I bumped into nanotech the other day

by on July 15, 2004

I’ve been hearing about nanotechnology for a while, but for some reason was never motivated enough to find out much about it. Far future stuff… solution looking for problem… blah blah.

But a random post on Slashdot the other day caught my eye. The poster was saying that once molecular nanotechnology and “nanoengineering” take off, then the nature of matter as we know it will fundamentally change – with massive socio-economic consequences. The details were sketchy, So I did a bit of Googling.

And I was shocked. Nanotech isn’t some dry theoretical domain of research scientists playing about. It’s a real gosh-darn industry! Have a look at foresight.org for instance.* After a while reading up on some of the basics, the Slashdot post made sense. There is no reason that’s yet been discovered to prevent us from building “nano factories” that can create anything physical by building it from the molecular level up. Just like factories and assembly-lines today make bricks, cars and cans of cola, so might nano factories do the same – but for literally anything out of re-cycled atoms.

So imagine a world where physical matter can be produced, sold and otherwise dealt with in the same way as software. Want some orange juice? Go to the nano factory that sits in the kitchen and enter the details to produce it. Need a new set of razor blades? Same deal. The retailers of the future may not need to produce anything other than the “plans” for nano factories. Buy a plan for Coke, a plan for Gillette razor blades, for a music CD, and produce them all at home.

I’m really struggling to understand the sheer tectonic effect of this on economics and society. For example, nano engineering could REALLY screw primary producers. Why would any country buy physical goods from another?

But the thing that perhaps intrigues me most is whether in the we are currently seeing in techniques of copyleft, open source and other developments in “intellectual property,” the foundations for something truly amazing: a split between closed and open “plans” for matter. Do you want to buy the Gillette razor plan or a freely-available plan for razors (“GNU Razor 0.7”)? And how would the auto industry feel about a Napster for Ferraris?

Now *that* made me think…

* See also evidenttech.com “Do you have an opto-electronic material problem? Need semiconductors with tunable properties to remove nature-imposed limits?” This is like Blade Runner!

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