Or – Why Can’t I Pop a Pill and Grow Wings Yet?


The answer to both could be Digital Restrictions Management (DRM): those draconian attempts to restrict freedom in favor of profit put in place by corporate profiteers and dutifully upheld by their lapdogs and champions. And while it may seem like the music industry got all warm and fuzzy (or at least realized it was probably a losing battle) a while ago, the notion of ownership is still very much at the heart of their philosophy.  These value structures underpin systems anywhere there is money to be made (or lost), and there’s money to be made by the boatload in nanoetch.  Or there could be.

As an industry (or at least a collection of loosely grouped disciplines), nanotech’s been around for a while.  And though advancements have been made, they’ve nowhere near kept pace with those in other related fields (computing, processing, mobile technologies).  While it is of course the case that there are technological hurdles to cross still ahead of nanotech (how do we solve the heat problem, for instance), I would bet pounds to peanuts that part of what is limiting development is the crypto-fascist need to ensure there’s a way to control the technology.

In K Eric Drexler’s seminal book Engines of Creation, The Coming Era of Nanotechnology, he laid out how a successful, mature nano-tech could revolutionize the world economy.  With self replicating, self-assembling nano-devices bringing the cost of manufacturing just about everything down to near zero cents, people would be able to manufacture whatever they needed in their own home, wiping out the material manufacturing industry and the goods transportation industries in one fell swoop.

Since molecular machines will arrange atoms to best advantage, a little material can go a long way. Common elements like hydrogen, carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, aluminum, and silicon seem best for constructing the bulk of most structures, vehicles, computers, clothes and so forth: they are light and form strong bonds. Because dirt and air contain these elements in abundance, raw materials can be dirt cheap.

As this story at BBC Future suggests, such a revolution would also likely have a profound effect on the industry (and cost) of construction.

And while Drexler’s predictions (now thirty-five years old) may seem overly optimistic, his science is spot-on.  It’s safe to say that there are a lot of people with a fair amount staked on this revolution not coming to pass or, at least, on this awesome power being harnessed.

And the energy it will take to build that harness – design a “foolproof” means of preventing unauthorised (or un-paid) replication – will doubtless be enormous.  Again, from Drexler:

Advanced AI will emerge step by step, and each step will pay off in knowledge and increased ability. As with molecular technology (and many other technologies), attempts to stop advances in one city, county, or country will at most let others take the lead. A miraculous success in stopping visible AI work everywhere would at most delay it

Healthcare advances in the fledgling technology are already making waves, but things are still developing very slowly in comparison with many other high-tech fields.  If the energy that is doubtless being spent on finding ways to own the technology were being spent on its open development, we might already have those wings