Eclectic Pseudoplague

From: Mitch Howe (
Date: Mon Jun 17 2002 - 03:24:15 MDT

This is merely another short argument for fostering a safe Singularity soon:
Nanotech poses an existential risk even without the creation of an
omnivorous "grey goo".

Recently posted on this list was the small reassurance that the power
problem for nanodevices will be difficult to overcome in such a way that
would allow rapid and total consumption of the biosphere. I agree, but
would like to point out that the reassurance is miniscule indeed, seeing as
how a small degree of intelligence in a dedicated doomsday device would
nicely get around the problem.

Consider for a moment the myriad of existing pathogens and toxins that can
be lethal to humans even in very tiny amounts. An artillery shell full of
anthrax spores, it has been said, could potentially kill everyone on earth
if these spores could somehow be distributed among all human lungs. Nerve
agents are perhaps a few orders of magnitude below this in terms of killing
capacity per volume on account of their non-replicating nature, but a
swimming pool's worth of Sarin could probably do in the species nicely --
provided it could be delivered equitably. It is this crucial question of
delivery that makes these "poor-man's nukes" so difficult to use to their
fullest, but this is the very question that nanotechnology -- or possibly
even MEMS technology -- could be capable of solving. The combination of
tried and true killing substances -- biological or chemical -- with
bulk-manufactured intelligent delivery devices creates the existential
menace I call the Eclectic Pseudoplague.

In the more advanced manifestation of this approach, a doomsday terrorist
would design a self-replicating nano-device that, in it's "spore" phase
spreads, locates, and feeds off some readily consumed (if not quite
ubiquitous) power source, like electricity or petrochemicals. In it's
"incubatory" phase it multiplies and begins to synthesize the following:
ultraconcentrated stores of toxins or viral agents, vehicles (with their
required energy reserves) for delivering these substances, and additional
propagation spores -- all according to programmed timetables and criteria.
In it's early "reproductive" phase it spreads spores to begin creating new
colonies attached to remote energy sources. In all cases with sufficient
available energy, a "kill" phase is reached, upon which the colony releases
it's swarm of delivery vehicles. Depending on the toxin or pathogen, these
devices might be just above or below the microscopic threshold, and would
crawl, swim or fly, navigating by detection of infrared radiation or carbon
dioxide emissions the way parasitic insects do. Due to the toxicity of the
payloads and the high likelihood of each victim receiving multiple doses,
fatality rates among victims would be extremely high. And unlike biological
plagues that "burn out" on account of their killing all the available hosts
before these can spread the illness, such an advanced Eclectic Pseudoplague
could continue spreading unabated, since it does not rely on the victims to
act as hosts or vectors. It is not hard to imagine that such a plague could
pose an existential threat, with most of the killing happening quickly and
the rest happening eventually as survivors found it impossible to hide out
forever in the extremely secure environments that would be necessary.
Interestingly, such a plague would spread quickest and most thoroughly in
developed areas (where the designated ready-energy source would be most
abundant), ensuring that a non-existential outcome would set civilization
back as far as possible.

In far-less advanced -- but still sufficiently terrifying -- manifestations
of Eclectic Pseudoplague, a doomsday terrorist would work with a pre-made
batch of delivery vehicles filled with a pre-made batch of toxins. Billions
or trillions of killing vehicles could fit in a relatively small space, even
if these were the size of mosquitoes or houseflies. With relatively simple
algorithms programmed in to ensure that these spread out as much as
possible, combined with a synchronized distribution of the devices in many
different starting areas, the effectiveness of a single pre-made stockpile
could be catastrophic. While perhaps not posing the existential risk of the
former scenario, the casualties from such an attack could easily reach the
point where current economies would collapse and set civilization back
decades or centuries. An undesirable occurrence, to say the least.

--Mitch Howe
(who thinks that lustful teenagers fleeing a swarm of killer robo-insects
sounds like a tasteless Hollywood blockbuster just waiting to happen)

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