Re: Nanotech: Open Source or Proprietary

From: Robert J. Bradbury (
Date: Tue Jul 11 2000 - 14:55:21 MDT

On Tue, 11 Jul 2000, Paul Hughes wrote:

> Large companies who can afford a 10-50 billion dollar
> price tag, may likely obtain licensing rights for its use, but that's a
> far cry from the average joe owning it.

Paul, you may want to go through the last year or so of the Extropy Inst.
archives for my notes on nanotech development. I've commented fairly
extensively that assemblers are so small, that shortly after they are
developed there will be many teams working developing their own (around or
through the existing patent laws).

An "interesting" loophole in the patent laws, at least in the U.S., allows
you to infringe on patents so long as what you are developing is going
to eventually require FDA approval. So probably much of what is in
Nanomedicine could be developed by people using home-built assemblers
even if they do infringe on any patents.

Assemblers are small and they don't generally require exotic materials
(e.g. plutonium) to build them. Every current AFM manufacturer,
disk drive manufacturer, semiconductor or MEMS fab will have large
chunks of the technology base required to develop assemblers.
The scarce resource will not be money (because the VC's will be
throwing money at assembler companies), the scarce resource will
be mechanical/chemical engineers that "think" nano.

> Basically the first company to develop the assembler, lets say Zyvex,
> has the potential to completely dominate the economy from that point forward.
> [snip]
> That being the case, Zyvex would quickly become the worlds first trillion
> dollar company, and thats not counting its holdings on Wall Street!

Not so. You could ask Robin what fraction of the economy is actually
manufacturing. I don't think it is large. Information (R&D, news &
entertainment) is a huge fraction and assemblers don't touch that.
Assemblers don't touch the agriculture, biotech or transporation industries
until someone comes up with better (and cheaper) nanotech based designs.
Nanoassembly is likely to cause significant growth in the software and
mechanical & chemical engineering sectors of the economy.

> Since nanotech has the potential to bring prices of all material
> goods down to near-zero, that is exactly what will happen if enough
> competition exists.

Not "near zero" -- approximately $1.00 per kg is the figure typically
used. There are already many things (food & construction materials)
that are around cost level. Where the costs may differ is between "public"
open source designs and speciality industry designs (that have associated
royalties). Nanotech designs will not fall out of the sky to create a
nano-santa world - they are going to require a lot of work by a lot of people.
Even when you can assemble trillions of atoms atomically, you *still*
have to specify what those atoms are and where they should go.

> Saige Responds:
> ...Thats what I fear the most... That either one company, or multiple
> companies, will develop this technology and abuse the current
> intellectual property laws to keep it to themselves, and establish
> pretty much control over things.

Control may be required, but more as a safety measure than as a
a result of IP laws. You want a limited number of organizations
to have general purpose assembler capability (opposed to say
"food" replicator capability) so they can be carefully monitored
by independent safety organizations to ensure they do not manufacture
dangerous designs.

You would like the designs to be either open source or open review
(for say patented designs) so a huge number of people can monitor
them for safety. Ultimately we can all have general purpose assemblers
so long as they are secure and cannot be modified to construct non-approved

> After all, wealth isn't really an objective thing, but a subjective
> thing. Being wealthy is determined by how much more you have than other
> people. And while after developing this technology they may not have
> nearly as much need for money themselves, they still have the ability to
> gain power by keeping it away from other people.

Our current concepts of "wealth" get significantly shifted in a nanotech
era. I suspect some elements remain the same -- the people with enough
money can pay for large nanotech design teams to create the nano
versions of the Gates house or the Ellison sailboat. The difference
will be that a few tens of thousands of people will be able to pool their
resources and do an open source design and "grow" their own house or
sailboat (which takes a few years). In contrast, right now, the designs
for the house or sailboat would be worthless because we still couldn't
afford to build it.

> >From a corporate view, it would actually be wrong to make this
> technology available to others. A corporation is all about gaining
> wealth and power, and that's exactly what the corporate ethics are. To
> them, it would be unethical to make it available to others, because it
> would directly oppose their main goal of profit.

Huh? The last time I went to the stock market (as a buyer) or started
a company (as an officer) it was all about "return-on-investment".
Corporations do not set out to gain "wealth and power". They are
managed to provide decent returns to the investors or they don't
last very long.

Any decent corporation will have a fairly sophisticated model about how
to vary the price of its products to maximize return. Typically that
will be to charge a lot in the beginning to the deepest pockets and
to charge less and less as the market saturates and demand falls.
You will probably see the assembler companies drop their prices as
fast as designs are developed which expand their markets. If on
the other hand you get the biggest boost by selling a billion
nano-air-cars at $500 each (thats about a 100% markup), then that
is the sales model you use.

Designs are going to be the constraint on nanotech development and
availability -- not the assemblers. Given the rapid pace of design
enhancement, a "used" market is likely to develop quickly so you
can expect to see the kind of pricing scales you typically see today.
("Oh god, I bought this nano-air-car, three weeks ago and it is already
obsolete, I'd better sell it now before it is completely worthless.")

> To be honest, I'd rather not have nanotechnology, then have it under the
> complete control of a corporation or two, but be unavailable to me
> except the goods produced by it. (And likely not the best ones possible,
> so to guarantee people having to make repeat purchases.)

You will be guaranteed to have to make repeat purchases (or grow new
"stuff") because designs will evolve and get better as people discover
more clever ways to accomplish specific tasks. The design space for
nanotech is very large and the initial designs are going to look
like real hacks after 10, 20, 30 years of nanodesign experience have

[Feel free to forward this to other lists.]


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