Drexler and I Again

Eric Drexler has responded to my last reply. Let me focus on one key issue. I wrote:

The main argument you gave for why a nanotech revolution could happen suddenly is that new nanotech designs could “unfold at the speed of new digital media”, i.e., we could sent such designs around fast as digital files. But if this were all that was needed for a technology to improve rapidly we should now see rapid gains in the design of novels, music, and software.

Drexler responds with quotes from his book:

Even partial upgrades of existing products that involve [merely] replacing structural components with materials that are lighter, stronger, and lower in cost can offer striking advantages. If a business today could deliver replacements for products already in use, but at lower cost and with superior performance by a few key metrics (vehicles with half the mass, electronic systems with ten thousand times greater capacity), one would expect to see rapid replacement of competing products along with the collapse of the supply chains behind them. …

Cycles of product improvement (and replacement) can be swift with an APM production infrastructure; the delays of prototyping, production engineering, and plant construction largely disappear, and production itself can be both fast and scalable. Further, for products adapted to decentralized APM-based production, distribution need not involve shipping and can more nearly resemble an Internet download.

Yes, if a broad mature nanotech ability were to drop out of the sky, then industry could use such an ability to rapidly to displace existing products with large efficiency gains. A sudden appearance of full nanotech would imply a big sudden social change. But the question here is exactly how fast would nanotech abilities appear!

Nanotech production lines take very small chemicals and incrementally bond them to each other, accumulating larger and larger assemblages, until they are big enough to be useful devices. Imagine that such production lines slowly became cheaper, faster, and more reliable, slowly adding to the menu of chemicals they could take in as basic building blocks, and slowly able to reliably create a wider range of chemical bonds at a wider range of relative block orientations. Slowly more of the steps in this production process became more fully automated, and less guided by human intervention. The slower that these improved abilities appeared, the slower would be the gains in performance and cost of the devices made this way.

Today the industries that create novels, music, and software all have the advantages Drexler foresees – they have little in the way of tech-induced delays of prototyping, production engineering, and plant construction. Production itself is both fast and scalable. Even so, those industries are not improving the efficiency of their products at rates much faster than when they suffered greatly from such delays. So the elimination of such delays is clearly not sufficient to imply much faster gains in final product value.

If there are reasons to expect nanotech abilities to improve rapidly, they must be additional reasons beyond those given above.

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  • Richard Bruns

    The rate of change in entertainment is limited to consumers’ willingness to accept such changes. Changes to the physical world do not face this constraint.

    Even so, there has been a great increase in the diversity of music and novels available, and to a consumer with eclectic tastes, this translates into much greater final product value and efficiency. The particular things such individuals want from music and novels can be obtained far more cheaply and reliably than before.

    • Philip Goetz

      I don’t think this is the case. Consider the major waves of musical innovation lately. I’m sure somebody who knows music can add more:

      1890s: Brass bands
      1900s: Impressionism
      1910s: Modernism, atonal music, Schoenberg & Stravinsky kill off orchestral music
      1920s: Ragtime, blues
      1930s: Swing, big band music
      1940s: Vocalists, movie musical soundtracks
      1950s: pre-rock, Free jazz
      1960s: Electronic instruments, special effects, vastly more-sophisticated recording & mixing. Almost all aspects of modern rock invented in 1963-1967 (Beatles, Who, Stones, Hendrix).
      1970s: Disco
      1980s: big hair, country music loses most of its distinctive qualities
      1990s: Rap. Rock: Same as before, but now sung with detached irony (REM, They Might Be Giants).

      2000s: Same exact stuff, but amplifying the bass & the melody in the mix

      The pace of musical innovation matches the pace of technological innovation almost exactly: Increasing up to a frenetic level in the 1960s, then tapering off. Approximately nothing has happened in music in the past 20 years. Certainly much, much less than happened between 1962 (The Beatles: My Bonnie) and 1967 (Sergeant Pepper, Are You Experienced?, The Doors).

  • Bogdan

    I’m not sure you’re completely right when saying the industries are not improving at faster rates. Did you actually look at some numbers? (Not rhetorical; I didn’t, and I’m curious what you used if you did.) Otherwise it might simply be that we’re used to what’s around us. I mean, it’s hard for a human to notice the difference between a doubling time of ten years and one of, say, fifteen years.

    And you also have to look at replacements. We might not write novels, or create music albums, much faster than 20 years ago. But if you count things like fanfiction and blogs and Wikipedia, we might be creating *literature* at a faster rate. If you count YouTube and Deviant Art and the like and label it as “art and entertainment”, that might well be progressing faster than before, adjusted to population.

    Look at news and tell me it doesn’t evolve faster than before the “internet everywhere” age.

    And why do you put software in that category? In fifty years the number of people involved rose by at least seven orders of magnitude, how do you estimate “rate of increase in efficiency” for something like that?

    (By the way, the “sign in with” icons in the post form don’t seem to work.)

    • Bogdan

      (I meant “look at the production of news”, not “read the news”.)

  • Mshidden

    I like the fact that you are willing to argue for a constant rate, of change, and even seem do it with a straight face. One aspect of art that I see has changed is the plot depth of stories, in television series, for example and in video games etc. We are seeing depth vs diversity. Series are more then likely to have more surreal plot lines which are more complexes in nature, If we look back 20 years ago, Surreal writing was mostly daytime soaps, now it is the norm. We may not be exploring different plots in movies, but instead looking deeper into the plots we do have. The reason for this is complexes, but it does reflect a more sophisticated consumer.

    I think books to reflect the need to make sure you have done your due diligences. I don’t think we have seen a marked increase in the type of books, or software titles but you are seeing a depth in theses titles because, people do not want variety as much as quality. The low hanging fruit of type has been exhausted, were as we are far from the end of the quality paradigm.

    I want my laptop to run longer, boot faster. I am not general looking for a different way of doing things.

    as form factor reaches optimum function, we likely will see stagnation in that form factor, and diversity will died off. so it’s important to understand the underlying restraints of change. For example to say that software is stagnating because their are less software patents, is to fundamentally ignore the nature of software which does not benefit from patent protection in the same way as early inventions.

    I think you are right to ask, and I would say lets keep our eye on 3D printing, it could be an echo of things to come. I see 3D printing as being crucial for the mast production of complexes consumer robotics. If in 10 years we do not have mass market robotics, as a direct result of 3D printing then I am dead wrong.

  • Grant

    I’m not sure novels, music and software are good examples.

    Software has improved its efficiency dramatically since distribution became trivial. Look at the rise of the web, and later the rise of app stores.

    Novels and software are highly positional, status-oriented goods. Its not clear to me what improved efficiency in these goods would even look like.

    That said, isn’t it possible nano-produced parts could be much more difficult to design than traditional parts? And likely limited in any number of ways? They might have higher fixed costs, which would be problematic if produces had difficulty capturing all their potential revenue due to pirating.

    • http://overcomingbias.com RobinHanson

      Software also improved its efficiency dramatically before distribution became trivial. My claim was that gains have not been much faster after than before this transition.

  • seymour_results

    Drexler wins!

    Strong AGI (or SGI if you prefer, mssr!) will rapidly exploit nanotech. Stupid humans will lag, hopelessly. …And good riddance to bad rubbish! Damned lynch mob of self-important primates!