Saturday, December 03, 2005

Eliezer's Easy Steps to Building Your Own Nanotech Assembler

"Don't believe those fuddy-duddies at the Foresight Institute who say that building nanotechnology will require years and billions of dollars. Building your own assembler is easy.

You'll need:

An atomic-force microscope
Graph paper
A GNU C compiler
Two AA batteries
A bag of Hershey's chocolates

Obtaining an atomic-force microscope is easy, although most people already own one (check around in your garage). Today's AFMs are cheaper than ever, and several sets of online instructions show how you can construct your own AFM from Legos and duct tape. I picked up my own AFM for five bucks at a garage sale.

Once you have your AFM, your next step is to design the assembler, being careful to show the exact positions of all atoms on your sheets of graph paper. (You may want to consult the Periodic Table of Elements from time to time if you're not sure about the exact properties of a given element, or refer back to your high-school physics books for a full explanation of molecular binding forces.) This should take a couple of days, or a week if it's your first assembler design. A typical assembler might contain a trillion atoms, so you should probably get a full package of graph paper from an office supply store in advance.

Next, create the software that directs your assembler to create a copy of itself. (Your assembler design should include an on-board computer – you didn't forget to include it, did you?) If your on-board computer doesn't us an existing instruction set, you may need to create a "cross-compiler" plugin for your programming environment, so be sure to use an open-source compiler. (The GNU C compiler is widely used as a cross-compiler.) Designing and debugging this software will probably take at least three hours, or longer if you run into any problems, so you should probably start on a Sunday morning when there's plenty of time.

Once you have the software and the hardware design, the rest of your job is pretty trivial. Just take the Atomic Force Microscope and arrange atoms into the form of the assembler shown on your graph paper. (If your Atomic Force Microscope doesn't have a six-degrees-of-freedom manipulator, shop around until you find one that does). Arranging a trillion atoms one by one will be a bit tedious, so you may want to stretch out the work over a few days instead of doing it all in one afternoon.

Since most of an assembler is carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, and nitrogen, you'll need a supply of these elements on hand. Nitrogen is just floating around in the air, so the trick is finding a good source of carbon-hydrogen-oxygen, such as sugar. Chocolate is always a good source of sugar, so just pick up a bag of Hershey's Kisses at the supermarket. Be sure to get a whole bag so you don't run out of atoms.

All your assembler needs now is a power supply. Connect the assembler to the AA batteries, tell the assembler to start reproducing itself, and you're off! (The Foresight Institute recommends that you make sure the assembler can't reproduce itself in a natural environment, but those guidelines are only mandatory for professional nanotech companies, not hobbyists.)

Eliezer S. Yudkowsky
Research Fellow, Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence

I plan to start on mine this weekend.


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