Future Changes


Nanotechnology - What Changes Can We Expect?

Source: NanoTechnology Magazine

A Chapter Contribution from Bill Spence, NTM for French Science Writer Daniel Ichbiah and Pascal Rosier's Next Book: Interviews About the 21st Century

What objects we commonly know should disappear because of nanotechnology?

People living before and through the transition - at first and because of prejudice for things we know and because people have not imagined the variety and super rich realm of new possibilities -- the objects failure to everyday life will be sought by the public and reproduced by assembler technology. People will still want cotton beach towels, although the cotton farmer will no longer be needed when fibers can be manufactured atom by atom from carbon in the air or from limestone. Lots of familiar items will appear "traditional" on the outside, yet posses a multitude of new tricks and functionality made possible with MNT -- cars with Utility Fog crash protection for instance. Of course, MNT Smart Materials can look like anything, yet perform "magic".

Now, the next generation and generations to follow, born into the age of nanotechnology will a "clean slate" without concrete historical prejudices, will design objects and lifestyles that take advantage of the new wealth of possibilities and I should expect design objects and "environments" that would appear bizarrely alien, extraordinarily novel to even the most advanced nano tinker today. The general concept is familiar in science fiction, only now we have a clear engineering path to make real, the stunning constructs of uninhibited imaginations and those yet to be born.

The wild card to consider and the reason that frankly, it is ludicrous to project past a few decades -- or more than say, one generation or so, is the effect nanotechnology will have on intelligence enhancement efforts. Once these efforts are even mildly successful, the the "experimenters" will spend much of their time amplifying intelligence enhancement efforts and the valve controlling what is imaginable and what can be engineered opens at a geometric rate. By definition, what can and will be is unimaginable now, and I'm not even addressing the issue of machine intelligence in the equation. The curve approaches vertical.

What new objects should appear because of nanotechnology?

Perhaps the big story -- with mature nanotechnology, any object can morph into any other imaginable object... truly a concept requiring personal exposure to fully understand the significance and possibilities, but to get a grip on the idea, consider this:

The age of digital matter -- multi-purpose, programmable machines, change the software, and something completely different happens.

A simple can opener or a complex asphalt paver are both, single purpose machines. Ask them to clean your floor or build a radio tower and they "stare" back blankly. A computer is different, it is a multi purpose machine -- one machine that can do unlimited tasks by changing software... but only in the world of bits and information.

I'm involved with a company developing Fractal Shape Shifting Robots. Fractal Robots are programmable machines that can do unlimited tasks in the physical world, the world of matter. Load the right software and the same "machines" can take out the garbage, paint your car, or construct an office building and later, wash that building's windows. In large groups, these devices exhibit what may be termed as macro (hold in your hand) sized "nanobots ", possessing AND performing many of the desirable features of mature nanomachines (as described in Drexler's, Engines of Creation, Unbounding the Future, Nanosystems, etc.). This is the beginning of "Digital Matter".

These Robots look like "Rubic's Cubes" that can "slide" over each other on command, changing and moving in any overall shape desired for a particular task. These cubes communicate with each other and share power through simple internal induction coils, have batteries, a small computer and various kinds of internal magnetic and electric inductive motors (depending on size) used to move over other cubes (details here). When sufficiently miniaturized (below 0.1mm) and fabricated using photolithography methods, cubes can also be programmed to assemble other cubes of smaller or larger size. This "self-assembly" is an important feature that will drop cost dramatically.

The point is -- if you have enough of the cubes of small enough dimension, they can slide over each other, or "morph" into any object with just about any function, one can imagine and program for such behavior. Cubes of sufficiently miniaturized size could be programed to behave like the "T-2" Terminator Robot in the Arnold Schwartznegger movie, or a lawn chair... Just about any animate or inanimate object.

Fractal Shape Shifting Robots have been in prototype for the last two years and I rather expect this form of "digital matter" to hit the commercial seen very soon. In the near future, if you gaze out your window and see something vaguely resembling an amoeba constructing an office building, you'll know what "IT" is.

This is not to say individual purpose objects will not be desirable... Back to cotton -- although Cubes could mimic the exact appearance of a fuzzy down comforter (a blanket), if made out of cubes, it would be heavy and not have the same thermal properties. Although through a heroic engineering effort, such a "blanket" could be made to insulate and pipe gasses like a comforter and even "levitate" slightly to mimic the weight and mass, why bother when the real thing can be manufactured atom by atom, on site, at about a meter a second (depending on thermal considerations).

Also, "single purpose" components of larger machines will be built to take advantage of fantastic structural properties of diamondoid-Buckytube composites for such things as thin, super strong aircraft parts. Today, using the theoretical properties of such materials, we can design an efficient, quiet, super safe personal vertical takeoff airocar. This vehicle of science fiction is probably science future.

Which industries should disappear because of nano-technology?

Everything -- but software, everything will run on software, and general engineering, as it relates to this new power over matter... and the entertainment industry. Unfortunately, there will still be insurance salesmen and lawyers, although not in my solar orbiting city state. If as Drexler suggest, we can pave streets with self assembling solar cells, I would tend to avoid energy stocks. Mature nanites could mine any material from the earth, landfills or asteroids at very low cost and in great abundance. The mineral business is about to change. Traditional manufacturing will not be able to compete with assembler technology and what happens to all those jobs and the financial markets is a big, big issue that needs to be addressed now. I intend to start or expand organizations addressing these issues and cover progress in the pages of NanoTechnology Magazine.

We will have a lot of obsolete mental baggage and programming to throw out of our heads... Traditional pursuits of money will need to be reevaluated when a personal assembler can manufacture a fleet of Porche, that run circles around todays models. As Drexler so intuitively points out, the best thing to do, is to get the whole world's society educated and understanding what will and can happen with this technology. This will help people make the transition and keep mental, and financial meltdowns to a minimum.

Which new industries should appear because of nanotechnology?

Future generations are laughing as they read these words... Laughing at the utter inadequacy and closed imagination of this writing... So consider this a comically inadequate list. However, if they are laughing, I am satisfied and at peace, as this means we made it through the transition (although I fear it shall not be the last).

Mega engineering for space habitation and transport in the Solar System will have a serious future. People will be surprised at how fast space develops, because right now, a very bright core of nano-space enthusiasts have engineering plans, awaiting the arrival of the molecular assembler. People like Forrest Bishop have wonderful plans for space transport and development, capable of being implemented in surprisingly short time frames. This is artificial life, programmed to "grow" faster than natural systems. I think Mars will be teraformed in less time than it takes to build a nuclear power plant in the later half of the good old, backward 20th century.

An explosion in the arts and service industries are to be expected when no fields need to be plowed for our daily bread, similar to the explosion when agriculture became mechanized and efficient and the sons and daughters of farmers migrated to cities. This explosion will be exponentially greater. Leisure time, much more leisure time, more diversions... What professions should disappear because of nano-technology ?

Ditch digger, tugboat captain -- most professions where humans are now used as "smart brawn", or as "the best available computer", including jet fighter pilot, truck driver, surgeon, pyramid builder, steel worker, gold miner... not that there will not be people doing these jobs, just for fun. Charming libation venders have a good future, until the A.I. people make some really scary breakthroughs (grin). I do expect "the best available computer" to be important for novel situations for quite a while... and we are just on the verge for finding out how frequent and varied novel situations can be.

I have a friend who has reading and math impairments and is thus -- "poorly" educated, yet a brilliant self taught mechanic. Molecular machines are just small machines. With the right visualization tools (VR with tactile feedback), I think my friend could become a competent molecular machine designer and trouble shooter. We all have our talents to contribute. Perhaps this may be the greatest opportunity in history to express talents.

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