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January 13, 2011

Ben Goertzel and Hugo de Garis have new speculation on Femtotech

Ben Goertzel and Steve Omohundro discussed Bolonkins idea of degenerate matter femtotech.

There are many possible routes to femtotech, and Hugo notes a number of them in his article, including some topics I won't touch here at all like micro black holes and Bose-Einstein condensation of squarks. I'll focus here largely on a particular class of approaches to femtotech based on the engineering of stable degenerate matter – not because I think this is the only interesting way to think about femtotech, but merely because one has to choose some definite direction to explore if one wants to go into any detail at all.

Hugo de Garis searches for phenomena in physics that may serve as basis for a femtometer scale technology

A femtometer (aka a “fermi”) is 10-15 of a meter, to find such phenomena implies that one should be hunting at the nuclear, nucleon, and elementary particle levels. Hence one should be studying nuclear physics, elementary particles physics, QCD (quantum chromo dynamics), etc.

If ever a femtotech comes into being, it will be a trillion trillion times more “performant” than nanotech, for the following obvious reason. In terms of component density, a femtoteched block of nucleons or quarks would be a million cubed times denser than a nanoteched block. Since the femtoteched components are a million times closer to each other than the nanoteched components, signals between them, traveling at the speed of light, would arrive a million times faster. The total performance per second of a unit volume of femtoteched matter would thus be a million^3 times a million = a million^4 = a trillion trillion = 10^24.

Hugo's list of physics phenomena to search for ways to femtotech:

Nuclear molecules, quark-gluon plasma, strangelets, kaons, surface of neutron stars, QCD (quantum chromodynamics), quarkonia, mini black holes, halo nuclei, neutron starlets, Bose-Einstein condensation of squarks, etc.

If femtotech (10-15 m) is possible, what about an attotech (10-18 m), a zeptotech (10-21 m), a yoctotech (10-24 m) ... or a plancktech (10-35 m)?


In pure math, some of the relevant fields are: finite groups, abstract algebra, Lie theory, general topology, algebraic topology, geometric algebra, smooth manifolds, complex manifolds, representation theory, ring theory, Galois theory, knot theory, quantum groups, low dimensional topology, etc.

In theoretical physics, one should look at: quantum mechanics, quantum field theory, nuclear physics, elementary particle physics, quantum electrodynamics (QED), quantum chromodynamics (QCD), special and general relativity, gauge theory, supersymmetry (SUSY), superstring theory, M-theory, brane theory, conformal field theory (CFT), topological quantum field theory (TQFT), topological quantum computing (TQC), etc.

At the top end of both subjects, low dimensional topology and gauge theory have merged, thanks to the genius of Ed Witten, the only physicist ever to have won the coveted Fields Medal for mathematics. I call this math-physics merge “mathics”. My feeling is that the path to femtotech is going to be found via further development in the mathics direction, so I'd like to encourage everyone with appropriate talents to study and research mathics

Subatomic particles fall into two categories: fermions and bosons. These two categories each contain pretty diverse sets of particles, but they're grouped together because they also have some important commonalities.

The particles that serve as the building blocks of matter are all fermions. Atoms are made of protons, neutrons and electrons. Electrons are fermions, and so are quarks, which combine to build protons and neutrons. Quarks appear to occur in nature only in groups, most commonly groups of 2 or 3. A proton contains two up quarks and one down quark, while a neutron consists of one up quark and two down quarks; the quarks are held together in the nucleus by other particles called gluons. Mesons consist of 2 quarks – a quark and an anti-quark. There are six basic types of quark, beguilingly named Up, Down, Bottom, Top, Strange, and Charm. Out of the four forces currently recognized in the universe – electromagnetism, gravity and weak and strong nuclear forces – quarks are most closely associated with the strong nuclear force, which controls most of their dynamics. But quarks also have some interaction with the weak force, e.g. the weak force can cause the transmutation of quarks into different quarks, a phenomenon that underlies some kinds of radioactive decay such as beta decay.

Stylistic depiction of a proton, composed of two Up quarks and one Down quark
On the other hand, bosons are also important – for example photons, the particle-physics version of light, are bosons. Gravitons, the gravity particles proposed by certain theories of gravitation, would also be bosons.

The nucleus of an atom contains protons and neutrons. The electrons are arranged in multiple shells around the nucleus, due to the Pauli exclusion principle. Also note this sort of “solar system” model of particles as objects orbiting other objects is just a heuristic approximation; there are many other complexities and a more accurate view would depict each particle as a special sort of wave function.

As a substrate for femtotech, degenerate matter appears to have profound potential. It serves as an existence proof that, yes, one can build stuff other than atoms and molecules with subatomic particles. On the other hand, there is the problematic fact that all the currently known examples of degenerate matter exist at extremely high gravities, and derive their stability from this extreme gravitational force. Nobody knows, right now, how to make degenerate matter that remains stable at Earth-level gravities or anywhere near. However, neither has anybody shown that this type of degenerate matter is an impossibility according to our currently assumed physical laws. It remains a very interesting open question.

A standard model for a nucleus is the "liquid drop" model and it gives pretty good predictions. Basically it treats the nucleus as a liquid with a pretty high surface tension. The nucleons in the center are energetically very happy because they are surrounded by other nucleons attracted by the strong interaction. The nucleons on the surface are not so energetically happy because they interact with fewer other nucleons than they might otherwise. This creates a high effective "surface tension" for the nuclear liquid. That's what makes nuclei want to be spherical. And when they get too big they become unstable because the surface area is relatively larger and electrostatic repulsion overcomes the nuclear attraction.

All of Bolonkin's proposed femtostructures seem unstable to me. His femto rods or whiskers are like streams of water which are subject to instabilities that cause them to break into a sequence of droplets. Imagine one of his rods periodically squeezing inward and outward keeping the volume fixed. If the surface area is decreased the perturbation will be increased and eventually break the rod into droplets.

Even if they weren't subject to that instability, there would be tremendous tensile force trying to pull the two ends of a rod together and turning it into a ball (which has a smaller surface area than the same volume cylinder). I didn't see any suggestions for what he wants to use to counteract that tensile force."

I just had a thought about how to stabilize degenerate femtomatter: use dynamic stabilization. The classic example is the shaking inverted pendulum. An upside down pendulum is unstable, falling either left or right if perturbed. But if you shake the base at a sufficiently high frequency, it adds a "pondermotive" pseudopotential which stabilizes the unstable fixed point.


Goertzel talking to nobel winning physicist and quark expert Gell-man-
When I probed Gell-Mann about degenerate matter, he spent a while musing about the possible varieties of degenerate matter in which the ordinary notion of quark confinement is weakened. “Confinement” is the property that says quarks cannot be isolated singularly, and therefore cannot be directly observed, but can only be observed as parts of other particles like protons and neutrons. At first it was thought that quarks can only be observed in triplets, but more recent research suggests the possibility of “weak confinement” that lets you observe various aspects of individual quarks in an isolated way. Quark-gluon plasmas, which have been created in particle accelerators using very high temperatures (like, 4 trillion degrees!), are one much-discussed way of producing “almost unconfined” quarks. But Gell-Mann felt the possibilities go far beyond quark-gluon plasmas. He said he thought it possible that large groups of quarks could potentially be weakly confined in more complex ways that nobody now understands.

So after some fun discussion in this vein, I pressed Gell-Mann specifically on whether understanding these alternative forms of weak multi-quark confinement might be one way to figure out how to build stable degenerate matter at Earth gravity.

His answer was, basically, definitely maybe.

Ben Goertzel put on his AI futurist hat - I'm struck by what a wonderful example we have here of the potential for an only slightly superhuman AI to blast way past humanity in science and engineering. The human race seems on the verge of understanding particle physics well enough to analyze possible routes to femtotech. If a slightly superhuman AI, with a talent for physics, were to make a few small breakthroughs in computational physics, then it might (for instance) figure out how to make stable structures from degenerate matter at Earth gravity. Bolonkin-style femtostructures might then become plausible, resulting in femtocomputing – and the slightly superhuman AI would then have a computational infrastructure capable of supporting massively superhuman AI. Can you say “singularity”? Of course, femtotech may be totally unnecessary in order for a Vingean singularity to occur (in fact I strongly suspect so). But be that as it may, it's interesting to think about just how much practical technological innovation might ensue from a relatively minor improvement in our understanding of fundamental physics.

Is it worth thinking about femtotech now, when the topic is wrapped up with so much unresolved physics? I think it is, if for no other reason than to give the physicists a nudge in certain directions that might otherwise be neglected. Most particle physics work – even experimental work with particle accelerators – seems to be motivated mainly by abstract theoretical interest. And there's nothing wrong with this – understanding the world is a laudable aim in itself; and furthermore, over the course of history, scientists aiming to understand the world have spawned an awful lot of practically useful by-products. But it's interesting to realize that there are potentially huge practical implications waiting in the wings, once particle physics advances a little more – if it advances in the right directions.

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