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October 20th, 2007
This month's column is by Jamais Cascio, CRN's new Director of Impacts Analysis...
At the Center for Responsible Nanotechnology, we're working hard to examine what will be required to bring about the development of nanofactory systems. Earlier this year, our Global Task Force on Implications and Policy [see link below] crafted a set of scenarios about the different kinds of worlds that may lead to the initial creation of molecular manufacturing devices. Speculations about a post-nanofactory world usually look at big-picture issues -- war, poverty, climate change.
In this column, I thought I'd take a somewhat different approach. As CRN's Director of Impacts Analysis, I spend a good bit of time thinking through some of the implications of nanofactory technologies. For me, some of the most interesting questions are among the most prosaic. Molecular manufacturing isn't just a transformational technology; it's also an economic tool. What sort of "ecosystem" would spring up around nanofactories?
In order for a nanofactory to make something, it will have to be instructed how to do so. Given that a nanofactory has to know how to make every single sub-part and component of its output, it's likely that we'll see a good deal of abstraction in product design codes. If a nanofactory already knows how to make a variety of basic forms, then designs will be more of a question of plugging parts together than figuring out which molecule goes where. And if end-users only have access to this abstraction layer, it could offer a way to avoid the easy production of dangerous objects.
• Distribution methods for nanofactories
Will nanofactories be available on the shelves of Target or Wal-Mart? Will you be able to get one drop-shipped from Amazon? Or will most nanofactories be made by nanofactories owned by friends or neighbors? Will individuals even own nanofactories, or will they tend to be found in centralized locations for drop-in use (perhaps in the neighborhood post office or grocery store)? The answers to these questions will tell us quite a bit about the nature of the post-nanofactory economy.
• Distribution methods for products
If nanofactories are not individually owned, then someone will be needed to move fabricated objects from the manufacturing location to the end-user. One possibility here is that major shipping companies (UPS, DHL, etc.) could operate centralized "make on demand" systems, so that an order to, say, Apple or Nike ends up being made by UPS and dropped off the next day. This isn't far-fetched; right now, a number of computer manufacturers, such as Toshiba and HP, use UPS and DHL as outsourced repair centers [see link below] to speed the transaction.
• Distribution methods for "toner"
Conversely, if nanofactories do become individually owned items, we'll need to see the development of an infrastructure for the distribution of the raw materials used by the nanofactories -- the toner for the printer, if you will. Will existing retail chains be sufficient, or will this require the development of a new model of distribution? A wildcard factor: the role of recycling.
• Physical reliability
In principle, the performance of a nanofactory should be essentially flawless; in practice, we know that no design is ever perfect, especially at the outset, and software-controlled systems can be prone to particularly inscrutable problems. What kind of support network will spring up around nanofactories? Traditional warranties and manufacturer repairs? Bottom-up user-to-user support? Will it be simpler (and cheaper) just to print out a new nanofactory?
• Physical safety
Safety questions parallel the reliability concerns. Who is responsible for maintaining the safety of a nanofactory? What happens when one is physically damaged? Will they have self-repair systems -- and would those self-repair systems be potential security holes? Would it be possible to oversee and guarantee the safety of the products built by a nanofactory?
• Health and safety evaluations
Who, ultimately, is responsible for regulating what can be made with nanofactories? Since a nanofactory can, in principle, self-replicate, would it be possible for modified versions of nanofactories to be evaluated for safety concerns while still "baking?" Relying on individual users to self-police and to undertake informed evaluations of new designs and nanofactory models is a pleasant fantasy, but what other options could there be? And what happens when self-policing and informed evaluation fails?
• Knowledgeable users
Nanofactories could be as simple to use as a toaster, and require only obvious buttons and a good user interface; nanofactories could be as simple to use as a computer, requiring manuals and plenty of experience to become proficient; nanofactories could be as simple to use as a car, requiring a few weeks of dedicated training and eventual (but commonplace) licensing; nanofactories could be as simple to use as a jet aircraft, requiring months or years of training and eventual (and fairly uncommon) licensing.
• Ways to avoid abuse
The biggest fears will be around the use of nanofactories to create dangerous products, whether by accident, abuse of the system, or breaking restriction and control software. What kinds of mechanisms are possible to minimize the risk of dangerous abuse? Can
nanofactories be made to recognize components of weapon systems and cease production? Would it be possible to distribute the production of components across multiple nanofactories in order to avoid alerting any individual system? How much of a "big brother" will be demanded by governments or people in order to prevent abuse?
• Political support
Who will speak for nanofactories when it comes to government regulation? What kind of political support can be generated? The production of potentially dangerous systems that will eliminate jobs and upset trade balances won't happen without some official scrutiny. What kinds of alliances are possible that would make nanofactories more appealing than frightening to incumbent institutions?
• Economic support
A full-fledged nanofactory economy would make many things inexpensive or effectively free, but won't touch the costs of other types of services, goods, and property. Absent the creation of sophisticated artificial general intelligences (which may be abetted by molecular manufacturing), nanofactories won't matter much to many or most human-to-human services, from beauty to healthcare to the practice of law. It would likely make it far easier to build a home, but would have much less of an impact on land values (which often depend on social norms and aesthetic values). How does an economy in which some things have essentially zero cost and others still have full cost operate?
• Market acceptance
This all assumes that people want to acquire nanofactories in the first place. Pre-nanofactory fabrication systems may be able to do 90% of what consumers would desire, at (initially) a lower cost, and do so without triggering the kinds of economic disruptions a full-fledged nanofactory economy could create. In such a world, nanofactory use would be limited to non-market institutions (the military, NGOs, governments), rendering many of the above questions moot.
CRN Global Task Force - http://www.crnano.org/CTF.htm
Outsourced repair centers - http://www.pressroom.ups.com/staticfiles/articles/521.pdf