One NanoDream, Deconstructed

Robin Hanson (
Sun, 29 Sep 96 15:05:16 PDT

It seems that Dan Clemmensen, Rich Artym, and John Clark, are making
the same argument here. Let me summarize their "NanoDream", as I
understand it:

At some point there will be a device which
-- can disassemble generic stuff in the environment into feedstock,
-- scan any (house-or-smaller-sized) object for its atomic-level design,
-- sythesize a plan for constructing such an object from feedstock,
-- retool itself and construct the object with a low error rate, and
-- repair itself, or break slowly enough to replace itself anew often.

If such a device were smaller than a house, and could replace itself
in less than a year using stuff available from an acre of land, and if
copyright on the design were not strictly enforced, but if property
rights to such acres of land were strictly and cheaply enforced, then
it would seem that within a hundred self-copy times, most everyone who
owned an acre of land should have such a device, obtained at the cost
of a small fraction of their acre. And it seems they could then, if
they chose, soon have an acre full of devices for which the design
copyright was not strictly enforced. And they might so choose if
public designs were not much worse than private designs, and if local
production were near as efficient as distant specialized production.

Given all this, some folks seem to want to infer that at some point
most living humans will fit the scenario of living off their own small
plot of land, using basically free designs.

If I've understood this right, I can challenge the conclusion by
pointing to all the assumptions that may not hold. I do no have much
doubt that eventually such a device will be possible to construct.
However, by that time many other changes may happen as well. The sun
may dim due to intervening solar collectors, or the O2 and CO2 may be
stripped from the atmosphere. An upload or other population explosion
may mean that the ratio of population to acres is far less than one.
Or wealth may be very unequally distributed, so few can afford an

Copyright on these many devices may in fact be strictly enforced, by a
combination of self-destruction upon scan attempts and draconian
punishments for violators. Public domain designs of most sorts may be
quite inferior to private designs, or generic one-size-fits-all
devices may be rather inferior in efficiency to specialized devices,
even given shipping costs. Property rights to acres of land may not
be cheaply enforced, but require payment of substantial taxes or PPL
fees. To pay such fees, one may have to devote a substantial fraction
of ones resources to production at an advanced level - public domain
defense system designs may be nowhere near up to the task. Finally,
most people may prefer more to live be closer to other people, in
dense cities, than to have their own isolated plot of gadgets.

Now folks may have plausible arguments for each of these issues.
And I'd like to hear them. But what are the chances that *all* of
these issues go the way of this NanoDream?

Robin D. Hanson