Gray Goo - It's not just nanotech

My friend Sarah alerted me to an attempted grey goo takeover of Second Life:
Second Life is a blend between TinyMUDs (online text-based virtual worlds that allowed users within the game to create new objects, including scripted behavior in descendants) and a modern MMORPG (Everquest, World of Warcraft, etc). I haven't played (I love my family) but I've been thinking about the problem space for 15 years or so. Basically, someone made a object that replicated itself and took over large parts of the world's geography and sucked down CPU cycles.

It’s interesting to think about tweaks to the laws-of-physics in the game that would prevent such a thing. I realize that’s not the approach they took – and applaud their attempt not to – but I think there is justification for considering changes to the fundamental behavior of a world that makes such things harder. (Caveat: I have no idea what the physical laws of SL are, but it's apparent that they don't prevent such a thing.)

MUDs had a concept of pennies, used for rewards in dungeon crawls - if you killed a monster, you got its pennies. TinyMUDs took this one step further, requiring the expenditure of pennies to create new locations. Pennies weren't free - guests had 0 pennies, new players would start with 100 pennies, and players would earn 50 pennies each day they logged in. Creating an object cost 10 pennies or some such - this was configurable. The idea was that you could create enough to be comfortable (a room, some personal items) but couldn't overflow the world.

One novel addition in the variant of TinyMUD that I played (TinyMUSH) was that this was extended to the execution of script commands; it cost 1/64th of a penny per command. This severely limited the ability to create items that would run rampant. (Although it was still possible using functional programming styles that did lots of processing with a single procedural statement. Not that I was guilty of that. Nope.)

The net-net is that a new player couldn’t create much, and even a long term player couldn’t create unlimited gray goo, but they could do a lot of useful stuff. Players could give credits to others (so elders could help newbies). Only rarely would a player need to ask an admin for more credits.

Thinking “digital life”, it’s fundamental that computational cycles and storage space are the scarce natural resources. Those should have cost, which should be passed on to those trying to do things or you end up with the ability for a few to deprive many.

There’s an old game called Core War where two competing assembly language programs in a shared memory environment try to crash or co-opt each other. Each player’s code takes turns executing one statement at a time, but you can have your code fork itself at the expense of each fork running half as often.

Were I an SL denizen, I’d be working on antibodies and property defense systems, but my hunch is that these couldn’t defend against this situation (rampant resource consumption) unless you can actually destroy someone else’s property. It hints at some of the Deep Protocols that a long lived virtual reality needs.

ISTR an Egan or Vinge story where CPU cycles were, in fact, a fundamental currency. And then you can start thinking about cartels that start to control computational cycles and sell these… TANSTAAFL, anyone?