SCI and ECON Nanatech

Lyle Burkhead (
Wed, 18 Sep 1996 18:22:52 -0500 (EST)

On September 14, Tom Quinn wrote

> I am sorry for such a basic question, but I am writing a short paper
> on nanotechnology and the effect of nanotech on economic systems.
> Could someone point me in the right direction.

I'm not sure how basic your question is. Going back to the very
beginning, there are two references you should read:

Conrad Schneiker, "Nanotechnology with Feynman Machines:
Scanning Tunneling Engineering and Artificial Life." This appears in
*Artificial Life*, edited by Christopher Langton, page 443. This is the
only article I know of that gives the full history of nanotechnology,
from a non-Drexlerian viewpoint.

Eric Drexler, *Engines of Creation* -- the standard work that made
nanotechnology famous.

Now, assuming you have read these references, you want someone to
point you in the right direction. I'm not sure how much I can say
about this without writing the paper for you, but here are some points to

1. Make distinctions. Instead of using a catch-all term like
"nanotechnology," use more specific terms such as "molecular
manufacturing" or "strong AI."

2. Put everything into an economic context. When somebody claims
that goods produced by molecular manufacturing will be free, ask:
why are things not free now? Many items are already produced by
replicators that operate at the atomic level (plants and animals).
Oranges, for example, grow on trees: why are oranges not free?

As Robin Hanson said in a recent post,

> I think folks are too stuck on the notion that changes must be
> incomprehensible - you don't know what you can or can't understand
> until you try. And you haven't really tried until you've used the
> best intellectual tools available.

And you can start with very simple tools.

3. Be skeptical. Ask irreverent questions. When Ralph Merkle says
diamondoid material will be as cheap as potatoes, ask: why potatoes?
Why not silk, ivory, mahogany wood, orchids, or caviar? Products
made atom by atom in a replicating system may be very expensive.

3. Put nanotechnology into a historical context. The economy has been
getting more and more automated for a long time; we use more and
more artificial materials; agriculture has given way to agribusiness;
manufacturing is getting more and more fine-grained. Will nanotech be
a qualitative change, or just more of the same? If someone claims that
the change will be qualitative, what exactly does that claim depend on?
In other words, what assumptions are being made?

How does molecular manufacturing differ from agribusiness or
forestry? If it does become possible to make things out of diamondoid
materials, will this change our situation in any essential way?

4. Calibrate your ideas. In other words, when somebody claims that
something will happen, look at an analogous case. For example, strong
AI is going to be available by 2020, according to the nanotechnologists.
To calibrate this idea, consider how long it takes to write other kinds of
software, such as an operating system. Will version 8.0 of the Mac OS
(Copland) be ready by 2020? How can anyone say that the human mind
will be ready to shrink-wrap in that time frame?

5. Consider carefully the idea of the "assembler breakthrough."
Eric Drexler describes it as follows (Engines of Creation, Chapter 5,
pages 80-81) --

> At some point, full-fledged automated engineering systems will
> pull ahead on their own.

> In parallel, molecular technology will develop and mature, aided by
> advances in automated engineering... The rate of technological
> advance will then quicken to a great upward leap: in a brief time,
> many areas of technology will advance to the limits set by natural
> law...
> This transformation is a dizzying prospect. Beyond it, if we survive,
> lies a world with replicating assemblers, able to make whatever they
> are told to make, without need for human labor...
> If given a charge of energy, materials, and assemblers, such a system
> might aptly be called a 'genie machine.' What you ask for, it will
> produce.

This dizzying prospect is what gives the book its explosive quality.
But does it make sense? What does he mean, "without need for
human labor"? What would a genie machine look like?

If a genie machine is defined as an entity that can make anything --
whatever it is told to make -- does a genie machine already exist?
I would say yes: the economy as a whole is a genie machine. Now,
could anything smaller than the entire economy make *anything*?

This should be enough to point you in the right direction.