Nanofactories, Gang Wars, and “Feelies”

February 3, 2006

Originally published in The Futurist March-April 2006. Reprinted on February 3, 2006.

This article is a response to Ray Kurzweil’s feature in The Futurist, Reinventing Humanity. You can also read other responses to Kurzweil’s article by Terry Grossman, John Smart, J. Storrs Hall, and Richard Eckersley. Ray Kurzweil’s response to Eckersley’s comments can be found here.

Click here to read a PDF of the full feature.

A quarter century ago, we’d have laughed at the prospect of "Dick Tracy" cell-phones with cameras; now they’re everywhere, and nobody noticed after the first few days. So the jump to the idea of a Singularity is not really extraordinary. But, should we really expect ever more substantial changes to follow the same accelerating, headlong pace?

It’s reasonable to expect affordable computers to be smaller and more powerful, 1,000 times improved in a decade, one million times in 20 years, one billion in 30. By then, some machines might have capabilities to rival the human mind. A new intelligent species might share the planet with us.

In addition, developing technologies such as molecular manufacture—nanotechnology—will allow the very engines of productivity to be copied cheaply and distributed widely. If that happens the gap between rich and "poor" might diminish. However, it will only occur if we find ways to prevent portable nano-factories from making lethal weapons available to any child or psychopath. We’ll be able to solve most of the problems that currently vex us—global warming, (to the extent that it’s caused by humans,) water and food shortages, provision of clean, cheap power, and so on.

There is a scary downside that I discussed nearly a decade ago in my book The Spike: Dirt-cheap molecular manufacture may end poverty and strife, but there exists a risk that a world of lotus-eaters will degenerate into gang wars among those for whom life retains no discipline or meaning outside of arbitrary local status and violence. People (young men especially) with full bellies gained effortlessly, but lacking meaning in their lives, often find purpose in ganging up on each other in fits of murderous primate chest-pounding. Making Huxleian soma, or "feelies," the opiate of the people might help, but that, too, is a sickening prospect.

On the other hand, those strictly unforeseeable and mysterious changes captured in the word "Singularity" are likely to overwhelm and surpass such predictable downsides of any technological utopia or dystopia. The eeriest aspect of accelerating change is that we ourselves, and our children, will be the ones soaking in it. The sooner we start thinking seriously about the prospect, the better prepared we’ll be.

© 2006 Damien Broderick. Reprinted with permission.