Desktop Nanofactories

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James Cascio:

"are the current model for the application of advanced nanoengineering. Comprising trillions of specialized nanomachines locked down and working in concert, nanofactories (sometimes called "molecular fabricators") would be desktop appliances not unlike an ink-jet printer. Plug one into your computer, fire up your favorite molecular design application (Adobe Nanoshop, perhaps, or Microsoft Nano -- "you appear to be constructing a molecule, would you like help with that?"), and the tiny machines in the fabricator convert raw materials (the "ink") into perfectly-formed objects.

Molecular fabricators are even farther out than nanomachines, but that still means they could show up within the next ten to fifteen years. WorldChanging ally the Center for Responsible Nanotechnology has focused its attention on the requirements and implications of desktop assembly, and CRN make a compelling case that (a) it's a lot closer than most might expect, and (b) the impact will be a lot bigger than most might imagine.

Of the three types of nanotechnology (nanomaterials, nanomachines and nanofactories) it's this last that has by far the most disruptive potential, for both good and bad. For the most part, the possible dangers arising from nanomaterials and nanomachines are quite similar to environmental hazards with which we're already acquainted, such as toxic industrial particles and pathogens, and the remediation efforts that might be needed are likely to be familiar as well. The rise of molecular fabricators, conversely, would be much more disruptive because the changes nanofactories would enable wouldn't necessarily affect our health, but would radically affect our economy and society.

Consider what might happen as desktop nanofactories, able to build just about anything that can fit within them, become cheaper and more sophisticated (remember: nanotechnology has much more in common with electronics than with traditional production techniques, and is likely to be subject to an acceleration similar to Moore's Law). Economies dependent upon material production (of shoes, of utensils, eventually of electronic devices) find that they have fewer markets as more people are able to "print out" their own customized objects. Economies specializing in raw materials might see a boost at first, but would decline as well as designers figure out ways to use less-expensive, more-commonplace materials as feedstock, eventually even disassembling old objects, becoming the ultimate recycling system.

Consider what might happen if we start to apply the same kinds of intellectual property regimes to our products that we do to our music and movies.

Consider what might happen if advanced weapons were as easy to build with nanofactories as running shoes and cell phones.

Consider what might happen if everything we built with nanofactories consisted of materials with high-efficiency photovoltaic properties.

These and myriad other possibilities arise from a fabrication future. Fortunately, we are considering what might happen. Last month, the Center for Responsible Nanotechnology announced the formation of a Task Force to study societal implications of molecular fabrication. Members of the task force include technology specialists, futurists, environmental scientists, philosophers, and more, from around the world. I have the privilege of serving on this Task Force, and look forward to our ongoing discussions and investigations of the possibilities inherent to this form of nanotechnology.

The possible impact of molecular fabrication helps to make the next two decades highly uncertain, but also ranks as one of the chief reasons why a bright green future could remain possible even despite major setbacks. This is why we continue to watch closely for developments in nanotechnology. Nanoscale technologies, from nanomaterials to molecular factories, are very likely going to change the way we create, work and live. We all should be paying attention." (