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Nanotechnology Press Kit - Risks and Benefits of Molecular Manufacturing

Last Updated: Monday, 20-Apr-2015 19:51:34 PDT

Risks and benefits of Molecular Manufacturing

The risks and benefits of molecular manufacturing depend heavily on several factors: what it is capable of, when it will be developed, and how it is used. There is substantial disagreement over the first two questions, and almost no information about the third.

As explained above, the idea that molecular manufacturing is impossible is not credible. A separate question is how difficult it will be to develop and whether it will be worth doing. Other technologies are advancing so rapidly that if molecular manufacturing is not developed by 2050 or so, it may not have a very large impact. If it is limited to biochemical materials such as protein, its products may be limited in strength (though still extremely compact compared to today's computers and MEMS).

Despite the weight of rhetoric indicating that molecular manufacturing will have little or no impact, the weight of calculation indicates that it will. In the absence of demonstrated problems with the theory, this section is written assuming product performance consistent with carbon-lattice construction-diamond, graphite, and carbon nanotubes, also called buckytubes or fullerenes.

The high speed of small systems implies that manufacturing systems based on molecular machines will probably be able to produce their own mass in an hour or so. (Bacteria can do this, and bacteria spend only a fraction of their energy on reproduction.) Building complicated shapes from simple chemistry (under direct computer control), there is no apparent reason why manufacturing systems cannot duplicate themselves. This implies that the systems would become extremely cheap, and manufacturing capacity could increase to any desired level almost immediately.

The products of molecular manufacturing would be very high performance. Even with biochemistry, computers would be millions of times more powerful than today's. With carbon lattice, motors would also be millions of times more powerful. Computation and actuation would be a miniscule (and virtually free) fraction of any human-scale product. And carbon-based materials may be hundreds of times as strong as plastics or even metals. With molecular-scale features, very low friction, and very strong materials, the main limitation on products would be the skill of the designers.

The benefits are obvious. Cheap manufacturing of advanced products would allow inefficient infrastructures to be replaced-including our entire energy infrastructure, and much that is wasteful about our agriculture. This would greatly reduce our ecological footprint. Medical research and treatment would be greatly accelerated by the ability to design medical equipment, including massive sensor arrays and tiny robotics, and have them built instantly at negligible cost. Medical research would also be significantly helped by advanced computers. Cheap local self-contained manufacturing offers the possibility of eliminating material poverty. Advanced materials, extremely compact avionics, and rapid, inexpensive manufacturing would allow remarkably cheap access to space and its resources.

However, these capabilities also have downsides. Advanced weapons could also be developed quickly. An arms race based on this technology would be far less stable than the nuclear arms race: weapons would be easier to develop and build in secret, easier to use and control, and harder to stockpile (since they would be almost immediately obsolete) than nuclear bombs. An unstable arms race leading to a devastating war is probably the largest as well as the earliest danger posed by this technology.

Criminal technologies, from weapons to spy systems to communication to smuggling, would also get a boost from the ability to fabricate advanced products as needed. It remains to be seen whether defensive or offensive technologies will be stronger. Even if defensive technologies are adequate, they will probably be used unevenly. This implies that at least some criminal and terrorist acts using the technology will be successful.

And this brings us to the next risk: oppression. For a variety of reasons (including a desire to maintain artificial scarcity), established government and business interests will want to retain control of molecular manufacturing and its effects. A technology that lets each individual design and build whatever they want does not appear compatible with centralized control. But if the technology is too restricted, a thriving black market will arise to supply citizens with restricted and valuable products. Unfortunately, this would also supply the criminals and perhaps even lead to loss of military control, leading to a spiral of further repression.

Nearly free manufacturing could lead to an orgy of conspicuous consumption that could damage the ecosystem. And advanced products, up to and including brain and body modification, could shake up society.

For more information on benefits, see Benefits of Molecular Manufacturing
For more information on dangers, see Dangers of Molecular Manufacturing

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