Newsletter of the Molecular Manufacturing Shortcut Group of the National Space Society
Volume 5, Number 1 & 2 First and Second Quarter, 1997
An old debate within MMSG, and one worth revisiting, is the question "Should we be focused on educating the space movement about nanotechnology, or on educating the nanotechnology movement about space?" Operationally, this could mean monitoring sci.space.tech and regularly post about molecular nanotechnology, or monitoring sci.nanotech and regularly post about space applications.
The mission of MMSG is to promote the development of nanotechnology as a means to facilitate the settlement of space. With this focus, there are three main audiences we could target: the Space community, the nanotechnology community, or the general community.
The Space community divides into two groups. First are those who believe that we can settle space and that must be our focus; many were members of the L-5 Society. Second and larger are those who do not believe in space settlement or industrialization, at least not soon enough to be worrying or doing anything about it.
The nanotechnology community also divides into two groups. The larger is that group that is doing research and development with a conscious focus on moving in the direction of controlling matter to atomic precision. This is a rapidly growing portion of the scientific community.
The goals of molecular nanotechnology are gaining recognition, and chemists, material scientists, computational chemists, biochemists and many others need only make a slight adjustment in their point of view to join this larger group. The smaller group is those who are thinking explicitly about the long-term implications of nanotechnology. The good news is that space applications are already a theme within this group. Roughly 20 years ago, when the farsighted nanotechnology community consisted of Eric Drexler, Space industrialization was his dominant concern.
The general community, defined here as people who are not really interested in space or nanotechnology, are less interested in technology in general, and tend to be less interested about the future. Nonetheless, as future voters, customers and business people, they may be ultimately the most important community to educate.
When talking to individuals, we should be opportunistic--educate on whatever part of the overall picture they need the most assistance. Help people who understand the potential of nanotechnology on Earth to see that most of the matter and energy that nanotechnology will be applied to is located in space. Help people who understand the promises of space to see the power of nanotechnology for opening space, and the promise to do so within the planning horizon of long-term aerospace projects. Help people who do not consider space industrialization feasible or worth thinking about to see that with nanotechnology space will be affordable to hundreds of millions, if not more. Finally, help those who do not even think about the future to see the wonder and opportunity of a universe opening up before us.
Beyond talking to individuals when we get a chance, however, we still have the question of how we divide our targeted efforts between the space, nanotechnology and general communities.
Ideas will leak around all over anyway, which is a good thing. This informs my first strategy, which is that the highest leverage comes from maintaining and adding to our web site. Indeed, the latest issue of Foresight specifically mentioned the MMSG site. One might consider this directed to the general community. In reality, the web site leaves it to the communities themselves to pursue our message or not; whoever is interested enough to find and read the site will be whom we educate.
My suggestion of whom we should consciously target most comes from my perception that the nanotechnology community is closer to correctly understanding the future than the space community. I think the best approach is to work within the nanotechnology community to help forge a common vision, making sure it includes space utilization as a core pillar, and then take that vision out to the space community, and then the world. On the other hand, one can argue that educating the space community about nanotechnology, as smaller amounts of education move them further along.
What are your thoughts? Please send them in letters to the editor. And please comment on nanotechnology at sci.space.tech, or on space at sci.nanotech, as you prefer.
Ad astra per nanotechnologia!
Book Reviews: Predicting Nanotech
Anne K. Gay <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Three recent novels should be considered recommended reading. James L. Halperin makes an impressive showing for his first novel in his The Truth Machine, about a genius who devotes the first part of his life to the development of a device that can infallibly detect an intentional lie, and the second part of his life to inventing a science that might end aging. Part of the author's argument that humanity will self-destruct without the truth machine involves the potential power of nanotechnology, which is evoked rather unsubtly in references to nanotechnological medicines and weaponry within news bulletins listed at the beginning of each chapter. Halperin goes rather deeply into the scientific basis of aging but does not explore any ideas not already familiar to Assembler readers.
A much thicker contextual weave awaits the reader of The Diamond Age by the much-lauded Neal Stephenson. Even more complex than his former work, Snow Crash, this new novel centers on the subject of its subtitle, "A Young Lady's Illustrated Primer". The primer itself is an extraordinary learning device in the form of a book, created by a bright young engineer, by special request of a powerful figure with a granddaughter he wishes would excel. The young engineer involves himself and the book in many levels of underworld rebellion by attempting to compile an illegal copy for his own daughter. This copy falls into the hands of Nell, a little girl whose physical needs are attended to by matter compilers, whose life is punctuated by the wars of clans and tiny mechanical mites; a girl who has very little going for her but a bright mind and, suddenly, a clever primer, a dedicated "ractive" actress, and the interests of some unexpected authorities.
The main technological tension in the book is the Feed verses the Seed. That is, the Feed carries needed elements from the Source to distributed matter compilers. Successful independent agents, to be untraceable, must resource their own compilers, or capture the Seed technology wherein objects are designed to grow using the elements around them. Those interested in problem solving and computer programming might find this book more compelling than others. Still I would recommend it generally. The applications of nanotech are multiplicitous and varied, and the concept of human bodies as carriers of logic rods for a massive program is truly unique.
A much more polished and philosophical work, Bruce Stirling's Holy Fire is eminently readable. In a world run by a polity of gerontocrats who invest in medical futures, many of the most radical life extension treatments involve total cellular and metabolic rehabilitation. Telemerase control is just the beginning, as is discovered by the protagonist, a 94-year-old test case who races off with her new body in pursuit of an emotion that persists into the posthuman state; in pursuit of the Holy Fire. This novel discusses much of the same age extension technology as the Truth Machine while also incorporating the "make whatever you need" capabilities of the Diamond Age. That last is neither obvious nor ubiquitous but present in the form of "instantiators" and spontaneously generated luxury furniture. All three books are set in the 21st century.
Space Nanotechnology is Alive and Well
Charlie Walker, NSS President
I attended a RAND and National Space Society sponsored seminar entitled Nanotechnology Applications in a Space-Based Environment on 25 March. This seminar was one of a series on Critical Technologies of the 21st Century, presented by the Critical Technologies Institute at RAND, Washington DC. The following are my notes.
Speakers: Dr. Ralph Merkle
Xerox - Palo Alto Research Center
Jim Bennett - Advanced Technology Holdings
(and Member of Board of Directors, National Space Society)
Dr. Merkle began by listing three web sites for access to further and updated info on nanotechnology work at Xerox and elsewhere:
Merkle set conditions for Molecular Manufacturing (an application of nanotechnology):
1. All atoms in the right places (control).
2. Manufacturing cost not greatly exceeding cost of raw materials and energy.
3. Able to make most structure consistent with physical and chemical laws.
He went on to list two other fundamental ideas:
1. Programmable positional control.
Regarding advanced automation for space missions, he referenced the NASA/ASEE '80 Summer Study (especially self-replication mechanisms). NASA Ames Research Center has a small program in computational nanotechnology.
Regarding trends (based on historical analogies), he made the point that in computer/data processing technology, there was a "bottoming out" of advances in size reduction, based upon etching, in the 1980s. He says there will be another "bottoming out" in the newer curve of lithographic technology about 2005. He contented that to continue the computing revolution the next technological advance must come about through molecular manufacturing. Merkle foresees this taking off between 2010 and 2020.
He ended his presentation by listing three characteristics of products that will result from the application of nanotechnology/molecular manufacturing:
* Memory density from ~ 1014 bits/cm2 to ~1021 bits/cm2
* Structural improvement in strength/wt ~ 50 times
* Mass reduction for aerospace transportation on the order of 1K - 10K times.
Jim Bennett, speaking without graphic assistance, made the point that the direction of the U.S. space program was set in 1954. That year President Eisenhower bought into the results of a six year long USAF/RAND study entitled Project Feedback. The conclusions of that study asserted that outer space was a necessary direction for the nation to pursue, and the conditions shaping the content of our space programs would be national security and the national economy. Bennett asserted that the study concluded that specific directions were reconnaissance and communications.
Bennett made the point that predictions of nanotechnology impact on space exploration and development must be made based upon a nano-based economy. He gave an example of what he meant by recalling that in 1947 Arthur C. Clarke predicted geosynchronous orbiting communications satellites, but Clarke saw them as manned because people would be needed to change burned out vacuum tubes. The transistor revolution was not foreseeable in 1947, but when it occurred it drove applications and approaches to issues throughout all parts of our economy.
Bennett repeated his assertion that we must view space activities of the next century through the lens of the coming nanotechnology revolution, and its effect upon technical solutions to demands of our economy. Many current space-based activities (like communications) will be better done on earth via nanotechnological products such as cheap, efficient fiber optic materials. Further, he foresees that the pursuit of new sources of metals, both on Earth and conceptually in space, will diminish as dense, crystalline pure carbon structures (diamondoid), created by nano-factories, replace metallic structures.
He contended that the real future of space in a nanotechnology economy will be as real estate. Orbital settlements, terraformed moons and planets (giving them Earth-like environments) will be not only possible, but desirable (for reasons stated later).
Our economy will be reshaped, in part, by massive computing capability and artificial intelligence installed in whatever we wish. Nano-medicine and biotechnology will transform health care on Earth, while allowing humans to function easily and without bulky, unreliable mechanical systems in difficult space environments.
To further justify his vision of a demand for extraterrestrial real estate he asked the group to consider the continued growth of human populations and the numbers of developed countries. At the same time, demand grows for pristine, natural recreational environments, while we live and work in technology-maintained cities. He suggested the near future cost of one cubic foot in Tokyo versus a nanotechnology-future cost of one cubic foot on the moon. Bennett contends that through nanotechnology the two will be the same.
He concluded his presentation by proposing that societal stresses (i.e. political, proliferating arms of mass destruction, resources) on Earth will force homogeneity among cultures and societies. Therefore, the need and pressure for "contraries" to find (or be provided) physical distance will develop in a new direction. Dissidents will be permitted to go, and live and grow, elsewhere.
During the Q&A that followed the following points and elaboration was made:
Regarding scalability issues in building something up molecule by molecule: Errors seen in naturally occurring proteins are approximately 1 in 10K. This limits natural protein size, i.e. that which will function without failure. With nanotechnology the error rate may be controllable in all manufactured artifacts, thereby eliminating or pushing the limits of scalability much higher.
Regarding the directions of nanotechnological R&D: Our current world view and resulting visions will drive R&D for some years yet (i.e. space, defense, medicine, ecological).
Regarding prospective dangers of "nanites" out of control: Very small. When taken out of their functional environment nano-replicators or factories are not very likely to survive. The chance of "feral" automobiles running amok through forests and fields was offered as an analog. But both speakers acknowledged that this technology, like any other, can be deliberately and offensively misdirected.
Asked about sky hooks: Diamondoid structures are foreseeable as "space elevators" rising from an equatorial point on the Earth's (or any other planet's) surface upward through the geosynchronous orbital altitude and on outward an appropriate distance to balance mass above and below. Diamond is strong enough to allow this form of transportation, though hazards to flight might prevent them from being built.
Combustibility of carbon/diamond structure in air or 02: Low-density pure carbon constructs in an oxygen atmosphere will be a potential problem. But the speakers thought it would be manageable. They reminded the audience that we have learned to be safe with our wooden buildings.
Regarding the rate of conversion to a nanotechnology economy: The speakers believed that first there would be a slow infusion of unique products, then a threshold would be reached (when maybe 2% of manufactured goods in the economy are nano-based) and there would be a rapid jump to perhaps a stable 90% or so of the economy founded in nanotech.
Asked about current international work: Currently Japan is leading in nano & micro technology research with less focus than in the U.S., but much more money. In the next few years effort will be focused in mechanisms and computational research. Research is mostly open and available on the world-wide web. But, it was then lamented, like lithography it will later be picked up as basic principles and put into application by small organizations and individuals.
Reprinted with permission from the National Space Society's activist newsletter, "Inside NSS," May 1997
President: Tom McKendree (714) 374-2081
Secretary: Tihamer (Tee) Toth-Fejel (313) 662-4741
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Judging from informal polls and articles in the press, Earth is staggering under the weight of teeming billions, and overpopulation will soon result in our extinction. Since Malthus, intellectuals have mathematically "proven" that an exponential rate of world population growth will result in not only our own destruction, but the irreversible destabilization of the terrestrial environment. Such arguments lead people to assume that humans are the cancer on the face of the Earth, and that the only solution is an enforced restriction on the birth rate, and that we should have started world-wide a couple of decades ago.
But all these overpopulation statistics accurate? And given the coming age of molecular nanotechnology, and of the development of Space, are they useful? In a word, no. To make matters worse, the overpopulation ideology wastes resources that could save lives and improve the standard of living for people everywhere.
Once my daughter came home talking about overpopulation, and bringing a map of Ethiopia with the population and area listed on one side. My impression of Ethiopia, from the reports by the news media, is of a nation that teeters on the edge of starvation and constantly suffers from famine. Just glancing at the numbers, the number of zeros didn't seem to be particularly lopsided, so I got out my calculator and found that the density was 109 people per square mile. I tried picturing a hundred people per square mile, and it didnít seem very much, so out of idle curiosity, I check the population density of Michigan, where I live. I was astounded to find out that the population density of Michigan is significantly higher than that of Ethiopia. At any rate, that discovery prompted me to dig around some more:
-----In 1968, Paul Ehrlich claimed that "In the 1970's, the world will undergo famines -- hundreds of millions of people are going to starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now." But in the famous 1970's Sahel famine in Africa, relief workers on the scene said that the only human deaths by starvation were caused by the failure of people to go to where relief supplies were being distributed. Later, Ehrlich claimed that UNICEF and other sources report 14.6 million children dying every year from hunger-related diseases. UNICEF strongly denies this, and reports that while 12.9 children do die every year, 8.1 million die due to pneumonia, diarrhea, and vaccine-preventable diseases that are easily prevented (at about $2 per child per year).
-----Between 1950 to 1990, the real price of wheat and corn on the world market dropped by 60%, while the price of rice was cut in half.
-----Worldwide life expectancy rose from 47.5 years in 1950 to 63.9 years in 1990.
-----The average diet in developing nations has improved 20% since 1968, 40% since 1948.
-----Aurelio Peccei, the Italian industrialist who headed the Club of Rome report (which sponsored the Limits to Growth computer model), admitted that false information was intentionally added to make it more effective in alarming people (I suspect that he was talking about the extra factors of four that Dr. Peter Vajk found in the FORTRAN code).
-----War, including the use of food as a weapon, has been the greatest cause of starvation, responsible for as much as 90% of starvation deaths over the past 30 years.
-----Everybody on Earth could live comfortably in the USA on only 15% of our land area, with a population density between that of Chicago and San Francisco. Using agricultural yields attained widely now, the rest of the U.S. would be sufficient to grow enough food for everyone. The rest of the planet, 93.7% of it, would be completely empty.
-----Smog has dropped 50% in Los Angeles over the last decade.
-----Air pollution typically increases in a city until the average per capita income of its citizens reaches $5000, at which point pollution levels begin to fall.
-----In 1981, Paul Ehrlich made a public bet that he could predict five non-government-controlled resources that would increase in real price in the next ten years. By 1991, the prices of the resources decreased by 56.7%, and he had to pay $567 to Julian Simon, the famous opponent of population control against whom he had made the bet. The fact that the average price of minerals and metals fell by more than 40% indicates that they are becoming more abundant, as new reserves are found and as more efficient extraction technologies are used.
Unfortunately, some areas of the world do have problems because of their poor efficiency in growing and distributing food. And even though appropriate technology has helped some areas reclaim barren land, desertification resulting from non-sustainable farming practices has sometimes reduced the quantity of arable land. My point is that these problems are a result of ignorance, injustice, and war -- not overpopulation.
Why have the predictions made by the zero-growth proponents in the 1970s (and in fact, ever since Malthus) been so wrong? There are a number of reasons, having to do with the unstated assumptions of the zero-growth mind set:
-----Human beings are a net drain on resources. Ignorant, beer-guzzling couch potatoes and misguided but powerful business leaders can drain the resources from their social and ecological surroundings, but there is no reason that either must continue acting in an ignorant and harmful manner. With the proper initial resources, motivation, and knowledge, humans can produce much more than they need to survive. At a micro-economics level, corporations embrace this view when they begin to treat employees as assets instead of costs. At a macro-economic level, there are two points of view. The first view is of lifeboat economics, which promotes a concept of absolute capacity, and views humans as pure burdens in a fixed environment. The second view is of economic scarcity, which presents an infinite number of alternative choices regarding consumption, resource allocation, and individual purchases. In this second view, humans are the raison d'être for wealth, producers of wealth, and sources of ingenuity and labor that interact with their environment.
-----Earth is our closed, finite environment. The zero-growth computer models implicitly made this second assumption -- that our environment ends at the upper edge of Earth's atmosphere. The worldís Space programs have shown how artificial such limits are. For example, each two-ton communication satellite lifted to orbit means that we don't have to mine and refine million of tons of copper ore. Priest and scientist Teilhard de Chardin coined the term "noosphere" to describe our sphere of cognition. Loosely speaking, this noosphere consists not only of our brains, in which cognition actually takes place, but also includes the sensory and manipulative environment with which our brains interact. This sphere of cognitive influence is magnified tremendously when we use tools -- meaning that our communication satellite networks extend the human noosphere to geosynchronous orbit. The Pioneer and Voyager space probes have recently left our Solar System, so human artifacts are pushing the tendrils of our cognitive influence farther every day. NSS (and NASA, now that we activists have changed itís charter) looks forward to building permanent bases on the Moon and Mars, which will eventually grow into independent communities. The current cost to achieve orbit is much too high to consider a mass exodus with conventional rocket technology. But once we start building reactionless launchers and drawing on energy and materials from extraterrestrial sources, the limits to growth on this planet will be broken wide open.
-----Life is a zero sum game -- i.e. anything that one person gets must be taken from another. As epitomized in Buckminster Fuller's dictum, "doing more with less", technology makes this third assumption also incorrect. Especially noticeable since the 1940s, our tools have increased this planetís carrying capability faster than humans can reproduce. As readers of The Assembler know, Eric Drexler laid the conceptual groundwork for the next breakthrough, coining the term "molecular nanotechnology" to describe the exact, inexpensive control of the structure of matter: "A place for every atom and every atom in its place." With the capability to build and control self-replicating nano-robots, many seemingly impossible tasks could become commonplace. For example, a handful of middle-class individuals could easily provide all the inoculations and vitamins necessary to keep alive the 8.1 million children per year mentioned earlier. Alternatively, they could build settlements on Mars, re-forest the Sahara Dessert, or take advantage of all the pleasant and mind-numbing luxuries a technologically advanced civilization can provide (this latter option has the advantage of presenting the fewest legal hassles). Molecular nanotechnology will enable us to get an atomically precise copy of the Mona Lisa, possibly even with a clone of Leonardo himself, if he left enough skin cells on his masterpiece. It would give us the power to turn water into wine (with only a little cheating), and to repair internal cellular damage (i.e. cure the common cold, cancer, and old age). But it does not promise happiness, nor a solution to evil. It can't let you fly a magic carpet, beam up to a starship, or raise the dead (unless they've been adequately preserved via cryonics, but then they're not really dead). Molecular Nanotechnology can't even get you a date for Saturday night! So what good is it? J . Well, it would help you get many more Saturday nights, it could help you afford to buy the best psychotherapy necessary to overcome your terminal dilbertness, and it would enable you to remake your body to look like Arnold Schwarzenegger's. Hey, it's a start.
Currently, Chinaís one-child policy is the most draconian implementation of population control. There are many documented cases of pregnant women being rounded up and forced to undergo abortions. My soft-spoken carpool companion and co-worker witnessed these events first-hand before he was able to leave with his wife. Domestically, the United States simply provides stiff tax disincentives for children, but in itís foreign policy, it is much more coercive, insisting that sterilization drives meet quotas in order to qualify for development assistance, tying oral contraception to life-saving medical treatment for children, and redesigning school curriculums. These methods have earned us the enmity of people in Iran, the Philippines, Malaysia, Nicaragua, and elsewhere.
If there is no rational basis for zero growth, then what really drives the push for population control? The people who have been taken in by "Big Lie" of overpopulation are obviously sincerely and genuinely concerned about the future. Eric Zencey points to another possible factor -- the seduction of apocalyptic thinking, which gives people's lives historical meaning and fulfills the desire to escape ordinary time. But what motivates those who know the facts, and knowingly distort them? Robert Sassone suggests that "the population explosion propaganda is used to justify political decisions that some people want for other reasons." He admits that he has "no idea of what is going on in their heads... other than they believe that ĎbabyĎ is a four letter word." Others have postulated that the Trilateral Commission or other agencies are conspiring to use the overpopulation scare to increase their political power. In my opinion, secret conspiracies are entirely possible -- and in fact probable, given the corrupting nature of power. But they are also irrelevant in the long run for two reasons -- truisms experienced by every human. First: "No honor among thieves." No evil conspiracy can remain secret and powerful for long, for it is the nature of evil to be self-deceptive and self-destructive. Second: "Truth will out." The predictions of the overpopulation experts have been wrong so many times, plus anyone who can read an encyclopedia (or surf the web and access the source data) and do arithmetic will eventually discover that overpopulation is a myth.
Anthropologists have documented the reversal of attitudes in the United States toward children, searching for reasons why we have very quickly gone from a pro-natalist society to an anti-natalist one. They have postulated some intermediate causes -- the sexual revolution, the loss of innocence initiated by the Vietnam war and Watergate, the decline of the United States economy, and the "freeing" of women by modern appliances. Since Europe has experienced most of the same characteristics of switching from a pro-natalist society to an anti-natalist one, we can safely discount both the Vietnam War and Watergate. And while the economics of raising children can partially explain why children become more expensive as the standard of living goes up, it doesn't explain the zero-growth mentality's concern over the fertility of other couples, nor their misrepresentation of facts.
Deeper reasons for differing views on overpopulation can be found by rephrasing the question from the sociological to the individual psychological realm: What is the motivation of individuals within the zero-growth community?
A simple reason for differing views on overpopulation may be explained by different life experiences and personal environments. I once believed in the overpopulation myth. Growing up in the Santa Clara Valley, I watched the area transform from pockets of suburbia in orchards and wilderness to an continuous megacity from Concord to Los Gatos, with small undeveloped pockets of scrub plants sprouting between the concrete. But then I drove across the country a few times. Once, when my car broke down in Laramie, the sheriffís daughter showed my brother and I the real Wyoming -- hours and hours of dirt roads leading from nowhere to nowhere.
I have a friend who believes in the overpopulation myth. Jane lives in tiny apartment less than a mile from where I grew up, in the middle of what is now Silicon Valley. She slogs through 45 minutes of the three hour rush hour traffic twice a day, while I zip to work in nine minutes on either freeways or dirt roads, and at lunch time I run through wooded forests, meadows, and bogs, rarely seeing anyone. But our differences are not dependent on location. Eight years ago, when I lived in the heart of Silicon Valley, I rode my mountain bike to work along and in the mostly dry bed of Laurence Creek. In an entire year I saw less than five people along the way (Did you know that there is a tunnel under El Camino? Bring a flashlight, because thereís a three foot drop in the middle!). Last year when I visited, I got on a mountain bike and within a half an hour, I was pedaling through tangled woods that go on for thirty miles, all the way to the ocean. If I would have the time to keep going, it is highly doubtful that I would have encountered even a handful of people. But our difference isnít just a difference of activities -- Jane is a woman who has attempted to climb 14,132 foot high Mount Shasta by herself, more than once (I cannot comment on such foolhardiness, since I attempted to climb 17,885 foot high Popocatepetl Volcano by myself. Hmm, maybe thatís why I liked her). So our difference is not that Iím more of an out-door type than she is. There is however, something fundamentally different in the way we look at life. One clue may be a thread common to our relationship from the beginning -- our fierce battles over whether or not "the glass is half full or half empty". If one accepts the Judeo-Christian concept that creation is good, and that humans are "very good", then the glass is always at least half full. If one denies that concept, for whatever reason, then the glass will always be at least half-empty. Even questioning that concept may affect one's attitude. On the other hand, Jane may claim (possibly with some validity) that my optimism is simply a psychological adaptation to my childhood experiences, and that I'm just denying my real feelings of depression and despair.
At a Green Symposium in Ann Arbor a few years ago, Bill Bogen, president of the Ann Arbor chapter of the National Space Society, was struck by the non-chalant manner in which a Sierra Club member assumed the worthlessness of the human race, offhandedly calling us "a cancer on the face of the Earth". Dazed, Bogen asked me, "How can someone so carelessly assume such a self-hateful position and not commit suicide?" I had no answer. Such answers are very difficult to discover, for ideologically opposed individuals are not likely to share their deep personal beliefs.
But then another friend provided me with some important insights into the zero-growth mentality. Soon after becoming Catholic as an adult, Caroline studied and accepted the papal encyclicals. She collected signatures for pro-life petitions, and accepted the anti-malthusian ideals held by the Space program and the promise of molecular nanotechnology. But soon after beginning psychiatric treatment to treat her clinical depression, and suffering through the pangs of an identity crisis, she started working full time at a job that promoted the zero-growth agenda, and she began supporting pro-choice candidates. Clues to her complete turnaround may pivot on a relatively insignificant event: On Fatherís Day, she informed her husband that they were not going to have any more children. This is a typical pattern found in the preliminary stages of many divorces, and has more to do with the withdrawing of the commitment to raise children together, and the increasing displeasure of sexual relations (both important indicators for the health of a marriage) than with zero-growth politics. The reasons she gave for not wanting children were rooted in her experience before her marriage: Caroline had been born the third child in her family, and in her opinion, this was one of major reasons she had been emotionally neglected. This neglect, for which there was ample objective evidence, turned out to be a major factor in her clinical depression, her contemplation of suicide, and her rushing into a hurried marriage. She did not want to birth a child who would suffer like she did. Her sentiment is echoed by many individuals with similar sad stories who say, "I wouldn't want to bring a child in a world as awful as ours."
Like each one of us, Caroline is a unique individual, and we should be very cautious when generalizing her experience to others who share her current beliefs. And we should also be extremely careful whenever doing any psychological analysis. But it is an unquestionable tenant of psychology that at some level, people wish to avoid pain. The uncertainty lies in finding out which pain the person is trying to avoid, and how that subjective perception of pain affects his or her behavior. With those caveats in mind, examining Caroline's transformation may provide important clues that may reveal some of the underlying motivations of her ideology, and inspire a hypothesis with testable conclusions. Caroline's third-person projection: "It is better for a child to be never born than to grow up like me" is syntactically and semantically very close to the first-person: "It is better if I had never been born." But if she accepted the latter expression of her feelings, then she would be face to face with the empty nothingness of depression that she desperately wants to avoid. So despite the apparent illogic of her reversal from pro-natalist Roman Catholicism into the zero-growth ideology, her behavior is psychologically consistent -- she was able to protect her inner being from the pain of her childhood. Caroline is adverse to suicide, and therefore cannot undo her own existence, but by framing her desire in an expression of good will, she can justify projecting her self-destructive wishes on others, committing a painless and rationally justifiable "suicide by proxy". Without the overpopulation myth, her justification disappears, and she will be faced with her own unbearable pain, not to mention the guilt of imposing control on others.
Externally, the motives of the anti-natalist zero-growth movement are justifiable because they want to prevent suffering in others. Unfortunately, their actions are rooted in deeply hidden feelings of self-loathing, and what they are really doing is preventing themselves from feeling that pain. The cost of their method of dealing with these feelings is high, not only to themselves, but to society, for they are overtly and covertly forcing changing other people's behavior in order to avoid their own spiritual growth. They presume to know that another person would choose non-existence over life. Philosophically, this attitude is very similar to the pro-choice sentiment, "Every child a wanted child." On the other hand, the pro-life ideology accepts that there may not be enough love in the world to go around, but claims that the solution is to increase the amount of love, not get rid of the babies. From this viewpoint, the latter solution is not only misguided, but in the usage of Scott Peck, also insane and evil.
How can we test my theory that the zero-growth viewpoint originates from self-loathing? Because of the psychological phenomenon of cognitive dissonance, beliefs with the same spiritual, philosophical, and psychological foundation should coexist easily within the same person. For example, I claim that are very few pro-lifers in the KKK and vice versa, even though both are politically labeled as part of the right wing. I predict that while pro-life advocates can be as close-minded as anyone else, they are generally not against the space program and advanced technology because of its pro-human, anti-malthusian aspects. At the same time, however, they may be against the dehumanization of machines, the hubris of extropians and inefficiency of NASA technicians. Also, I predict that pro-choice, pro-euthanasia, and zero-population groups will share many members, as will Gaian environmentalists, animal rights activists, and extreme conservationists. Finally, because depression is not only a biochemical disease, but also a psychological and philosophical one, I predict that there will be a higher incidence of clinical depression among members of Planned Parenthood than among members in the Couple to Couple League.
Is there anything about our culture that caused this epidemic of self-loathing? What has changed in the last generation? Is simply that our culture has lost its nerve, as cultures do, and will soon be relegated to the dustbin of history, known only for rock and roll, the Bill of Rights, and the lunar landing? Perhaps. But what causes cultures to lose their nerve? Some historians place the blame on the loss of their religious beliefs. They claim that once a culture loses its religious faith, it looses its ethics and its reason for existence. Without ethics and a reason to delay gratification, civilizations require increasingly larger police forces to control itís members, which in turn require higher taxes, until the economic system collapses and any barbarian can walk in and take over.
Our technology has given us an measure of control over our lives that seems to make religion unnecessary. It is likely that the continued acceleration in technology will continue this trend, especially in the worldís monotheistic religions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. For many, whose religious beliefs in God are founded on superstition and parental influence, this illusion of control seems sufficient to turn them into materialists. Others, who have not based their beliefs on unexplained emotional experiences, do not see a conflict between science and God. Those who look beyond the reality and the illusion of control brought by technology find scientific evidence that this universe is an artifact, custom-made so that carbon-based life forms like ourselves could crawl out of the primordial slime and reach for the stars. Solzhenitsyn, who claimed that "We have forgotten God," went on to boldly claim that atheism is a self-destructive aberration that results in hate for one's own society. Unfortunately, he did not trace the path of causes and effects by which that might happen, so it would be difficult to prove his hypothesis, especially given the altruistic and humanistic attitudes of individual atheists such as Isaac Asimov. It is tempting to dismiss Solzhenitsyn as a religious extremist who clung to his faith because of the persecution he suffered in the USSR because of it. But thinking about religion as memetic evolution in action, one social phenomenon deserves closer examination: Denmark is one of the most atheistic countries in Europe, but despite having one of the best social systems in the world, it has the highest rate of suicide. Why?
The current world population may not be overcrowded, but what of the future? After all, Malthus did do his mathematics correctly: exponential growth is exponential growth. Eventually, it seems mathematically inevitable that the cities will crowd out the farms. Fortunately, as J.B.S. Haldane pointed out, the universe is not only stranger than we imagine, it is stranger than we can imagine. Events such as the Omega Point, the restructuring of the Solar System into Dyson Rings, and the Singularity will spin Malthus in his grave so fast he'll burst into a ball of ionized plasma.
Isaac Asimov was an ardent proponent of halting population growth. He pointed out that in one or two thousand years, the entire Solar System would be converted into a spherical mass of human flesh, expanding at the speed of light. Actually, Asimov's parody is in some ways not so far from what will probably happen. Josh Hall recently predicted that entire planets (not just the surface, but the volume as well) will be transformed into "Utility Fog" -- arrays of micron-sized supercomputers into which humans can "upload" their minds. Personally, I'm hardly enamored with the idea of uploading, but since we and Fog are made of atoms, I can't bring any solid arguments against it, so I believe that it will happen. Tielhard de Chardain predicted that at the end of the universe, the noosphere -- the sphere of human consciousness -- will extend to the end of the Universe, resulting in the Omega Point. At this point, when all of the mass and energy of the Universe comprises a social, personal, thinking, and loving entity -- possibly 101024 years from now -- then the kingdom of God will be at hand. This sounds close to the hubris of the Tower of Babel builders, but religious social activists might claim that we are Godís hands, just as when we feed the hungry or give to the poor. Recently, physicist Frank Tipler examined this Omega Point from the point of view of quantum mechanics and cosmological physics. Surprisingly, his discoveries caused him to drop his atheist materialism, and to accept beliefs in a God of love, resurrection of the body, and life everlasting. But significantly before the Omega Point, other limits will be reached. Ralph Merkle has calculated that with molecular manufacturing technology, Earth can support a trillion people on its surface. The Sun puts out 2.2 billion times more energy than the Earth intercepts, so we have enough energy to support around 1021 people in our Solar System.
Life requires not just energy to flourish, but matter also, in the form of the elements that make up organic molecules, toasters, and computers. There is enough material in the solar system, in the form of asteroids, to build Earth-like space habitats with a total area 3000 times that of Earth. When we learn how to do controlled fusion on an industrial scale, we could take apart the gas giants (storing the excess energy in the form of antimatter), and multiply the land area of Earth by a factor of 1.2 billion, either in the form of many O'Neill space colonies or possibly a Dyson Ring. Coincidentally, this calculation also results in a possible Solar System population of around 1021. So overpopulation will not be a problem for over a thousand years at which communications bandwidth and heat dissipation may also set limits on human population.
On the other hand, psychological constraints need to be taken into account. For example, rats show disturbing trends as a result of stress caused by overcrowding: First, the violence level increases. Next, sexual behavior becomes abnormal (including abbreviated courtship behavior, gang rape, and homosexuality). Finally, the mothers no longer take care of their young, who die and are eaten. On the other hand, because of coping mechanisms, experiments with primates have shown that if population density is increased 6000 times greater than those naturally occurring, aggressive acts only increase by a factor of 50%. But psychological issues of overcrowding will most probably become moot considerably before we hit the relatively solid resource limits outlined above. This is because the human race will encounter a situation which Vernon Vinge has termed "The Singularity" -- a concept that needs some explaining.
Human history has been characterized by an accelerating rate of technological progress, caused by a positive feedback loop. A new technology, such as agriculture, allows an increase in population. A larger population has more brains at work, so the next technology is developed more quickly. In more recent times, larger numbers of people have been liberated from peasant-level agriculture into professions that entail more education. So not only are there more brains with which to think, but those brains have more knowledge with which to work, and more time with which to devise new ideas. We are still in the transition from mostly peasant-level agriculture, and the fraction of the world considered "developed" is constantly expanding. It is reasonable to expect the rate of technological progress to continue to accelerate because there are more and more scientists and engineers at work. In Vinge's vision, the pace of progress will hyper-accelerate when computers gain the raw power of human brains, and when they are as expensive to manufacture as to fund a Ph.D. candidate. Assuming that the doubling time of any technological capability continues shrinking, then our civilization's capabilities will soon thereafter transcend physical limits as we know them. Just as the laws of physics break down in the singularity of a black hole, our current scientific knowledge of the world will break down in The Singularity. When every morning brings a change as shattering as the transition from the Neolithic to the electronic age, we will not longer be able to say anything useful about the future. Vinge envisions that soon afterwards, Homo Sapiens will become transhuman, and then quickly ascend to the next level of existence or something, thereby explaining the Great Silence.
Since it is so difficult to predict what happens at the Singularity, Vinge claims repeatedly that the only way to find out is to live through it.
Will you make it to the Singularity? It depends on how old you are and when exactly it will occur. Computers aren't terribly smart right now, but that's because the human brain has about a million times the raw power of today's home computers. Since computer capacity doubles every two years or so, we expect that in about 40 years, the computers will be as powerful as human brains. And two years after that, they will be twice as powerful, etc. To make things even more interesting, computer production is not limited by the rate of human reproduction. So the total amount of brain-power available on Earth, counting humans plus computers, takes a rapid jump upward 2035.
The rates of growth for different technologies varies. The number of people on computer networks has grown exponentially since the inauguration of the Internet, and a continuation of that trend predicts that everyone on Earth will be hooked into the information superhighway around 2010. The maximum speed of transportation since the 1800s also shows exponential growth, and charting that line on semi-log paper, we find the line intersecting the speed of light around 2100. I personally don't see how either prediction could ever become true. However, I do know that my knowledge is limited, and I am prepared for some interesting surprises.
Since the industrial revolution, human life expectancies have been increasing at around 0.1 years per calendar year. If the rate of progress in medical areas increases by a factor of 10, which is conceivable as we approach the Singularity, then life expectancy will be increasing as fast as we are aging. So the longer you live, the more likely that technological advances will enable you to extend your lifetime even more. Therefore, it seems logical that recent college graduates will not only live to see the Singularity, but the Omega Point as well, a billion years hence. However, surviving the major dislocations that will occur in the next two decades will not be easy. Will you survive the Singularity? Well, it depends on exactly how we approach the Singularity, how lucky, flexible, and wise we are, and how much suffering we can bear. When Utility Fog, self-replicating assemblers, and other products of the nanotechnology revolution are misused, they can make a full-out nuclear war looks like a Sunday afternoon picnic in comparison, and the horrors depicted in Revelations become difficult to avoid. Then again, with mature nanotechnology, two weeks after a full-out nuclear exchange, everything can be back pretty much to normal -- though the concept of normal will have little meaning in a world in which Santa Claus machines have made the need for money all but disappear, every human institution is obsolete, people posses eternal youth and godlike powers, and the concept of Homo Sapiens itself is distorted beyond recognition.
Unfortunately, technology brings power, and power corrupts. Therefore, as our technology increases, the chances of a socially induced catastrophe are undoubtedly increasing also. The current battle between the culture of death and the culture of life encapsulates that choice. Coming technology will make many of the issues moot, but will raise even deeper ones, over which intellectuals and the public will clash even more strongly. Is there any way to face this insurmountable opportunity that threatens to destroy us? If we recognize our limits, temper our impulse to indulge ourselves, and walk in humility and gratitude in Love and Truth, then the stars will literally be our toys. On the other hand, we could reject the accumulated wisdom of the ages as primitive superstitions, we could use our god-like powers to reign on our individual thrones, arrogantly choosing our own personal "moralities" to fit our latest desires. If we do, I predict that if we survive, which is highly unlikely, then we will then end up in a loveless and empty hell of our own choosing. Is it a privilege or a curse to live at a time in human history when such a momentous decision will be made? I cannot say. All I know is that we live in the best of times, we live in the worst of times, but most of all, we live in interesting times.
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Newsletter for the Molecular Manufacturing Shortcut Group,
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Molecular Manufacturing Shortcut Group: A Chapter of the National Space Society
PROMOTE THE DEVELOPMENT OF MOLECULAR MANUFACTURING AS A MEANS TO FACILITATE THE SETTLEMENT OF SPACE
Our Long Range Goal:
Inform our chapter members, the Space activist community, Government, Industry, Academia, and the public about molecular manufacturing and its promise in facilitating the development of Space.