Documenting the Coming Singularity

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Nanotechnology and All Things Precise

What is the big deal about nanotechnology. Why are really tiny machines better than regular-sized machines? And why are engineered drugs supposed to be so much better than the ones we came up with before? And what makes smart bombs so smart?

These are just some of the questions many people find themselves asking whenever these topics arise in the news. They are good questions, and they all have the same answer: Precision. Yes, folks, in each case it is about precision. Let me explain.

Hundred dollar bills

Imagine that you are a normal person, with a normal income and normal tastes in consumer goods. OK, got that? There is only one thing strange about you. It's your money. All you have are $100 bills. When you get paid, they round down. When you pay for goods and services, they round up. This means that your weekly salary of $1099 is rounded to $1000. You lose $99 every week. Too bad, so sad. When you buy a 25 cent pack of gum (if you are foolish enough to buy only that), you have to pay, $100. A dinner bill of $35 including tip costs you, you guessed it, $100.

Precision in fabrication

That would surely suck, wouldn't it? Well, we've been doing something like that for many thousands of years. How so? you ask. Well, whenever we build a widget, for example, we round up on the materials we use to build it, simply because our tools can't be any more precise about it. But what if we could build that widget atom by atom? We would use not one more atom than is necessary. With lots of widgets we could save a bundle.

Precision in medicine

How about drugs, the medicinal kind? First, instead of taking a bunch of ingredients, mixing them together and trying the concoction on test victims, I mean subjects, to see what, if any, therapeutic effects might result, we would be able to build a molecule or compound exactly to order, made from the start to do exactly what we want it to do. Second, rather than manufacturing one drug to treat every headache, we could design and create one that's just perfect for you, based on your specific genetic makeup.

Further, wouldn't it be nice if, instead of having to swallow a pill that has to be dissolved in your belly, then absorbed through the lining of your intestines, float around your bloodstream until most of the molecules find the right address, they could all be targeted and delivered precisely where they are needed? Not a molecule wasted?

Killing the right enemy

And smart bombs, well, we're talking about not killing 15 people when we only need to kill one. (I'm am optimistic about the future, but the idea that we won't have bombs or killing...come on.)

This idea of making things more precise through technology is affecting you right now. One reason why there's so little inflation, why prices of most things are stable or falling, is because of technology. The companies that make and process and package and deliver and sell the milk you buy are all using computers and sophisticated algorithms to make sure they aren't wasting a drop of milk or a second of time. Of course, they are wasting many drops and many seconds, because the technology available has lots of room for improvement. But we are learning the advantages of precision.

So, now you know. It's time to start cheering for technology, for artificial general intelligence, and the singularity.

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