flower dissolving into constituent tiny cubes, conveying the idea of a nanofabricator building objects from molecular components, represented by tiny cubes

Image Credit: 3DSculptor / Shutterstock.com

The Foresight Institute was founded in 1986 on a vision presented by Eric Drexler in which the ultimate manufacturing technology uses a machine termed a nanofactory or nanofabricator to provide atom-by-atom control of the manufacturing process for complex objects, both large and small. Although initially controversial, this vision has been increasingly accepted over the past 32 years as progress in the underlying technologies leading in that direction has accelerated. Two essays published two weeks ago both point to Drexler’s vision and link it to a vision of the future put forward in September of 2013 by renowned British science historian James Burke, which predicts that nanofabricators will be common by 2042, and imagines the effects they will have had on the world by 2103, 90 years after Burke wrote. Burke’s September 2013 essay is available at RadioTimes “James Burke: I’ve seen the future“.

Burke bases his prediction that the world of 2103 will be unrecognizably different on the assumption that the year 2040 sees the beginning of worldwide distribution of kits to make a “nano-fabricator” able to take “dirt, air and water and a bit of cheap, carbon-rich acetylene gas”, manipulate atoms and molecules, and “produce anything you want, virtually free”. Since each of these can make a copy of itself, everyone has one by 2042.

… Sixty years later, we’ll have adapted to the new abundance and are living in small, no-pollution, autonomous communities, anywhere. Energy from spray-on photovoltaics makes any object (like a house) its own power source. So, here you are in your fabber-fabricated dwelling, filled with Mona Lisas if that’s your wish, with holographic reality transforming any room into anywhere (like: beach, sun, wind ruffling hair). So nobody travels any more. Want to see a pal, have dinner with your mother, join a discussion group? No problem: they’ll be there with you as 3D holograms, and you won’t know Stork from butter, unless you try to make physical contact (I’m avoiding sex and reproduction because that might have to be wild speculation).

The entire global environment will also be covered with quintillions of dust-sized nano-computers called motes. So your life will be constantly curated by an intelligent network of ubiquitous cyber-servants. The “motes” will know you need more food, or that it’s a bit chilly today, or that you’re supposed to call Charlie. And they’ll take the relevant action. Your shirt (motes in the fabric) will call Charlie. Either his avatar will appear, or you’ll hear his voice. Not sound waves, but brainwaves. Brain-to-brain communication (it happened for the first time in summer 2013). …

Burke continues, pointing out that nano-fabricators will thus eliminate the need for infrastructure and for government, and that the resulting abundance will eliminate the need for crime, and with it the need for privacy (“outside the boudoir”). Diseases would be eliminated. Without jobs to qualify for, education would be replaced by “learning-for-fun”. Entertainment will be “all in-brain, with accompanying holograms … Tailored to your most idiosyncratic wishes.”

In “How a Machine That Can Make Anything Would Change Everything” on SingularityHub, Thomas Hornigold comments on Burke’s prognostication (“It sounds like science fiction—although, with the advent of 3D printers in recent years, less so than it used to.”) and links the concept to Drexler’s work on “molecular assemblers” and Richard Feynman’s 1959 talk “Plenty of Room at the Bottom”.

Noting progress toward nanofabricators (citing the paper from David Leigh’s group that we recently cited), Hornigold speculates “It may well be that we make faster progress by mimicking the processes of biology, where individual cells, optimized by billions of years of evolution, routinely manipulate chemicals and molecules to keep us alive.”

After agreeing with Burke that the widespread availability of nanofabricators “will destroy the current social, economic, and political system, because it will become pointless,” Hornigold compares such a world with warnings about a world with superintelligent AI “We are limited to considering things in our own terms … there is no sense in comparing it to anything we know, because it is different in kind.”

Nanofabricators: The Creation Machine That Will Turn The World Upside Down Forever In 25 Years” by Gwyn D’Mello draws conclusions similar to those of Hornigold’s piece, and then concludes:

The thing is, the question itself is so vast, and rife with so many variables, we just can’t comprehend how it would play out. Perhaps, however, it’ll be the beginning of a new world, one where caring for everyday needs isn’t an odious task anymore. Perhaps the commotion this sort of invention will cause a new type of conflict on a global scale. Or perhaps the technology will prove impossible to accomplish after all. Either way, people like Burke believe the answer is almost at hand, and those of you reading this now might still be around to see it.

With James Burke’s five-year-old prediction of widespread use of general purpose nanofabricators able to easily copy themselves and almost anything else by 2042 simultaneously endorsed by two writers apparently on opposite sides of the world just two weeks ago, it’s difficult to avoid thinking about how long it might be until general purpose, high-throughput atomically precise manufacturing (APM) transforms the world and the entire human experience.

After Drexler’s ideas were published in 1986 and the Foresight Institute was founded, there was a general reluctance to avoid making predictions about when the ultimate manufacturing technology would arrive. About the clearest statement made during the first decade was made by Drexler in 1994. He gave two varieties of “conservative” estimates for the arrival of nanotechnology. If you are considering the benefits of nanotechnology, it is conservative to plan on 20 years. If you are concerned about competitors getting it first, it is conservative to plan on 10 years. Clearly, more than 23 years later there is no sign that anyone is close to perfecting such a device, although several paths have shown promising progress toward early, very limited, prototypes.

Closer to Burke’s timeline, in 2005 inventor, writer, and renowned futurist Ray Kurzweil predicted 2025 as the most likely year for the debut of advanced nanotechnology, and that one of the earliest applications will be advanced medical nanorobots. “By the late 2020s, nanotech-based manufacturing will be in widespread use, radically altering the economy as all sorts of products can suddenly be produced for a fraction of their traditional-manufacture costs. The true cost of any product is now the amount it takes to download the design schematics”. Kurzweil’s 2005 prediction could still conceivable[y be realized, but could it be that the advent of APM always appears to be about 20 years in the future? The Foresight Institute, in collaboration with Battelle and The Waitt Family Foundation studied the road from then current nanotechnology to APM and published a report in 2007 “Technology Roadmap for Productive Nanosystems“. Perhaps it is time for another look at paths, progress, and possible timelines?
—James Lewis, PhD

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