||Globalization and Open Source Nano Economy
Some of the problems of today's globalized world could be eliminated or reduced by developing operational worldwide molecular design and manufacturing capabilities. Instead of shipping physical objects, their detailed design specification in a "Molecular Description Language" (MDL) will be transmitted over a global data grid evolved from today's Internet and then physically "printed" by "nano printers" at remote sites. This would allow communities wishing to remain independent to retain their autonomy.
Originally published in Nanotechnology
Perceptions: A Review of Ultraprecision Engineering and Nanotechnology,
Volume 2, No. 1, March 27 2006. Reprinted with permission on KurzweilAI.net
March 30, 2006.
In this essay, I wish to raise my concern over some of the problems
of today's world, and try to suggest how they can be eliminated,
or at least their negative impact be reduced, by developing operational
worldwide molecular design and manufacturing capabilities.
The Unabomber Manifesto ("Industrial Society And Its Future")
by Theodore Kaczynski is one of the most interesting documents of
our times, in terms of both its history and its content. Thanks
to the work of Information Technology pioneers such as some of the
people he targeted, you can read the full text of the Unabomber
Quoting from the Wikipedia article:
The main argument of Industrial Society and Its Future is that
technological progress is undesirable, can be stopped, and in
fact should be stopped in order to free people from the unnatural
demands of technology, so that they can return to a happier, simpler
life close to nature. Kaczynski argued that it was necessary to
cause a "social crash", before society became any worse.
He believes a collapse of civilization is likely to occur at some
point in the future; thus, it is better to end things now, rather
than later, because the further society develops, the more painful
things will be when the collapse occurs. If it does not occur,
he says, humans will have the freedom and significance of house
pets, although they may be happy, in a society dominated by machines
or an elite social class.
I am (and you are, I hope) definitely against Kaczynski's final
determinations. However, I have to agree with most critics who say
that the Manifesto is very well written and that its conclusions,
flawed as they are and despite the horrible acts of murder they
spawned, are based on a well articulated analysis of some of the
problems of today's world.
One of Kaczynski's central points is that the "natural"
social and cultural environment for a human being is a relatively
small community, not too dependent on the outside world for any
necessary resource, where everyone has a chance to know everyone
else and to actively contribute to the life of the community. He
claims that an interconnected world in which the quality of each
person's life depends on things that take place far away is dehumanizing
and cannot work without decreasing the freedom, the rights, and
ultimately the happiness and well-being of people. He argues that
the very technologies needed to sustain a globalized world contribute
to creating more dehumanization. This produces a runaway feedback
loop that can only result in an unnatural environment, putting far
too much strain on our mental resources—and at some point,
something has to break.
So, Kaczynski wishes to go back to a world of loosely connected,
relatively independent small communities. But this is difficult
because in today's world no small community could ever produce all
that is needed to meet its own energy, food, communications, and
health care requirements. Hence, Kaczynski proposes to break the
technological foundations of our global civilization by any means,
The deep interconnectedness of today's world also creates huge
geopolitical tensions. The situation in the Middle East is a sad
example of what can happen when the economy of one region is too
strongly dependent on resources located in another region, and where
too many players seek control over the complex planet-wide production
and distribution networks crucial to the functioning of our global
(A big advantage of solar energy, and one of the main reasons why
its deployment should be pursued much more aggressively, is that
it can be produced locally by those who require it. A nation following
this route would sharply reduce their vulnerability to hostile actions,
and to the blackmail of others based on threatening to disrupt their
energy supply. In addition, this would reduce that nation's propensity
to wage war against others for the control of energy supplies.)
I definitely do not want to go back to a pre-industrial age as
Kaczynski proposes. Indeed, I like many aspects of globalization.
I like that in some sense we can all regard ourselves as citizens
of One World. I like that with the Internet I can know what happens
and what people think on the other side of the planet, and that
I can participate in virtual communities held together by common
interests and values instead of geographic location. I like to see
thinkers and doers from all over the world working together at near-thought
speed to develop new ideas and goods.
So, I am definitely not a sympathizer of the anti-globalization
movement. But I can see worth in some of the points they make, partly
based on Kaczynski's writings. Perhaps we can take their best arguments
into account by recognizing that although the option of living in
a global interconnected world is good for many, nobody should be
forced to do so, and a local community of like-minded people who
wish to live their lives in relative isolation from the rest of
the world—provided of course they do not oppress their citizens
or threaten other communities—should have the opportunity and
the means to do so. A good, albeit perhaps extreme, example is in
Damien Broderick's Transcension.
Another problem of the modern world is that it is very difficult
to build effective supranational governance bodies, because existing
nation-states, especially those with a long history, refuse to give
up sovereignty and power. This difficulty is often seen in the United
Nations and in other supranational bodies such as the European Union.
Few, if any, of today's nation-states would seriously consider allowing
such organizations to have real and effective decision-making power,
let alone the means to enforce the decisions made. It appears that
a gradual breakup of existing nation states into smaller entities,
relatively autonomous but co-operating when co-operation is necessary
for all parties involved, will be a necessary prerequisite for the
creation of supranational governance structures including regional
and world "governments".
I have given two different but connected arguments for "small is
beautiful." And, speaking of small things, I believe that emerging
NBIC* technologies, and in
particular molecular nanotechnology, will offer the opportunity
to retain the benefits of globalization while at the same time significantly
reducing the dependence of local communities on the external world
as far as the availability of material goods (food, medicines, energy,
vehicles, toys, designer items, etc.) is concerned.
Richard Feynman was the first to articulate the possibility of
molecular nanotechnology (although not by that name). In his 1959
essay, "There's Plenty of Room at the Bottom," he argued
that there is nothing in the laws of physics to prevent us from
building molecular size machines able to precisely place individual
atoms and molecules according to design specifications and build
complex structures and chemical compounds one atom at a time. Feynman
It would be, in principle, possible (I think) for a physicist
to synthesize any chemical substance that the chemist writes down.
Give the orders and the physicist synthesizes it. How? Put the
atoms down where the chemist says, and so you make the substance.
The problems of chemistry and biology can be greatly helped if
our ability to see what we are doing, and to do things on an atomic
level, is ultimately developed—a development which I think
cannot be avoided.
Eric Drexler, who coined the term "nanotechnology" and
popularized it in Engines of Creation—The Coming Era of
Nanotechnology, was among the first to realize that nanotechnology
will achieve its disruptive potential when molecular machines will
be able to build other molecular machines by assembling them from
atoms and molecules available in their environment. Given replicant
nanotechnology, it is easy to see how, with suitable programming
and assuming that all needed molecular "bricks" can be
extracted from the environment (a safe assumption in most cases),
it is possible to assemble any substance or structure for which
detailed design specifications are available. So, our future economy
will not be based on material goods, but on design specifications
for material goods. We already have examples of this today:
A document can be transmitted over the Internet and reproduced,
on screen or on paper, by whomever has to read it. This technology
is available to nearly all consumers, at least in the Western world,
at the (relatively) low cost of a PC, a printer, and an Internet
A VHDL (VHSIC hardware description language) design specification
for an application specific integrated circuit is as good as the
device itself in the sense that it can be taken to a suitable hardware
foundry and used to reproduce the device with an automated process.
The fundamental difference from the previous example is that today
one needs very complex and expensive machinery and extensive know-how
to generate a physical instantiation of the device. But I think
we can safely predict that the costs will drop and circuit printing
will become more and more like document printing.
Instead of shipping physical objects, their detailed design specification
in a "Matter Description Language" or "Molecular
Description Language" (MDL) will be transmitted over a global
data grid evolved from today's Internet and then physically instantiated
("printed") by "nano printers" at remote sites.
The usage of nano printers, also called nanofactories, is described
in Neal Stephenson's The Diamond Age. The term "Matter Compiler"
(MC) used by Stephenson in the novel is especially good as, by analogy
with the software development process, it suggests the idea of organizing
(compiling) matter from design specifications. Reading Stephenson's
descriptions of young Nell trying to use her mother's cheap kitchen
MC to compile clothes, toys, and mattresses makes it easier to understand
the basic concepts of molecular manufacturing.
Assuming it still exists at that time, the Coca Cola Company will
not sell physical cans, but will license the MDL description of
its popular beverage for on-site compilation by customers. I assume
Coca Cola and all other commercial companies will need some means
to enforce their intellectual property rights to make sure that
customers pay what they are supposed to pay. This probably will
be done by a limit on the number of times a given MDL design can
be assembled by a given user, with protection technologies conceptually
similar to those used today for Digital Rights Management (DRM).
Of course, there will be plenty of 15 year-old hackers willing and
able to crack whatever DRM protection scheme manufacturers can think
of, and then make available cracked DRM-free design specs on the
global data grid.
I do not see any reason why molecular nanotechnology should change
the basic laws of economy, so I assume that the MDL description
of an Armani suit will cost as much as the Armani suit costs today.
And I believe tomorrow's designers of luxury items will be perfectly
entitled to charge a lot of money for their creations. But what
happens if the MDL descriptions of basic goods that a local community
needs are priced beyond their reach? And what happens if these licenses
are withdrawn for political reasons, perhaps to force a community
to submit to an aggressor community or to an overreaching central
Basic goods should be free, or priced within the means of everyone.
In other words, Coca Cola can be expensive, but water must be free.
Armani suits can be expensive, but basic clothing must be free.
Who will develop royalty-free MDL descriptions of basic goods that
everyone on the planet can use? The answer, I think (or at least
I hope), is that they will be developed with an Open Source development
model by armies of MDL programmers.
In the online version of this essay, I make frequent use of Wikipedia
articles as references for two reasons: first, I am fond of Wikipedia
as one of the best examples of Open Source development; and second,
Wikipedia articles are as good as, and often better than,
equivalent articles in expensive encyclopedias. I can rest assured
that all Wikipedia references that I use in this article
will be maintained under the spontaneous quality assurance and control
processes that are emerging within the Wikipedia community,
and will be further improved by countless users and experts. So,
linking to Wikipedia is much safer than linking to a commercial
website that may disappear if the owner goes out of business. (If
you are reading a hardcopy version of this essay and wish to have
further information on the terms and concepts mentioned, please
go to the URL http://en.wikipedia.org/
and enter your search keywords.)
It seems likely that many of the arguments used today in favor
of the Open Source movement will be applicable to tomorrow's nanotech
economy. The availability of Open Source MDL specifications for
all basic goods will result, I believe, in a better world—a
world where citizens and communities will be free to do their own
thing (provided they do not reduce the right and ability of others
to do the same) without having to give in to pressure and blackmail
from hostile parties or meddlesome central authorities who threaten
to disrupt their supply of basic material goods.
* Converging Technologies
for Improving Human Performance: Nanotechnology, Biotechnology,
Information Technology and Cognitive Science, Edited by Mihail C.
Roco and William Sims Bainbridge, National Science Foundation, June
© 2006 Giulio Prisco