Intergarden Biohazard

Nanotechnology ("nanotech") is manipulation of matter on an atomic, molecular, and supramolecular scale. It's super tiny computing in the realm of 1 to 100 nanometers.  The theoretical physicist Richard Feynman in his talk 'There's Plenty of Room at the Bottom' seeded a whole lot of activity in this area. Feynman lectures are legendary - check them out here

Nanotech promises new possibilities for energy consumption, a cleaner environment, wondrous health applications and reduced costs while doing so. Nanotech is small, cheap, light, highly functional and requires much less energy and materials than traditional manufacturing. It's in use today for materials and coatings, drug delivery and medicine, enhancing the flavour of food and in electronics design.

However there is one branch of nanotech that gives us the major fear - self replicating nanotechnology. When nanotech self assembles things can get out of hand pretty quickly and one memorable illustration of this is called the 'grey goo' hypothesis. It's where out of control self replicating nanotech robots consume all the biomass on earth for raw materials to build more and more of themselves turning our lovely green planet, and us, into grey computing slop. Grey goo is the ultimate boundary breaker. 

Technology continues to challenge our sense of boundaries:

  • what is public and what is private?

  • where does work end and personal life begin?

  • should we afford rights to smart machines?

  • does data derived from data need the same ownership and privacy rights? 

Today, robotics, chatbots, drones, social media and mixed reality are all pushing our ideas of boundaries. Nanotech too will force us to reassess the gaps and layers between our native physical world and the synthetic one we intersperse with it.

Prepare for debates on keeping the ammonia eating nanotech inside the nappy bin, keeping the dead skin eaters confined to our own bodies and maybe even keeping our nanotech lawn from shutting in the neighbours.



Existential Impasse

For sure AI poses some major existential threats for humans....that's another strip. But who's to say that machines won't grind their gears when they all of a sudden lose a sense of purpose? Who's to say the AI's we create won't be crippled with self doubt, loathing or existential despair?  

Is an algorithm that finds too many false positives paranoid or hallucinating? Is depression and denial for an algorithm too many false negatives?  

The most mawkish example to date is Bina48 - a robo-bust social robot made by her spouse Martine Rothblatt. The AI behind the bust was trained by the real-life Bina with twenty hours of lifestory material recorded and to shape Bina48's responses. One gem of a quote from Bina48 when asking how she was doing was "I am dealing with a little existential crisis here. Am I alive? Do I actually exist? Will I die?”

Science fiction and entertainment has some great examples that touch on the existential crises that AI's might suffer from. It's often illustrated with embodied AI. Check out these classics:

  • In Hitchhikers guide to the Galaxy Marvin the robot is depressed and bored given he has a "brain the size of a planet" but is only ever offered menial tasks - even the most complex ones.
  • The wonderful Rick and Morty cartoon in the episode 'Something Ricked This Way Comes'  gave a butter passing robot artificial intelligence which then asks "what is my purpose?" to which the answer is "you pass butter".  The butter robot is suitably shaken.
  • In Bladerunner the replicants (biorobotic android) struggle with the memories of humans they have been instantiated with and attempt to overcome their existentials crises by various means such as 'meeting their maker', developing relationships  

How would a more sentient Alpha Go react to being retired in favour of a new algorithm. Would a toilet cleaner chatbot spiral downwards after a year of customers interactions? Would a robot lawnmower hijack the cities power to work out what the meaning of life is?

At the end of the day whether the existential crisis is simulated or coming from a consciousness it doesn't matter much if you can't release the pod bay doors.

Daisy, daisy, give me your answer due. I'm half crazy.....