Re: the economics of transition to nanotech

From: Gina Miller (
Date: Fri Jan 07 2000 - 19:37:11 MST

Damien, you wrote "If anyone knows Dr Drexler or his associates and wishes
 to pass this along for their commentary, feel free to do so."
 I forwarded your post to a few appropriate channels.

Gina "Nanogirl" Miller

 Damien Broderick
> Sorry to keep banging on about this, but I'm deep into revisions, updates
> and expansions of my book THE SPIKE, for publication in the USA later this
> year. I'm try to address some of the critical objections to v. 1.0,
> especially certain complaints that the economics (implicit and explicit)
> were handwaving and/or naive. I'm happy to stick by some of what I wrote
> (eg, that we might end up with a gift economy if assemblers prove cheap
> tractable), but the vexing issue is the realistic pathway there.
> Brutally: who pays, and why?
> Here's what I've sketched in draft. It's thin as it stands. I'd welcome
> exact analytical commentary, either on or off list. If my terminology is
> wrong, tell me. Urls to papers that have addressed these issues would be
> especially welcome. If anyone knows Dr Drexler or his associates and
> to pass this along for their commentary, feel free to do so.
> (I know this thread will immediately turn into a blistering debate on the
> nature of the Buddha's views of spacetime, or the sociobiology of sport,
> but I really would welcome some focussed reaction. We've got to get these
> ideas out there, people, and I have a nice window right now. I would like
> to make sure that what I'm saying is as informed and accurate as possible.
> And as Prof Robin will tell you, I'm no economist.)
> ==================
> In what follows, `minting' is a user-friendly synonym for MNT, molecular
> nanotechnology.
> ==================
> Once you have a working matter compiler, you can share out the job of
> writing the programs to a hundred million nano hackers on the Internet.
> Today, computer enthusiasts write reams of code and post it for free, or
> shareware--just for the pleasure of it, for the art, to show how good they
> are, to earn the esteem of their peers. Increasingly, vast code structures
> like the operating system Linux are `open source', freely available for
> elaboration by a host of enthusiasts who participate in their development
> and evolution. MP3 digital music is increasingly available on the Web, and
> while the record companies were nervous at first, they are adapting,
> learning to make money even when music of every kind is running free. In
> the future enthusiasts will be up all night coding ever more subtle and
> cunning Killer Apps for the mint, selling them from garage start-ups
> the code pirates sell the CD-Roms at a 99 percent discount, or generously
> steal and re-post your code on the net), or, like the graffiti tagger kids
> did back in the 20th century, finding street glory by sending their own
> applications out instantly onto the net as shareware and freeware.
> Reality check--hard economics
> We need to pause here and take a breath. Who is supposed to be funding
> leap into future technology, especially when its end result is a new kind
> of productivity that bites the hand that feeds it? Grant for the sake of
> argument that Drexler's trajectory of development is not impossible, even
> that it makes quite a lot of sense. Somebody starts with first-stage
> molecular nano-technology in the lab, and step by step a new industry
> emerges, culminating in fourth-stage or mature minting. Each of those
> needs to have its independent economic rationale. Corporations and private
> investors must be convinced that their money will earn a good return--a
> better return than if it were put into hamburger franchises or real
> Yet how can they sensibly arrive at that conclusion if the extravagant,
> utopian dreams of nano's more vocal enthusiasts have any validity?
> To put the matter crudely: putting your nest egg into nanotechnology, it
> might be said, would be like investing in a machine that could counterfeit
> money, or turn lead into gold. Even if counterfeiting where not a crime,
> imagine the inflationary consequences. Well, of course, in a way the
> post-World War Two western economies and their banking systems have been
> exactly such machines, pumping out paper money that is issued as a promise
> against endless future growth. So far, with a hiccup or two, the global
> economy has done quite well under this shaky fiction or non-stop juggling
> act. That's because technology really has managed to produce more and more
> for the same amount of effort.
> Barry Jones saw how things were going in the micro-electronics end of the
> economy, and in Sleepers, Wake! put his finger on what will also drive the
> development of minting. Miniaturisation, he notes:
> permits an exponential rise in output together with an exponential fall in
> total inputs--energy, labor, capital, space and time. In economic history
> there is no remote equivalent to this... This overturns the folk-wisdom
> that for every advantage there is a corresponding disadvantage or price to
> be paid (`You can't have your cake and eat it too').
> Cybernetics theorist of the 1950s, Norbert Wiener, foresaw
> computer-controlled automation as a kind of equivalent to slave labor, and
> hence supposed that human workers in competition with these machines would
> be driven into ruinous slave-wages themselves. That hasn't happened, by
> large, although there is an increasingly large number of people either
> without work or sequestered in part-time work for McDonald's or the local
> hypermart. Still, as Jones points out, Wiener's fears were misplaced
> because he `failed to read economic history... Slaves don't provide
> for sophisticated, diverse, personalised production. Computers break down
> hierarchical work structures, providing the challenge/opportunity of
> individual creativity.' Even so, he acknowledges, there are victims:
> lacking literacy and numeracy, people simply not able to join the
> `information rich'.
> Still, all this is so only because investors can make money from
> information technology and the hardware that supports it. The technical
> dynamic that results in the frequent doublings recorded by Moore's law
> might falter if consumers suspect (as many do now) that they are paying
> `bloatware', sloppy or massively redundant code requiring colossal extra
> amounts of computing grunt to do pretty much the same jobs about as well.
> If that happens, the national and international markets for an
> number of small computers and their software will become exhausted.
> Meanwhile, the cost of refitting fabrication plants to create chips at
> smaller and denser scales balloons. Why should canny investors choose to
> move their money into the nano field if they can see, at the end of the
> development tunnel, an even more frightening prospect: assembler machines
> that literally compile material objects, including more of themselves?
> Where's the profit in that?
> The answer, as usual, is that the market funds investments evaluated by a
> variety of horizons. IBM has been profligate in funding pure research, and
> has reaped rich rewards. Government-funded as well as privately-endowed
> university researchers continue to pump out endless astonishing
> and applications. Corporations such as Geron (in cancer, stem cell and
> telomere research) and Zyvex and Ntech (in micro- and nanotech realms)
> on both immediate and long-term studies into topics that might yield truly
> flabbergasting outcomes eventually and in the meantime could bring more
> limited products to market.
> Recall the development curve of today's almost ubiquitous personal
> computers, which started half a century ago as immense clunky behemoths,
> passed through phases or epochs where prices dropped by consecutive orders
> of magnitude so that first governments and their militaries could own
> computers, then huge businesses, then smaller businesses with the arrival
> of spreadsheets, then secretaries and students as word-processors became
> common, and now the gadgets are getting as routine as personal phones (an
> even more explosive marketing phenomenon), with specialised variants
> lurking under the hood of your car or running your microwave cooker. It
> will be the same with nanotechnology. Nobody expects K-Mart assemblers to
> arrive overnight. By the time they do, a lot of money will have been
> a lot more recouped, and the economics of the world will have
> by small and large jolts, into a new equilibrium (if we are lucky) as odd
> to our eyes today as the world of the Keynesian welfare state would have
> been to an 18th century merchant.
> Even experts who differ with Drexler over the wilder outcomes of the new
> miniaturisation technology agree that nano spells immense change in the
> economy. Professor George M. Whitesides, Mallinckrodt Professor of
> Chemistry at Harvard, sees nano as an extension of microelectromechanical
> machinery (MEMs). He notes, as we saw above, that shrinking the scale of
> superconductors, say, pushes up the costs of fabrication plants. `If you
> want 20 percent return on investment, and you put in $10 billion, how many
> microwidgets do you have to sell every year for the few years that that
> is the state of the art? The answer is, a lot. And people who have to put
> up the money don't like that.' In the immediate future, Whitesides
> impacts from inexpensive microtechnology rather than nano. For example, he
> predicts that instead of a newspaper `you might buy a sheet of paper; the
> back side of it would be a battery, the front side of it would be a
> display. You read it, scroll to find reference works on it, see animated
> illustrations, and when you're done, you throw it away.' But making common
> consumables like reusable and downloadable paper with embedded
> microelectronics will provide some of the industrial base for more
> adventurous miniaturisations. Whitesides warns that you can't just shrink
> machine and expect it to work. Those planning the creation of mints via a
> developmental trajectory like Drexler's four stages will take that for
> granted. It will be necessary to fund each step of the molecular nano
> revolution by careful, incremental advances that are each profitable but
> allow the shift to the next stage as it emerges from the lab.
> When that occurs, though, we really should expect to see some
> extraordinary leaps. Some of the limits common to today's economics of
> production and distribution will blow away. There is good news and bad in
> this prognosis.
> ==================
> Damien Broderick

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