[ox-en] Free Software, Free Physical Goods, Nanotechnology, and Dependency
- From: Robin Green <greenrd greenrd.org>
- Date: Sat, 17 Jan 2004 02:09:33 +0000
OK, so what is going to be the next big development that gets us closer to
a society based on the principles of Free Software? Maybe some of you have
not even asked that question. Maybe you think it is a wrong question - why
should there be any such big development, or what makes anyone think they
can predict it?
I think I can predict it. I think the answer is molecular nanotechnology,
also known more descriptively as molecular manufacturing. I don't know
if this has been discussed on the list yet already.
As this is a list inspired by technology, i.e. free software, I would hope
that there would be some on this list who would have an open mind at least
towards molecular nanotechnology, as fantastic as it may sound.
Nanotechnology is manipulating matter at the nanometer scale - the scale
of individual atoms and molecules. Ultimately having precise control over
the structure of matter at that level.
But let me first explain: there are five types of nanotechnology (strictly,
four). I'm not a scientist but this is what I've learned from reading on
the web, so take everything in this email with a pinch of salt:
0. The bogus kind. Not really nano at all, just a marketing term.
1. New chemicals and materials at the nanoscale - e.g. nanotubes
These are made by commercial companies now.
2. Quantum dots - aka artificial atoms. This is engineering at *below*
the atomic scale - making in effect "artificial atoms" with new properties.
These are also made by commercial companies now.
3. Molecular manufacturing. Building large scale objects, like computer
screens, by assembling them molecule by molecule, exactly the way you want them.
You might say "Hmm, wouldn't that take an extraordinarily long time?" but
the plan is, you do it massively parrallel - have billions and billions of
nano-scale nanofactories working simultaneously, and then probably build up
the supertiny blocks into tiny blocks, tiny blocks into small blocks, etc.
This, obviously, is just a plan inside a computer for now, because otherwise
everyone would have heard about it and it would be revolutionising the world
(as I'll explain more fully below). You can read more about molecular
manufacturing at the Foresight Institute's site at http://www.foresight.org/
4. Nano-robots (aka nanobots). Things like little micro-bots swimming around
your blood looking for cancer cells and killing them. Obviously, also just a
theory at the moment. I suppose you could say that nanofactories are a special
case of this, although some argue differently.
So, is it feasible to do type-3 and type-4 nanotech?
The current state of play with regard to the feasibility question is a
bit confusing. The US government-funded National Nanotechnology Initiative
claims different things. On the one hand they make it sound like they are
supporting it to the casual observer. But then they say "Oh, the ideas of the
Foresight Institute are completely infeasible. They wouldn't work." Due to
commercial pressure from industry and vulture capitalists, elements within
the US congress even purposefully "botched" the wording of a funding bill,
so that instead of, as in the original draft, saying words like "A feasibility
study into molecular manufacturing will be funded" it was changed to say
something like "A feasibility study into self-assembly will be funded". Which
is nuts, because self-assembly is already being successfully used in chemistry!
We are quite sure that it works, there's no point in doing a feasibility
study on it! But importantly, to a casual journalist or reader who doesn't
know better, it sounds like there will be a study into molecular manufacturing.
The quite politicised "certainty" from the NNI, and some but not all of the
old-guard of the scientific community, that molecular manufacturing won't
work, is somewhat curious. It ignores the quite obvious fact that existence
proofs for nanobots already exist - living cells are basically nanobots.
They build things (animal tissue) from the molecule level up, with the aid
of sort of "programmed instructions" (DNA). We know it can be done. The only
questions are, are humans smart enough to figure out how it works (the complexity
problem), and are we smart enough to build the first artificial nanobot
without having any previous artificial nanobots to use to build the first one
with (the "huge hands" problem). I don't know, but some say yes.
So anyway, what the NNI is *actually* doing is funding entirely work based on
type-1 and maybe type-2 nanotech. A lot of existing science has been rebranded
as "nanotech". Meanwhile, nothing is funded on actual molecular manufacturing.
Which is kind of not surprising when you consider what molecular manufacturing
could do to capitalism, if the wildest projections of the Foresight Institute
turn out to be correct. (Although, considering what it could do for the
military, it wouldn't surprise me if the US military was researching it in
Consider oil. If we could very cheaply (i.e. with almost no labour after the
initial design and build of the nanofactories) reassemble the atoms of
carbon-based trash into oil, the Saudi Arabian princes will be crapping their
very expensive pants. So will everyone else who profits directly from oil
extraction. Actually, we might not even need nanotech for this, because Thermal
Depolymerisation, which is just reaching commercialisation now, promises to do
that already for large categories of carbon-based waste. And without pollution,
too (Ha! I'll believe that when I see it.) Thermal depolymerisation will probably
make oil more plentiful, whereas nanotech will probably go further and make
long oil pipelines and oil tankers obsolete completely.
Consider solar power. If we could produce solar panels for roughly the same cost
per square metre as newspapers, as Eric Drexler of Foresight has estimated,
we'd very quickly have an enormous abundance of energy - more than we'd
initially know what to do with.
Consider food. Even if reproducing most food entirely by nanofactory is too
complicated to do for hundreds of years, nanotechnology could still make plant
growing much more efficient and extend it to more "inhospitable" places, well
before that. It wouldn't be organic food, but it would be enough to keep people
alive on for a lot longer than they could survive with no food at all (let's
have some priorities here please). And it wouldn't require much land - or,
the best bit, much work - to support per person.
What does all this mean?
It all means decentralisation of production.
Right now, crudely speaking, impoverished farmers in less developed countries
have a simple choice (let's ignore cash crops for now as they are similar
to selling and leaving for the purposes of this argument). They can continue
to farm on their own land (as long as it is not stolen from them, which often
happens) and at least eat from what they grow.
Or, give it up, sell, go to the big city in search of streets paved with gold
(a metaphor for material wealth, broader culture, TV, etc.) but give up their
frail and partial self-sufficiency. Many, many of them have chosen to do the
latter. Even though it means depending on the market for food etc.
This is because you can't make a TV in your little hamlet. Things like the production
of TVs require centralisation, they require markets, they favour large corporations.
(Please note, I don't even watch much TV, it's just an example. Think of yourself
living in a boring village doing back-breaking farm work and substitute what you'd miss.)
With molecular manufacturing - if it is not surpressed by making the technology illegal
to use by ordinary people - we could still have our TVs. We could still have our
personal transportation, our modern dwellings, etc. But we could have these
produced in a much more decentralised way. A way requiring much less labour
(but we could still labour for some things instead of the machines if we wanted to).
A way that is cheaper (because of needing much less labour), and eventually, won't
need massive capital investments by those with all the money.
This is key. Capitalism requires scarcity of *capital*. If the amount of capital
you need to start producing virtually all goods, becomes miniscule compared to
today, capital becomes non-scarce for the production of goods, and
the whole world suddenly becomes so much more of a fertile, almost frictionless place
(in economic terms) for not-for-profit co-operatives to start up.
Obviously, if this technology ever proves to be realised, I expect a stupendous battle.
Capitalists, as a class, are not going to let go of their "He who dies with the most
toys wins" mentality lightly, nor are they going to let go of their control lightly.
(And unfortunately nanotech also carries with it great new military and terroristic threats.
Untraceable assassination devices. New microscopic torture devices. Oh dear.
Not pleasant thoughts.)
But the very fact that molecular manufacturing could give us by far the closest
technological solution to escape capitalism - or to make capitalism destroy itself
- I think makes it worth fighting for.
Some have objected that you can't produce things like TVs and computers without intellectual
property, which is generally expensive. But we already know the solution to that: open
source and open blueprints for hardware. And so that is why I think nanotech _itself_
will be kept out of people's hands by legal means. I don't think it is even possible,
even imaginable, to criminalise Linux, used on a huge proportion of the Internet, even today,
much less in 20 years time. So you can't criminalise open source, as some have suggested.
That shouldn't be discussed any further - it's a completely nonsensical idea, it's like
criminalising gift-giving. You have to instead partially criminalise nanotech if you want
to stop this revolution in production - but how can you do that, because the capitalist class
will be torn between wanting to be more efficient, and wanting to fund startups who can make
millions FROM being more efficient by using nanotech, and not wanting to give the technology
So actually, even though I think the capitalists will try to fight nanotech, they will fight
against themselves. And will lose. The final triumph of the "efficient" market system -
to compete itself virtually out of existence.