Leading Countries Race Towards Nanotech

Via TNTLog, the “Nanotech Dragon”:

This is a scatterplot of current nanotech funding and scientists/engineers per capita in various countries. The US, Japan, and China are clearly in the lead today – but since “nanotech” is defined very widely, this doesn’t necessarily reflect who will develop molecular manufacturing first. Here’s a bit from Ed Regis’ book Nano, back from when the word “nanotechnology” meant molecular manufacturing:

[Drexler's] reasoning here was that if nanotechnology was going to be developed anyway, whether he helped it along or not, then it was crucial that it be invented here in America, or at least by one of the free democracies wherever they were located, East or West. This was crucial because the first nation to develop nanotechnology would thereby become the world’s dominant power, “the Leading Force”.

That nation, whoever it was, could build weapons that no other country would have defenses against. Its citizens would become healthy, wealthy, and young overnight. It would be Them against everyone else.

Moreover, it was not out of bounds to imagine one of the more unspoiled worldy monarchies being the first to develop nanotechnology. Nanotechnology research, after all, was not “big science” in the usual sense. You didn’t need anything like a Manhattan Project or an Apollo program or a Superconducting Supercollider effort to get the thing going. Conceivably, you could do it in a garage. You could do simulations of molecular machines on a personal computer; you could create billions of molecular structures in a test tube; you could custom-make DNA in a desktop synthesizer. All you needed for the great breakthrough was a laboratory, some extremely smart people and programming, and lots of luck at getting things right.

The above was written in 1995. “Healthy, wealthy and young”, perhaps not overnight, but after only a few years is indeed imaginable. Tabletop or industrial nanofactories would allow their owners to fabricate any quantity of medical equipment with raw materials and the engineering design being the only costs. To truly defeat old age will require a thorough understanding of how the 7 mechanisms of senescence do damage and how to heal that damage without unhealthy side effects. Health will be boosted greatly by injecting ourselves with artificial antibodies and bacteriophages when they are developed, which should be before the closing of the second decade of this century. Wealth is probably the easiest item on the list to achieve, because what we consider wealth is largely based on material products, which can be manufactured in abundance when fabrication processes achieve high throughputs and are entirely automated.

Say you have a 10 kg nanofactory invented in an arbitrary country on January 1st, 2020. Let’s say that the design is similar to the Phoenix nanofactory, in which case we’d work with the following assumptions:

The size, mass, energy requirement, and duplication time of this nanofactory design depend heavily on the properties of the fabricator. Sections 8.2, 8.3, and 8.4 quantify these relations. With the assumptions made in those sections, a tabletop nanofactory (1x1x1/2 meters) might weigh 10 kg or less, produce 4 kg of diamondoid (~10.5 cm cube) in 3 hours, and require as little as fifteen hours to produce a duplicate nanofactory.

Say that this first nanofactory is used to make a duplicate nanofactory, then both nanofactories are used to make duplicates, and so on, until you have 200 million units, ready for distribution to the majority of households in the nation. How long would this take? Under 28 duplication cycles, or approximately 18 days. In our model that would be January 19th, 2020. Assuming another week for distribution, this would put nanofactories into most homes in under a month since the technology was initially completed. To compare, the time it took for the Internet to be adopted by 50% of American households since its invention was about 15 years. The MP3 player and cell phone have arguably taken far less time to achieve 50% adoption, more like a few years. Nanofactories could achieve 50% adoption in weeks, possibly months or years if the price is kept artificially high, which is Michael Vassar’s scenario in his Corporate Cornucopia paper. In any case, once a nation has 200 million nanofactories and the necessary raw materials, it could theoretically fabricate 2.3 billion metric tons of product per year, mostly durable goods, a productivity rate much greater than those seen in contemporary economies.

(If you read Greg’s post in the comments, you’ll see that early nanofactories would have high power and feedstock requirements, so the exponential explosion outlined above would be rather delayed. My model is partially based on the assumption that, unless a nanofactory has relatively low power requirements and can accept non-perfect feedstock, it isn’t really going to be mass produced anyway.)

The question is, will the technology be available to everyone, or will it be guarded by a jealous few?

On the downside, restricting nanotechnology would have a horrible negative effect on many of the poorest people in the world, who have little access to housing, electricity, water, and other basic needs. Because the marginal cost of manufacturing an additional product using a nanofactory is so close to zero, people in poverty have the most to gain if nanotech is widely adopted, and the most to lose if it is restricted.

On the other hand, nanotech opens up a dangerous Pandora’s box of problems that few people have even begun to understand. Nanoengineered weapons are in fact one of the greatest threats to humanity’s future that has yet been imagined. Even if the threat of extinction were as low as 1/100, that’s a 1/100 chance of the entire human future being destroyed, a future that potentially consists of trillions and trillions of beings experiencing worthwhile lives. It would be ethically prudent to hold back this technology until we can be better reassured that we can handle it with minimal risk. Unfortunately, in the real world you can’t hold back a technology once international research gets started and investors are pouring money into it, which has already happened for nano. The upshot is that it might actually be beneficial for humanity if nanotechnology did end up being released to the public slowly, or in low-performance versions that make for a more fluid transition from manufacturing technologies of the past. But is that really practical once other companies and governments see the tremendous power of the technology and start developing their own versions?

Comments

  1. MCP2012

    I am day-by-day becoming more convinced (albeit, ultimately provisionally, as I’m always open to counter-argument & rebuttal[s]) that a **Kelsonian** socio-economic institutional framework is the way to go for optimal introduction & isntantiation of both Moravecian robotech & Drexlerian nanotech. Please see the sites I listed in previous postings…

  2. I think we will have lower performance versions.

    DNA nanotechnology and maturing near nanotech (Near-nano is the growing matter control capabilities in the 2-20nanometer range.

    It will be ramped up over the next few years. 1/50000 the material strength of diamond.

    DNA nano will be mixed with polymers and other chemicals. The range of materials will grow and the degree of control will grow.

    The nanofactories have to be accompanied by acceleration of logistics and mining and processing of materials.

    I will explore this further at advancedednano

  3. Greg

    One factor underestimated by the “hard takeoff” scenario that Michael lays out is the amount of infrastructure needed to support the Herculean scale up envisioned (i.e. the creation and distribution of 200 million nanofactories from the ground up). I think it is hard to overemphasize just how power-hungry these nanofactories will be, at least initially. Chris’ paper estimates that each kg of product will consume ~5*10^8 Joules of energy. For the ~10kg needed for one replication, this equates to 5*10^9 Joules. 200 million nanofactories would then require ~ 1*10^18 Joules of energy. This is equivalent to several days worth of the whole of US energy consumption. There is nothing even approaching this kind of spare capacity available which would allow creation of all of these nanofactories within the 20 day time frame in the scenario. Looking at this in a slightly different aspect, in Chris’ paper he puts a current day price tag of $20/kg in energy cost. This equates to an energy cost of $200 per nanofactory, hence $40 Billion in energy cost alone for all those nanofactories- hardly an inconsiderable sum of money.

    We have not even touched on the infrastructure necessary to produce and distribute the 2,000,000 metric tons of hyper-pure feedstock (when you are trying to achieve the kind of precision envisioned for molecular manufacturing, what we might consider to be the merest trace impurity will likely seem quite contaminated). I suspect that very shortly after the first nanofactory is produced, one of the first improvements made will be to allow the use of less hyper-refined feedstock. A cascade of sorting rotors to do the final stages of feedstock purification on the fly seems to be the type of thing that will be done to improve things. But note that this makes the nanofactory more massive, slower to reproduce and yet more power-hungry than the mark-1 version (still a trade-off worth making in order to be able to work off of feedstock which is less than perfectly pure). Note also that time to get this modification up and running is added directly to the amount of time needed to do this bootstrapping. And even without the need for hyper -refining, 2,000,000 metric tons of feedstock is a non-trivial amount to prepare and distribute. This infrastructure will either have to be (laboriously and expensively) manufactured in the old fashion way or else, if nanomanufactured, it adds a very substantial mass that was unbudgeted in the original bootstrap calculations.

    As with the feedstock question , there are improvements which will ameliorate the power consumption problem, both by reducing the power consumption per kg of product . Capturing and storing energy from exoergic mechanosynthetic reactions and using it in endoergic ones is one method of doing this. I can also see this problem being approached by making power cheaper to produce by paving our roadways with nanomanufactured photocells. Both of these approaches take time, however

    To reiterate- my point is not that there will not be an exponential expansion of nanofactories, once the technology for a nanofactory capable of self-replication becomes available. Instead what I am trying to suggest is that this expansion is likely to be more constrained and less dramatic than the “three week revolution” that a simplistic use of the extrapolation of the replication cycle time of a single might suggest. I would expect that something like the adoption curve for the personal computer would be more plausible. In like fashion, I would expect early nanofactories to be the toys of the richer segment of society. As the kinds of improvements I talked about above are made, I would expect that the technology would diffuse to the less well off segments (with better absolute performance than the versions acquired by the early adopters). Finally, I would expect that some equivalent to Nicholas Negroponte’s $100 laptop project will provide something close to 100% diffusion. Just don’t expect it to happen within a month.

  4. Greg, all very astute comments. You are right that the earliest nanofactories will be power-hungry and require purified feedstocks. My point here was not to be rigorously accurate but emphasize the exponential nature of nanofactories, making them different in kind from other technologies and more in common with life itself.

    A more realistic timeframe to the 200 million factory mark might be two years, making the adoption curve of nanofactories more like the PS2 or PS3 as opposed to the PC. I doubt there will be a very long “rich toy” phase, maybe it will last under a year. Once you have nanomanufacturing, you can take drastic steps to acquire power and feedstock, such as covering hundreds of square miles of ocean with floating solar panels, and sequestering megatons of carbon-rich matter from the sea floor or subterranean carbonate deposits. Once it becomes obvious that it’s in the best interests of the country to optimize its economy for molecular manufacturing processes, the critical step is taken and the exponential explosion will begin.

    Brian, I doubt that wet DNA/polymer-based nanofactories will be powerful or flexible enough to be commercialized, though I could easily be wrong. This model is assuming success with diamondoid assemblers.

  5. Sorting rotors process ten times their mass per second (Nanosystems 13.2.1.e p. 379). Even discounting by a factor of 30 for a purification cascade, that means that sorting rotors to provide 1 kg/hr to a 10 kg nanofactory would add less than a gram to the nanofactory.

    My Primitive Nanofactory contained no molecular mills. Mills should take at least an order of magnitude less power than robots, because they require almost no computation and control. (Computation and data-passing are most of the energy expense in my design, so the 10X saving holds even if the mill doesn’t recover chemical bond energy.) So if 90% of the product were built with mills–which is plausible with even early mill technology–then the factory might require only about 20 kWh/kg, not 200.

    I calculated once that a lightweight nanofactory-built solar panel ought to be able to recover the cost of its manufacturing in a few days, even at the 200 kWh/kg number. If we allow 20 kWh/kg, then we need about the same time as nanofactory duplication. So building a nanofactory and the solar panel to power it should require about double the time as building the nanofactory alone. Assuming someone has planned ahead, it shouldn’t take long to place the panels.

    So I don’t think Michael’s estimate is vastly overoptimistic. Perhaps the biggest problem will not be technical, but political.

    Chris

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