Beta-testing the nanotech revolution

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Some highly disruptive technology has recently come to virtual world Second Life. As documented by Ed Felten (here and here), someone has written a piece of software that lets you copy the form (though not necessarily the internal functionality) of any object.

Of course, the no-copying restriction in Second Life is a purely artificial restriction designed to make Second Life more closely resemble the real world where copying is hard. This kind of rule is clearly necessary in a game (ever play Quake in "God Mode" where you can't be killed and can walk through walls? It's incredibly boring) but Second Life seems to have aspirations to be more than a game, in which case part of the attraction would seem to be to be liberated from the annoying restrictions of physics. Indeed, this kind of free form copying is exactly what you'd expect in the most optimistic (or maybe pessimistic) predictions for nanotechnology, and as Felten observes, the impact on the real economy would be dramatic, to say the least.

Universal copying isn't the only nanotech feature which has an analog in Second Life. Someone has written a self-replicator, what Drexler called grey goo when applied to nanotech (indeed, the Second Life people call it grey goo as well). I don't know enough about Second Life to know if the grey goo uses the same kind of mechanisms as molecular assemblers. Probably not, since Second Life physics doesn't really resemble real-world physics that well, but it sounds like the concept is the same.

None of this is particular surprising, of course. Much of the point of nanotech is to bring the programmability of software to the physical world, so when we have a programmable virtual world, we get all the stuff nanotech boosters have been predicting. Maybe if we manage to get our hands around how to handle this stuff when it's just bits we'll have a better idea of what to do if we ever get to the point where we can replicate diamonds and HDTVs.

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The mechanisms used by replicators in Second Life are completely different to those that nanotech replicators might use, if they existed.

In Second Life, an in-world object can have an inventory of other objects; it can create in-world copies of those inventory objects and then hand them copies of themselves so that they can carry on the process. You can see that one difference here is that Second Life replicators don't have to be assemblers; it would be possible for them to replicate in vacuo as they don't need any kind of feedstock from the environment.

Restraining replicators has proven to be quite hard for Linden Labs. There has always been a limit on the number of objects per region, but although hitting that limit stops the goo from growing it also has the disadvantage of preventing any other users from doing anything (which is the whole point of the attack). Restrictions on the rate at which objects can create other objects, and algorithmic detection of an attack (the "grey goo fence") haven't stopped the outbreaks, which after all are driven by real people with an ability to adapt to new defenses.

One of the more recent suggestions by Linden Lab is that they may try and address this kind of problem by limiting the ability to perform certain operations to "trusted" users, whatever that means. Which I guess kicks the problem out of the realm of virtual physics into the realm of virtual identity. If I thought identity was more of a solved problem, I might be more confident that this would help.

A better solution. Require every object creation to require a token payment in currency, say .01 linden dollars.

Thus any self-replicator will need to get currency from someplace in order to keep growing.

What about the economic consequences? Deflation?

Alex: Its a drag source, but a very minor drag source. It would probably be far less than rent on plots of land.

One of the uses for replications is guns, which "rez" many many bullets very quickly (and which then vanish when they reach their target). Gunplay is not a huge part of SL but there is a substantial community that enjoys designing weapons. They always raise a big fuss when more limitations are imposed on replication.

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