human effort required to acquire necessities will shrink to a minute fraction of individuals' lives. Freedom from the necessity of acquiring basic human needs will give individuals more control over their lives, and more of their time will be at their own disposal.

What will people choose to do with their additional free time?

Two extremely different subcultures in which virtually all of the basics of life were provided externally, with little prospect of change in the material standard of living regardless of the efforts of the individual, illustrate the wide range of likely human response to such freedom. One subculture is the more scholastic of the medieval monasteries, where resources provided from outside allowed the monks to pursue and preserve knowledge. A very different example is today's inner city welfare culture, where a much higher standard of living is provided from outside; virtually all effort is devoted to entertainment, which too often is violent or destructive.

We will have an entertainment society, not an information society. Knowledge will be pursued only for its own sake, not because the student expects to be able to convert the knowledge into physical wealth. Knowledge will still be sought, since the presence of physical libraries and electronic databases, or even implanted access to electronic databases, will not eliminate the desire and need for a framework of knowledge in the individual brain. In the absence of such a framework to provide context, the utility of facts from a database will be limited, like the limited utility of a word-by-word foreign language translation using a pocket dictionary.

Individuals' wants will take many forms, just as they do today.

Self-directed people will pursue knowledge and entertainment for their own pleasure. Some will accumulate knowledge for the joy, satisfaction, and challenge of the pursuit. Others will take up artistic activities. Some will preserve and continue traditional and creative means of construction and production.

Most people will still prefer live performances of the arts, such as ballet or concerts, over home viewing, even if five-sense reproductions of such events could be directly wired into the viewer's brain. There is a definite psychological value to experiencing such performances directly, and sharing the experience with friends. Entertainment will be a major part of everyday consumption. Some restaurants already offer a look at this entertainment society of the future: your food is cooked for you at your table by your personal chef, who provides a performance along with the food and traditional meal service.

These creative and recreational activities, so similar to the leisure pursuits of self-directed people today, will expand to consume virtually all of these individuals' time. Many of these activities will also require the purchase of specialized labor.

Another group of people is driven by a need to be accepted by and impress others. These people follow fads in the clothes they wear, the types of food they eat and offer to others, the places they go, and the activities they participate in. This will create a demand for copies of certain artistic designs, for tickets to performances of certain performers, and for close contact with fad leaders. One contemporary example of this is the desire not just to travel, but to travel with a celebrity.

A similar class of people wants to be noticed by others. Being influential, well thought of, or noticed in a small group is not enough. They want to feel important in a larger group, and are willing to pay for the privilege, just as people have been buying their way into the Social Register for decades.

Technology will create myriad new forms of this want. One will increase as electronic databases allow information to be produced even faster than today. People are already unable to handle today's volume of information without using filters--friends, or editors of journals--to point out interesting items. As the rate of information production increases, people will become more dependent on such filters to select items out of the mass of information. The increasing importance of these filters as the rate of information production increases will encourage people wishing to be noticed to bribe editors.

Another group of people want to push other people around, and will probably be willing to pay for the privilege. This desire, merged with the desire to impress others, could lead to monumental displays of extravagance, employing enormous numbers of servants for short periods of time.

In other words, the economics of production will change; human nature won't. Some believe that when people are freed from the stresses involved in earning a living, their personalities will change. The lack of any signs of such large scale changes in the last 100 years leads me to believe that future changes of this sort will be insignificant.

There will be no shortage of a demand for labor--even unskilled labor--in such a society. The largest rewards will go to talents different from those most rewarded in the past. We are already seeing some signs of this change; some of the largest monetary rewards in today's society already go to a few performers who are either clearly the best at a particular artistic endeavor, or who are the current entertainment sensation of the masses.

Land will retain its value in a nanotechnological society.

Some people will want land to isolate themselves from their neighbors. This desire will be increased by the elimination of the traditional obstacle to living far apart--the high cost of daily transportation to a place of production.

With the increased amount of time available for travel and the decreased cost of transportation, scenic locations will attract tourists in great numbers for esthetic reasons. Some scenic locations, some historic locations, and some popular recreational locations will also derive a special value from being current or long-standing favorites of fad followers.

The creation of additional scenic locations by large-scale terraforming will be technologically feasible. Terraforming is not a new concept; new land was created during the 19th century in the Boston area by leveling several hills to fill bays and marshes. Future terraforming is more likely to create hills than flatten them; however, public sentiment will likely limit the extent of this process. Therefore, little enough terraforming will occur that this will not significantly change the value of land which is not terraformed.

Summarizing the likely items of value in a nanotechnological society:

(In the second installment, the author discusses media of exchange and emigration pressures in a nanotechnological society, relates some current economic trends to the transition to a higher-technology society, and examines the political economics of a nanotechnological society.)

Dr. MacGillivray is a member of the MIT Nanotechnology Study Group with a background in physics.

Table of Contents - Foresight Update 7

Foresight Losses

Accidents have recently caused the deaths of two Foresight supporters:

George Koopman

George was President of the American Rocket Company, a firm working to launch the first privately-developed space transportation system. Long a supporter of the ideas underlying the Foresight Institute and other forward-looking groups such as the L5 Society and the National Space Society, he was one of the Institute's major contributors. George was honored in the Congressional Record: "Like American pioneers through the years, he would not let his dreams be denied. He was, by his actions, a true space pioneer." George was on his way to the site of an engine test when the auto accident occurred.

Kirk Kelley

Kirk worked at Sun Microsystems, where one of his primary concerns was to ensure that hypertext systems developed by different groups would be compatible and able to share data. Kirk shared Foresight's goal of an open hypertext publishing system and was actively working to make it a reality. He was on his way to a hypertext meeting in Italy when the accident occurred.

Table of Contents - Foresight Update 7

Foresight thanks Dave Kilbridge for converting Update 7 to html for this web page.

From Foresight Update 7, originally published 15 December 1989.
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