As part of my participation on the CRN Task Force, I’ve been thinking in a bit more detail about how nanofactories might be regulated in the future. I recently posted the following in some forums. Join the disussion if you like. This was prompted by the questions, “What guidelines for humanity’s use of nanotechnology should there be? How should they be enforced? I see nanotech changing the sociology of the world as much or more than it will change the economy of the world.”
Nanotechnology should only exist for public use in the form of personal nanofactories (PNs), self-contained desktop units that manufacture products associated with a license.
PNs will only fabricate product designs signed by a safety authority. Products will have a maximum and minimum allowable size, chemical composition, and power consumption, based on their documented functions. Other limitations to product designs should be applied based on the recommendations of an expert committee.
Because of physical scaling laws that permit extreme productivity at the nano-scale, the first company to create nanofactories will be able to manufacture their product rapidly. Once the productivity and flexibility gains inherent to desktop nanomanufacturing become obvious, there will be instantaneous and sustained worldwide demand.
The business model
Nanofactories should be sold for a reasonable price, perhaps similar to the debut price of state of the art computers (~$3,000), with a pricing half-life of three months. The technology itself theoretically allows a pricing half-life of a day or so, but a lengthy rollout will be used to generate enthusiasm and work out the bugs. The system will be $200 in a year and $10 in two years. Or maybe there will be a natural price floor. Note that this pricing model artificially slows the rate of adoption by a factor of about 100. This allows feedback to flow on normal human timescales, allowing discussion and analysis of potential problems before they happen. The pricing model may not happen in reality, but it’s a solid possibility.
The company should take their product international at a balanced pace – slow enough to work out the bugs, fast enough to ensure that they stay on top of the competition. Nanofactories are a sufficiently revolutionary technology that the first mover should be able to gain global dominance through competitive pricing and intelligent acquisitions. A unified company in charge of nanofactories will also simplify policy issues and guarantee the enforcement of universal security and safety standards.
The real price of the nanofactory will be in the products. Third-party developers will use an API provided by the nanofactory company to design and license products. Licensed products are sold to customers through an interface on the nanofactory. Pricing tiers for multiple product copies will be set by product developers. The nanofactory company will grab a small percentage of the profit, but most will go to the developers.
The API will be a CAD system that allows designers to specify high-level characteristics of an object or system without knowing its details on the molecular level. Drop-n-drag interfaces will allow anyone to design simple products. Developers need to be given flexibility such that they can let their minds run free, without feeling the limitations of a proprietary platform. This will be achieved by the design of nano-blocks by the nanofactory company – verified modular components that simulate surfaces or materials, store and transmit electricity, light, or force, communications cables and processors, displays and interfaces, and much much more.
The data underlying the operation of nanofactories will not be open-source or reprogrammable. It will, however, be reviewed and continually redesigned by the brightest engineers and security experts in the industry. Made impervious to natural disasters, internal scanning, and reverse-engineering, nanofactories will always keep records of who is using them, their respective energy budgets, local and global laws, and library of manufacturable products. These desktop machines will have hundreds of terabytes of hard drive space for storing fabrication instructions and product designs. Their tamper-proof nature will allow nanofactories to serve as ideal “black boxes” to examine after disasters, both natural and artificial. Conversely, nanofactories should be programmed to fry their internal workings when they recognize they are being breached. An opaque “airlock” should prevent the product output port from serving as a window to scanning the nanofactory’s internals from the outside.
A primary concern for the development of civilian and commercial nanofactories is the buildup of NanoTrash – cheaply mass-manufactured products made of mostly diamond and empty space. Avoiding NanoTrash while preserving our freedom to design and create will be a great challenge of the early nanotech era. For starters, each nanofactory user should have a personal matter and energy budget determined by a safety authority. These limits should be variable based on product class and user profession. For example, someone that works at a hospital should have a larger energy budget when it comes to manufacturing medical products. In the same way that it’s illegal for just anyone to randomly practice medicine, not just anyone should be permitted to manufacture large quantities of painkillers, syringes, or scalpels.
Many professions operate under licenses today. Physiotherapists, acupuncturists, emergency medical technicians, paramedics, doctors, nurses, teachers, lawyers, and professional engineers all require some form of licensure to work their jobs. These licenses represent that the licensee demonstrates basic knowledge of their profession and its associated responsibilities. Because of the tremendous range of products nanofactories will make available cheaply, licensing and energy budgets are a must to ensure that dangerous products do not fall into ignorant or malicious hands. Crowd-mediated reputation markets will quickly label the black and white hats in the fabrication business, leaving massive paper trails for both law enforcement and avid groupies. Try to model and fabricate a torture device, and certain design privileges are temporarily suspended. Design a useful product, and you are rewarded with an increased energy budget.
The most widely-used and largest products will have the highest energy budgets – storage containers, automobiles, housing, civil systems, renewable power plants, and agricultural tools. Nano-built products will quickly outperform and underprice variants manufactured using older technologies. The rate at which this occurs will depend upon the improvement of the underlying nanofactory/API technology. The most necessary, universal, and algorithmically simplest products will be the first to be ported to nanofactories. Products containing any subset of the nanofactory technology itself (actuators, computers, sensors, purifiers, other electronics and structural elements) will become immediate candidates for design and licensing.
Because they will be competing for the finite energy budget of the consumer, firms designing new products will have a reason to care. Successful firms will be granted larger energy budgets and perhaps even greater design flexibility.
Complex organic products like food will not be built by the early, all-diamond nanofactories. In fact, anything that can’t be made exclusively from diamond will continue to be produced by traditional industries. But if I look around my house, it’s difficult to find objects that can’t theoretically be made from diamond – okay, maybe blankets, stuffed animals, mirrors, pasta, pineapples, and certain clothing can’t be made out of diamond, but what can? But how about stoves, tables, chairs, televisions, lamps, lampshades, clocks, computers, storage units, pots, pans, walls, locks, and boxes? Quite likely. Most diamondoid products will be made of 99% air or vacuum and will be ballasted by water vapor, but they will serve their function.
Quick and efficient recycling for nanotech products is a must. A large household storage tank for temporary or permanent deposit or withdrawal of water, carbon, and other feedstock or byproducts will quickly become universal. This will be built into a new civic infrastructure.
All products will be fabricated with multiple inbuilt copies of its signed safety certificate and an associated key – a simple “watermark” that lets law enforcement know the legal status of the product while ensuring that product designers get to collect their well-deserved licensing fees. If a product is found to be dangerous, the associated key is revoked, and the product is either deactivated remotely or added to a warning list. To enable the immediate deactivation of any dangerous product, designs should incorporate emergency shutdown features that respond to broadcasts of revoked safety keys.
After the initial wave of diamondoid products will come new functionality – traditional materials like simulated wood, metal, ceramic, stone, and the huge polymer family, which includes all plastics. These optimized materials might be made of different molecules than the originals but will offer superior performance and safety while consuming fewer resources.
Investors will balk at the falling prices of real estate, raw materials, energy, and just about everything. To ensure that runaway hyperdeflation does not occur will require a minimum price tag per kilogram of product in conjunction with a personal energy budget. Then comes the question – should everyone on Earth have the same allotted energy budget, or should it vary based on salary, education, productivity, reputation, honesty, or some other characteristic?
The world may need to make a choice between pure democracy and simple survival. To preserve the status quo and maximize continuity with the past, some system based on a combination of money in the bank and credit may be chosen. Or perhaps something more modern, like PageRank, where engineers and designers are assigned budgets based on referrals. Or a system closely tied to attention like Alexa.com, where the engineer’s designs are judged based on the number of people aware of them – their “reach”. Or, perhaps most appropriately, an unbiased, flexible inference engine that assigns projects preference and resources based on sophisticated volition-extrapolation models of every human individual. Science-fictional-sounding maybe, but nanotech will make it possible.
In order for the human race to go on, it needs to survive the nanotech era without too large of a disaster. As such, the probability of disaster should always be kept below a certain threshold. Varying acceptable disaster probability thresholds (DPTs) will ostensibly be voted upon by communities at the local, regional, national, and international levels. Ideally, different regulation sets will correspond to known DPTs. Stringent regulations minimize the probability of disaster, lenient regulations increase it.
Unfortunately the analyses underpinning these thresholds will no doubt be politically sensitive and value-laden. Because nanofactory issues will be global in scope, there will be strong pressure towards the interaction and unification of political parties across national lines. A global political party or even government could emerge.
Potential dangers will come from several main categories – chemical, biological, nuclear, and physical. Nanotech will deepen all these threats and magnify nascent dangers such as electromagnetic and virtual weaponry. Electromagnetic dangers will include satellite-based microwave beams and other forms of lethal and non-lethal directed energy. Virtual weaponry will include advanced Artificial Intelligence, robotics, and decision support systems.
We may see that the more dangerous products can be defined in terms of complexity rather than by size or energy consumption. This may lead to a personal complexity budget alongside an energy/matter budget.
The speed of new computers will be considered a problem. Extremely fast supercomputers running arbitrary code is dangerous. As a result, supercomputers should only run code signed by a safety authority. Computer scientists should require licenses to operate or manufacture supercomputers above a certain speed limit. This speed limit should be only slightly past the limits of conventional semiconductor technology – this is something like 100 times the power of today’s computers, and should be sufficient for most purposes. Computers built using new operating principles, such as plasmonics, photonics, and DNA computing should also respect this speed limit. Quantum computing may prove hard to enforce limitations with. If it turns out that quantum computing allows rogues to easily design and simulate virtual or physical weapons, it could end up being forbidden altogether.
Personal computers should also have speed limits, also hovering slightly past the limit of conventional semiconductor technology. Hobbyists who desire crunch power for special projects will fabricate special-purpose computers that are only mechanically able to run certain safety-verified algorithms.
Even though nanotechnology itself is a revolutionary technology, it could give rise to even greater ways of controlling the structure of matter. This includes cybernetics, including human intelligence augmentation, and Artificial Intelligence. Limits should be placed on products designed to modify human biological characteristics. For ethics and safety reasons, steps in this direction should be taken slowly and carefully. Worldwide enforcement of these standards are a must. Because the proprietary nanofactory technology will presumably be universal, standard enforcement will be feasible if the machine is tamper-proof and only builds approved products.
If the world continues to be democratic in nature, the prospect of accelerating the human birth and growth cycle (“nano-fertility”) could present itself as a strategy for certain countries or cultures to tip the scales in their favor. As a result, products designed to accelerate the cycle of pregnancy should be forbidden. The prospect of life extension (which should be regulated less stringently than pregnancy) will prompt the setting of a child limit in the civilized world – something like two or three children per couple. As women are educated, contraception becomes universal, and manual labor is less valued, developing countries will follow the trend.
The most interesting (and potentially destabilizing) prospect of cybernetics and Artificial Intelligence is the potential to create geniuses from average individuals using enhancement procedures, or to create human-rivaling AI from scratch. These forays should be limited until safety studies determine the best angle of approach.