The nano-fabricator (or molecular assembler, if you prefer) is coming in about half a century. It will totally transform our world. Are you ready?
The Problem of Scarcity
According to the historian of science and futurist James Burke, it is the problem of scarcity that has shaped all human value systems. I think he’s probably right about that.
Throughout human history, our societies have been confronted with the problem of not enough of something or other, whether it be food, water or shelter. Though there have been moments of relative abundance, human societies and cultures have been primarily shaped by how they handled the fact that there wasn’t enough of something vital for survival.[1. It’s worth noting that when human beings have encountered relative abundance, we’ve often consumed every single thing that was abundantly available, such as with resources in the Pacific islands or in Greenland. See Collapse.]
Our elaborate value systems — be they social, moral or what have you — are all based and derived from earlier attempts to solve the problem of scarcity. If we think of it in terms of the general streams of political ideology:
- liberals traditionally believed that we should all have equal opportunity to access to society’s resources and that this will somehow increase our resources (material and otherwise);
- conservatives traditionally believed that a select group of people should control society’s resources;
- socialists traditionally believed that everyone should have equal access to society’s resources, though it was likely necessary for a group of people to set this up fairly.
But the scarcity problem influences not just our ideologies, but our religions, our cultures, even our morals.
Let’s assume that Burke is right: the way each and every one of us thinks about the world — and acts in the world — is determined by historical attitudes to scarcity.
The nano-fabricator will solve the problem of scarcity. Will human beings be able to cope?
What is a Nano-Fabricator?
I am writing this because I just listened to an old interview with Burke where he maintains that the nano-fabricator will be created in approximately 50 years. The nano-fabricator is a theoretical machine that will allow someone (anyone) to create anything out of the materials at hand.[2. I understand that this view that the nano-fabricator will exist in 50 years is not shared by everyone. But let’s humour Burke and assume human beings will have the ability of changing atoms in 50 or so years.]
That means that if I am slowly starving to death and I am given a nano-fabricator I will be able to make food. It means that if I have no access to potable water but have a nano-fabricator, I will make clean water. It means that if I have a nano-fabricator and I want to make the most interesting meal I’ve seen on Chef’s Table, I will be able to make it (provided I can program the fabricator correctly). All I need are molecules, which are freely available literally everywhere.
Think about the nano-fabricator like the genie’s lamp from your childhood. Remember when a kid would say, “If you could wish for anything in the world what would it be? You have three wishes.” The clever kids would say “My first wish is an infinite number of wishes.” Later everyone would be forced to say “If you could wish for anything in the world what would it be? You can’t wish for more wishes!”
Well, the nano-fabricator is infinite wishes. Rather, it’s a new genie’s lamp unlimited by the constraint of three uses. As many new lamps as you want. Because the first thing most people will do with their nano-fabricator is to build a second one just in case the first one breaks.
Human beings will live in total abundance and we will not know what to do. The closest (but ineffective) analogy seems to be the internet: 20+ years into the existence of the internet, we are still having a hard time figuring out how to behave properly on the internet now that we can communicate with pretty much everyone on the planet, most of whom are very different than us in superficial ways. A lot of people don’t handle it well (see comment sections, internet stalking, pretending to be other people, etc).
But who cares that we won’t know how to handle it? We will have solved the problem of scarcity, the fundamental problem of human existence. We will have no more use for money, or socioeconomic classes or anything that forces us to do things we’d rather not do. We will be emancipated.
There is one rather large problem with this whole thing.
The Second Law of Thermodynamics
Putting aside the practical issues that come with giving literally everyone on the planet the ability to make whatever they want – food, nuclear bombs, houses of unimaginable size, as yet unimagined destructive weapons – the nano-fabricator does not actually solve the problem of scarcity, it just changes it.
If we assume that the nano-fabricator will indeed be created in about 50 years, this nano-fabricator will still have to comply with the physical laws of the universe. For me, the relevant law with regard to the nano-fabricator is the Second Law of Thermodynamics.
I am not a scientist and never took physics, but my understanding of the second law is that the energy in the universe moves from a concentrated state – the concentration of energy at the moment of the big bang – to a dispersed state (i.e. the eventual heat death of the universe). To concentrate energy is a specific place – to delay or temporarily reverse this process in a specific location – requires more energy. Our planet has people on it because of the energy from the sun. Without a giant ball of energy nearby, life would not have evolved.
As a lay person, I interpret the second law this way: scarcity is not a human-centric or earth-centric problem, it’s a universal problem. Until we find information that contradicts the second law, scarcity is a fact; not something to be overcome – as it cannot be overcome absolutely, only relatively and temporarily – but something to be accepted.
The Nano-Fabricator Only Changes the Problem of Scarcity
The nano-fabricator, if it can indeed be created, will only move the problem of scarcity from the traditional — I need food, water and shelter to survive —to something new which we won’t cope well with, but we will still have the problem of scarcity.
The UN tells me that the population of the Earth is expected to be 9.7 billion people in 2050. Can you imagine what 19 billion+ nano-fabricators will do to the Earth?
Sure, 9.7 billion of us will be delivered from poverty and want, but what happens when we’re all making whatever we want out of the stuff the Earth is made out of? The nano-fabricator will require unimaginable amounts of energy and molecular material to make the things we want than what it produces, as per the second law. People have suggested we can use water, air, even soil to solve our problem of scarcity. How long before we literally eat the entire planet?
Maybe eating the planet isn’t the real problem. Maybe eating the energy that created the planet is the real problem.
The second law is important because it tells that, to the best of our current knowledge, we are not just going to be able to create stuff out of thin air. Yes, it will sure seem like we are creating stuff out of thin air, but we’ll actually be using up the air we breathe (and the soil we live on, and the water we drink) and, far more importantly, the energy from the sun (provided we can harness correctly, of course). And we’ll do this at a faster rate than we are creating the stuff we (think we) need. By the second law, the nano-fabricator will always use up more energy than it produces. There’s still a scarcity problem.
The problem of scarcity, then, is not solved it is merely transformed: instead of people fighting over food, water and shelter – and we humans shaping our value systems in reference to these resources – people will fight over access to the sun.
I don’t know about you but I don’t find this hopeful or wonderful, I find it terrifying. Not only will our value systems be unprepared for the new world where anyone and everyone can theoretically make anything, but we will be unprepared for the new version of scarcity. Rather than seeing utopia, I see dystopia. I see a world in which people consume more than they ever have previously, because they have the means to consume more than they ever have previously. And that consumption is more dangerous than even our current consumption, because it will be consuming the actual molecules of the planet and its atmosphere, rather than the products of the planet and its atmosphere. Isn’t that scary?
Please, tell me it’s not.