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Unbounding the Future:

the Nanotechnology Revolution

Chapter 8

Providing the Basics, and More

The hungry, the homeless, and the hunted have little time or energy to devote to human relations or personal development. Food, shelter, and security are not everything, but they are basic. Material abundance is perhaps the best known way to build a contempt for material things and a concern for what lies beyond. In that spirit, let us take a further look at providing heaps of basic material wealth where today there is poverty.

The idea of bringing everyone in the world up to a decent standard of living looks utopian today. The world's poor are numerous and the wealthy are few, and yet the Earth's resources are already strained by our crude industrial and agricultural technologies. For the 1970s and 1980s, with a growing awareness of the environmental impact of human population and pollution, many people have begun to wrestle with the specter of declining wealth. Few have allowed themselves to consider what it might be like to live in a world with far greater material wealth because it has seemed impossible. Any discussion of such things will inevitably have a whiff of the 1950s or 1960s about it: Gee whiz, we can have supercars and Better Living Through (a substitute for conventional) Chemistry!

In the long run, unless population growth is limited, it will be impossible to maintain a decent standard of living for everyone. This is a basic fact, and to ignore it would be to destroy our future. Yet within sight is a time in which the world's poorest can be raised to a material standard of living that would be the envy of the world's richest today. The key is efficient, low-cost production of high-quality goods. Whether this will be used to achieve the goals we describe is more than just a question of technology.

Here, as in the next two chapters, we continue to focus on how the new technologies can serve positive goals. There is a lot to say, and it needs to be said, in part because positive goals can in some measure displace negative goals. We ask patience of those readers bothered by what may seem an optimistic tone, and ask that they imagine the authors to share their fears that powerful technologies will be abused, that positive goals may end in ruin, that a material paradise may yet harbor human misery. Chapters 11 and 12 will discuss limits, accidents, and abuse.

Third World Nanotechnology

Where wealth is concerned, the least developed countries present the hardest case. Can a capability as advanced as nanotechnology, based on molecular machinery, be of use in the Third World? The answer must be yes. Agriculture is the backbone of Third World economies today, and agriculture is based on the naturally occurring molecular machines in wheat, rice, yams, and the like.

The Third World is short on equipment and skills. (It often has governmental problems as well, but that is another story.) Molecular manufacturing can make equipment inexpensive enough for the poor to buy or for aid agencies to give away. This includes equipment for making more equipment, so dependency could be reduced. As for skills, basic molecular manufacturing will require little labor of any kind, and a little skill will go a long way. As the technology advances, more and more of the products can be easy-to-use smart materials.

Molecular manufacturing will enable the poorest countries to bypass the difficult and dirty process of the industrial revolution. It can make products that are less expensive and easier to use than yams or rice or goats or water buffalo. And with products like cheap supercomputers with huge databases of writing and animation viewed through 3-D color displays, it can even help spread knowledge.

Nanotechnology's role in helping the poorest nations won't be on the minds of the first developers—they'll be in government and commercial labs in the wealthiest nations, pursuing problems of concern to people there. History, though, is full of unintended consequences, and some are for the better.

Construction and Housing

Building large objects is basic to solving problems of housing and transportation. Smart materials can help.

Today, buildings are expensive to construct, expensive to replace, and expensive to make fireproof, tornado-proof, earthquake-proof, and so forth. Making buildings tall is expensive; making walls soundproof is expensive; building underground is expensive. Efforts to relieve city congestion often founder on the high cost of building subways, which can amount to hundreds of millions of dollars per mile.

Building codes and politics permitting, nanotechnology will make possible revolutions in the construction of buildings. Superior materials will make it easy to construct tall (or deep) buildings to free up land, and strong buildings that can ride out the greatest earthquake without harm. Buildings can be made so energy-efficient and so good at using the solar energy falling on them that most are net energy producers. What is more, smart materials can make it easy to build and modify complex structures, such as walls full of windows, wiring, plumbing, data networks, and the like. For a concrete example that shows the principle, let's picture what smart pipes could be like.

Let's say that you want to install a fold-down sink in the corner of your bedroom. The new materials make fold-down sinks practical, and in a house made of advanced smart materials, just sticking one on the wall would be enough—the plumbing would rearrange itself. But this is an old, pre-breakthrough house, so the sink is a retrofit. To do this home-handiwork project, you buy several boxes full of inexpensive tubing, T-joints, valves, and fixtures in a variety of sizes, all as light as wood veneer and feeling like soft rubber.

The biggest practical problem will be to make a hole from an existing water pipe and drainpipe to where you want the sink. Molecular manufacturing can provide excellent power tools to make the holes, and smart paint and plaster to cover them again, but the details depend on how your house is built.

The smart plumbing system does help, of course. If you want to run the drain line through the attic, built-in pumps will make sure that the water flows properly. The flexibility of the pipes makes it much easier to run them around curves and corners. Low-cost power makes it practical for the sink to have a flow-through water heater, so you only need to run a cold-water pipe to have both hot and cold water. All the parts go together as easily as a child's blocks, and seem about as flimsy and likely to leak. When you turn it on, though, the microscopic components of the pipes lock together and become as strong as steel. And smart plumbing doesn't leak.

If your house were made of smart materials, like most of the housing in the Third World these days, life would have been easier. Using a special trowel, wall structures would be reworked like soft clay, doing their structural job all the while. Setting up a plumbing system from scratch with this stuff is easy, and hard to do wrong. Drinking water pipes won't connect to wastewater pipes, so drinking water can't be accidentally contaminated. Drains won't clog, because they can clean themselves better than a rotary steel blade ever could. If you run enough pipes from everything to everything else, built-in pumps will make sure that water flows in the right direction with adequate pressure.

Smart plumbing is one example of a general pattern. Molecular manufacturing can eventually make complex products at low cost, and those complex products can be simpler to use than anything we have today, freeing our attention for other concerns. Buildings can become easy to make and easy to change. The basic conveniences of the modern world, and more, can be carried to the ends of the earth and installed by the people there to suit their tastes.


Worldwide food production has been outpacing population growth, yet hunger continues. In recent years, famine has often had political roots, as in Ethiopia where the rulers aim to starve opponents into submission. Such problems are beyond a simple technological solution. To avoid getting headaches, we'll also ignore the politics of farm price-support programs, which raise food prices while people are going hungry. All we can suggest here is a way to provide fresh food at lower cost with reduced environmental impact.

For decades, futurists have predicted the coming of synthetic foods. Some sort of molecular-manufacturing process could doubtless make such things with the usual low costs, but this doesn't sound appetizing, so we'll ignore the idea.

Most agriculture today is inefficient—an environmental disaster. Modern agriculture is famed for wasting water and polluting it with synthetic fertilizers, and for spreading herbicides and pesticides over the landscape. Yet the greatest environmental impact of agriculture is its sheer consumption of land. In the American East, ancient forests disappeared under the ax, in part to supply wood, in part to clear land. The prairies of the West disappeared under the plow. Around the world, this trend continues. The technology of the ax, the fire, and the plow is chiefly responsible for the destruction of rain forests today. A growing population will tend to turn every productive ecosystem into some sort of farmland or grazing land, if we let it.

No technological fix can solve the long-term problem of population growth. Nonetheless, we can roll back the problem of the loss of land, yet increase food supplies. One approach is intensive greenhouse agriculture.

Every kind of plant has its optimum growing conditions, and those conditions are far different from those found in most farmland during most of the year. Plants growing outdoors face insect pests, unless doused with pesticide, and low levels of nutrients, unless doused with fertilizer. In greenhouses patrolled by "nanoflyswatters" able to eliminate invading insects, plants would be protected from pests and could be provided with nutrients without contaminating groundwater or runoff. Most plants prefer higher humidity than most climates provide. Most plants prefer higher, more uniform temperatures than are typically found outdoors. What is more, plants thrive in high levels of carbon dioxide. Only greenhouses can provide pest protection, ample nutrients, humidity, warmth, and carbon dioxide all together and without reengineering the Earth.

Taken together, these factors make a huge difference in agricultural productivity. Experiments with intensive greenhouse agriculture, performed by the Environmental Research Lab in Arizona, show that an area of 250 square meters—about the size of a tennis court—can raise enough food for a person, year in and year out. With molecular manufacturing to make inexpensive, reliable equipment, the intensive labor of intensive agriculture can be automated. With technology like the deployable "tents" and smart materials we have described, greenhouse construction can be inexpensive. Following the standard argument, with equipment costs, labor costs, materials costs, and so forth, all expected to be low, greenhouse-grown foods can be inexpensive.

What does this mean for the environment? It means that the human race could feed itself with ordinary, naturally grown, pesticide-free foods while returning more than 90 percent of today's agricultural land to wilds. With a generous five hundred square meters per person, the U.S. population would require only 3 percent of present U.S. farm acreage, freeing 97 percent for other uses, or for a gradual return to wilderness. When farmers are able to grow high-quality foodstuffs inexpensively, in a fraction of the room that they require today, they will find more demand for their land to be tended as a park or wilderness than as a cornfield. Farm journals can be expected to carry articles advising on techniques for rapid and esthetic restoration of forest and grassland, and on how best to accommodate the desires of the discriminating nature lover and conservationist. Even "unpopular" land will tend to become popular with people seeking solitude.

The economics of assembler-based manufacturing will remove the incentive to make greenhouses cheap, ugly, and boxy; the only reason to build that way today is the high cost of building anything at all. And while today's greenhouses suffer from viral and fungal infestations, these could be eradicated from plants in the same way they would be from the human body, as will be described later. A problem faced by today's greenhouses—overheating—could be dealt with by using heat exchangers, thereby conserving the carefully balanced inside atmosphere. Finally, if it should turn out that a little bit of bad weather improves the taste of tomatoes, that, too, could be provided, since there would be no reason to be fanatical about sheer efficiency.


Today, telecommunications systems have sharply limited capacity and are expensive to expand. Molecular manufacturing will drop the price of the "boxes" in telecommunications systems—things such as switching systems, computers, telephones, and even the fabled videophone. Cables made of smart materials can make these devices easy to install and easy to connect together.

Regulatory agencies willing, you might someday be able to buy inexpensive spools of material resembling kite string, and other spools of material resembling tape, then use them to join a world data network. Either kind of strand can configure its core into a good-quality optical fiber, with special provisions for going around bends. When rubbed together, pieces of string will fuse together, or fuse to a piece of tape. Pieces of tape do likewise. To hook up to the network, you run string or tape from your telephone or other data terminal to the nearest point that is already connected. If you live deep in a tropical rain forest, run a string to the village satellite link.

These data-cable materials include amplifiers, nanocomputers, switching nodes, and the rest, and they come loaded with software that "knows" how to act to transmit data reliably. If you're worried that a line may break, run three in different directions. Even one line could carry far more data than all the channels in a television cable put together.


Getting around quickly requires vehicles and somewhere for them to travel. The old 1950s vision of private helicopters would be technically possible with inexpensive, high-quality manufacturing, cheap energy, and a bit of improvement in autopilots and air-traffic control—but will people really tolerate that much junk roaring across the sky? Fortunately, there is an alternative both to this and to building ever more roads.

Going Underground

Near the surface of the Earth, there is as much room underground as there is above it. This is usually ignored, because the room is full of dirt, rock, pressurized water, and the like. Digging is expensive. Digging long, deep tunnels is even more expensive. This expense, however, is mostly in the cost of equipment, materials, and energy. Tunneling machines are in wide use today, and molecular manufacturing can make them more efficient and less expensive. The energy to operate them will be no great problem, and smart materials can line tunnels as fast as they are dug, with little or no labor. Nanotechnology will open the low frontier.

With a little care, the environmental impact of a deep tunnel can be trivial. Instead of solid rock far below the surface, there is rock with a sealed tunnel running through it. Nothing nearby need be disturbed.

Tunnels avoid both the aesthetic impact of a sky full of noisy aircraft and the environmental impact of paving strips of landscape. This will make them less expensive than roads, and they can, if desired, be more common than roads in the developed world today. They will even permit faster transportation.

Taking the Subway

Japan and Germany are actively developing magnetic trains, like those in the Desert Rose scenario. These avoid the limitations of steel wheels on steel rails by using magnetic forces to "fly" the train along a special track. Magnetic trains can reach aircraft speeds at ground level. On long runs through evacuated tunnels, they can reach spacecraft speeds, traveling global distances in an hour or so (less, if passengers are willing to tolerate substantial acceleration).

Systems like this can give "taking the subway" a new meaning. Local transportation would be at fast automotive speeds, but long-distance transportation would be faster than the Concorde. With superconducting electrical systems, fast subways would be more energy efficient than today's slow mass transit.

Getting Your Car

For decades, people have proposed replacing automobiles with some form of mass-transportation system, and it seems that cost revolutions (including inexpensive tunneling) may finally make this practical. Before junking the car, though, it's worth seeing how it might be improved.

Molecular manufacturing can make almost anything better. Automobiles can be made stronger and safer, lighter, higher performance, and higher efficiency, while getting excellent mileage and burning clean, inexpensive fuels, perhaps in fuel cells powering quiet electric motors. Using aerodynamic forces to hold the car to the road, there's no reason why a comfortable passenger car shouldn't be able to deliver uncomfortable, drag-racer acceleration.

To imagine a cheap car built with molecular manufacturing, first imagine loading it with all the attractive features that you've ever heard proposed. This includes everything from today's self-adjusting seats and mirrors, excellent sound systems, and specially tuned steering and suspension systems, through automated navigation displays, emergency braking, and reliable super-duper airbags. Now, instead of just having the position of the seats, mirrors, and so forth adjust to a driver, as some cars do today, our smart-material car can also adjust its size, shape, and color, facing owners with choices such as, "What should our car look like for this occasion?"

Those seeking an image of solid conservatism and wealth won't drive such cheap cars; they will risk their necks in a certified antique car, made from the traditional steel, paint, and rubber. If environmental regulations permit it, the car might even have a genuine gasoline-burning engine. The latter can no doubt be cleaned up by fancy nanotechnology-based emission-control systems.

Opening the Space Frontier

Our transportion system today effectively ends in the upper atmosphere. Travel beyond still takes the form of "historic missions." There is no reason for this situation to continue for long, once molecular manufacturing becomes well established.

The cost of spaceflight is high because spacecraft are huge, fragile things, made in such small numbers that they're almost hand-crafted. Molecular manufacturing will replace today's delicate monsters with rugged, mass-produced vehicles (which, with greater efficiency, needn't be so large). The vehicles will cost little, but the energy? Today, the energy cost of a ticket to orbit in an efficient vehicle would be less than one hundred dollars. Low cost vehicles and energy will drop the total cost to a fraction of this.

We will know that spaceflight has become inexpensive when people see the Earth as just a small part of the world, and understand in their bones that space resources make continued exploitation of Earth's resources unnecessary. In the long run, efficient, clean, low-cost manufacturing can transform the way human beings affect the Earth by their presence. Even stay-at-home humans will be better able to heal the damage they have done.

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