04 March 2011

Robot Doom? If You Can See Them You Can Fight Them

The fear of "robot apocalypse" is but one of the many fears of doom which trouble the dreams of modern humans. New speculations over the US Navy's development of swarm robots is feeding into this deep anxiety (Brian Wang has more details).

Out of dozens of US Navy technology solicitations, "N11A-T037 Desktop Manufacturing with Micro-robot Swarm" has been the focus of concern. One can almost imagine swarms of warrior robots pouring out of desk-top factories around the world, eager to fight and kill for robot conquest and glory.

Sure, some designs for swarm robots are quite benign and even beneficent, but anyone familiar with science fiction understands what can happen when mobile machines are made more powerful, as well as capable of reproducing themselves and coordinating action among themselves.

The actual danger will not come from hulking, clanking robots that you can see, however. Such robots require too much material and too much energy to create, maintain, and move to the kill zone. No, when robots decide to exterminate humans, the swarm that gets you will be the one you cannot see -- until it is too late.

You see, it will be far more economical and effective for self-assembling robot exterminators to come in the guise of wind- and water-borne micro-bots and nano-bots. Consider Josh Hall's wonderful vision of nano utility fog, but instead of creating a wonderful fantasy world for humans, the fog binds them, chokes them, shreds them, then uses their remains as raw material to make more fog.

Of course, it would be wasteful for nano-conquerors to commit wholesale genocide against groups of humans. It might be smarter for them select the humans likely to be useful, then simply perform nano-neurosurgery to make them more compliant to their overlordship.

Imagine invasive nano-fog which is capable of giving impromptu IQ and physical aptitude tests to any persons it finds, then passing instant judgment on them -- terminate or transform. Resistance is futile, if you can not see them coming.

Robert Freitas' inspiring conception of Nanomedicine reveals the optimistic side of human vision. But for every profound and competent optimistic visionary, there are hundreds of dull doomers and would-be doomers. And at least a few very bright dreamers who might be turned to the dark side with sufficient incentive.

The good thing about nano-weapons is that they are likely to have an expiration date. If you can outlast their destructive phase, you should be alright until the next swarm is unleashed.

Anyone who incorporates powerful networked molecular-level replicators or desk-top fabs into their technological vision, will always be vulnerable to an internal threat from devices that can always be tampered with or hacked.

Once "desktop manufacturing" or 3-D fabs become sophisticated enough, the programming for such "killer nano-fog" can be sent to the fab over the net from anywhere. As soon as a desktop fab can create an entirely autopoietic nano fog, there will no longer be a need for the fab. The fog can recreate itself using targeted raw material it comes upon in its wind- or water-borne travels.

If the very air you breathe and the water you drink is infested by nano-bots of doubtful provenance, where will you find safety? While you may think you will be safe in a deep underground bunker, you should remember how easily the Stuxnet worm penetrated Iran's deep bunkers.

Basing your survival upon the idea that "the commons" will always be free and safe, may not be the best plan. Humans are at the top of the survival chain in one sense, but they are badly outnumbered by insects and microbes. If swarm intelligences which can assume the sizes of insects and microbes get it into their minds to topple the homo king of the mountain, the slide to the bottom may leave you more than bruised.

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