Nanotech Scenario Series
Results of Our Ongoing Research
These pages, marked with
GREEN headings, are published for
comment and criticism. These
are not our final findings; some of these opinions will probably change.
LOG OF UPDATES
CRN Research: Overview of Current Findings ◄
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An Overview of CRN's Current Findings
Molecular manufacturing is coming soon.
Molecular manufacturing is the use of programmable
chemistry to build exponential manufacturing systems and high-performance
products. There are
this can be achieved, each with its own benefits and drawbacks. This
technology is coming soon—almost certainly within 20 years, and
perhaps in less than a decade. When it arrives, it will come quickly. Molecular manufacturing
can be built into a self-contained,
tabletop factory that makes cheap
products efficiently at molecular scale. The time from the first
assembler to a flood of powerful and complex products may be less
than a year. The potential
benefits of such a technology are immense.
Unfortunately, the risks are also immense.
Products will be more powerful and developed faster.
|Even a primitive diamond-building
nanofactory can create
products vastly more powerful than today's versions. Electrical power can be
converted to motion, and vice-versa, with one-tenth the power loss and about
108 (100,000,000) times more compactly. Computers can be a
billion times smaller and use a million times less power. Materials can be
about 100 times stronger than steel. This means that most human-scale
products would consist almost entirely of empty space, reducing material
requirements and cost. Most of the rest of the product would be structural,
easy to design. Even the simplest products could be software-controlled at
no extra hardware cost. Manufacturing of prototypes would be quite rapid—a
few minutes to a few hours. Because manufacturing and prototyping are the
same process, a successful prototype design could immediately be distributed
for widespread use. A designer working with a few basic predesigned blocks
could design, build, and test a simple product in less than a day. Products
with complex interfaces to humans or to their surroundings—information
appliances, automobiles, aerospace hardware, medical devices—would be
limited by the time required to develop their software and test their
functionality. However, in some fields the high time and money cost of
manufacture slows other parts of the development cycle; this effect would
disappear. An explosion of new, useful products could rapidly follow the
widespread availability of a nanofactory.
Advanced nanotech can be very beneficial.
can solve many of the world's current problems. Water
shortage is a serious and growing problem. Most water is used for industry
and agriculture; both of these requirements would be greatly reduced by
products made by molecular manufacturing. Infectious disease is a continuing
scourge in many parts of the world. Simple products like pipes, filters, and
mosquito nets can greatly reduce this problem. Information and communication
are valuable, but lacking in many places. Computers and display devices
would become stunningly cheap. Electrical power is still not available in
many areas. The efficient, cheap building of light, strong structures,
electrical equipment, and power storage devices would allow the use of solar
thermal power as a primary and abundant energy source.
degradation is a serious problem worldwide. High-tech products can allow
people to live with much less environmental impact. Many areas of the world cannot rapidly
bootstrap a 20th century manufacturing infrastructure. Molecular manufacturing
can be self-contained and clean; a single packing crate or suitcase could contain all
equipment required for a village-scale industrial revolution. Finally, MNT will
provide cheap and advanced equipment for medical research and health care,
making improved medicine widely available.
Much social unrest can be traced
directly to material poverty, ill health, and ignorance. MNT can contribute
to great reductions in all of these problems, and in the associated human
Advanced nanotech could be very dangerous. (MORE)
will be a significant breakthrough, comparable perhaps to the
Industrial Revolution—but compressed into a few years. This has the
potential to disrupt many aspects of society and politics. The power of the
technology may cause two competing nations to enter a disruptive and
unstable arms race. Weapons and surveillance devices could be
made small, cheap, powerful, and very numerous. Cheap manufacturing and
duplication of designs could lead to economic upheaval. Overuse of
inexpensive products could cause widespread
to control these and other risks may lead to abusive restrictions, or create demand
for a black market that would be very risky and almost impossible to stop;
small nanofactories will be very easy to smuggle, and fully dangerous. There are numerous severe risks—including several different kinds of
risk—that cannot all be prevented with the same approach. Simple,
one-track solutions cannot work. The right answer is unlikely to evolve
without careful planning.
|Simplistic regulation won't
|Molecular nanotechnology manufacturing creates several severe risks,
and each risk tempts a simple and extreme solution. However, a patchwork of
extreme solutions will be both destructive and ineffective. For example,
Bill Joy and others have proposed halting nanotechnology research entirely.
This would not actually work; instead, it would relocate the research to
less responsible venues. The risks might be delayed by a few years, but
would be far worse when they appeared because the technology would be even
less controllable. To take another example, economic upheaval might be
prevented by strict commercial licensing of all uses of the technology. This
has two problems. First, digital protection schemes for commercial products
have often proved quite easy to crack. Second, if the technology is so
restricted that it cannot disrupt existing economic systems, continuing
poverty will kill millions of people each year, fueling backlash, social
unrest, espionage, and independent development. Each risk must be reduced by
some means that does not exacerbate others. This will not be easy, and will
require creative and sensitive solutions.
|There are several approaches
that may help. (MORE)
Once molecular manufacturing is developed, it will have to be administered.
There are several approaches that might help. CRN is not advocating any of
these approaches at this point; we don't know enough about how the
technology will be developed or in what context. We also have to point out
that we don't think any one approach will be enough. Any effective program
will require a balance of several different kinds of administration. Some
possibilities include built-in technical restrictions in personal
nanofactories; intellectual property reform; and international cooperation
or monitoring of various kinds. Despite the difficulties and complexities,
we believe that a solution can be found to preserve most of the potential
benefits while avoiding the most severe risks.
|MNT should probably be
developed soon. (MORE)
of molecular nanotechnology increases some risks, but reduces others;
overall, we think it's safest to develop as soon as possible. This is a
preliminary conclusion, and we may change our opinion, but there are solid
reasons for taking this position. The development of MNT seems inevitable
sooner or later. If development is delayed, it will rapidly become easier
and cheaper, thus harder to control. Also, it's probably the case that early
development will allow more time to develop MNT-based protective
technologies—which may be necessary to cope with some dangerous MNT-based
technologies. Finally, if it's done right, molecular manufacturing could
save millions of lives per year and greatly decrease the
damage we're already doing. The costs of delay (opportunity costs) are
significant, and may even outweigh the risks of development.
|MNT should probably be
developed internationally. (MORE)
|Even at this early
stage, we can make some recommendations about how the technology of
molecular manufacturing should be developed. Without some controls, advanced
nanotechnology will probably be extremely dangerous—but desirable to many
people. In addition, manufacturing systems will probably be portable and
easy to duplicate. This means that it will be quite hard to control the use
of the technology if unrestricted versions ever become widely available. On
the other hand, overly restrictive policy will encourage uncontrolled
release. It seems likely that an early, closely guarded, international
development program is probably the approach that retains the most control
in the long run. CRN will continue working to clarify this issue and make
|CRN has listed 30 essential
studies that should begin immediately. (MORE)
|Because of the largely unexpected
transformational power of molecular manufacturing, it is urgent to
understand the issues
raised. To date, there has not been anything approaching an adequate study
of these issues. CRN's recommended series of thirty essential studies is
organized into five sections, covering fundamental theory, possible
technological capabilities, bootstrapping potential, product capabilities,
and policy questions. Several preliminary conclusions are stated, and
because our understanding points to a crisis, a parallel process of
conducting the studies is urged.
DEVIL'S ADVOCATE —
Submit your criticism, please!
What makes you think you can make a difference?
We don't know that we can. But people are starting to talk
about the consequences of advanced nanotechnology, and we believe we have some
insights that are worth listening to. We will research and publish our ideas,
then work to educate the people—including the public and various policy
makers—who have an interest in the consequences of technology. We believe we
have to try.
But isn't this all just science fiction?
No. A detailed, technical book,
demonstrated that these things are possible. In more than a decade, no one
has found a significant mistake in the book, and a lot of research has
supported it. Molecular nanotech doesn't exist today, but technology is
rapidly approaching the point where it will be easy to do—at least relative
to other large engineering projects like spacecraft or advanced weaponry. At
that point, the flexibility, efficiency, and precision of the technology will
make a development program clearly desirable—and almost inevitable.
Timeline for Molecular