Renowned British science historian James Burke has quite the view of the future. He sees everything we know now, our economy, culture, quality of life, all of it changing drastically within the next 25 years.
And these changes, he says, will not be because of revolutionaries, war, or anything of the sort. Instead, our world will change because of a miracle of science known as a nanofabricator.
Right now, these magical machines are still theoretical, but not in the realm of science fiction anymore. Think of today’s 3D printers, where you feed in raw materials and schematics to “print” out an object. In the same way, scientists believe these nanofabricators will be able to reproduce whatever we want, from food, to medicine, to clothing and machinery. And instead of any of it being printed from the ground up, these fabricators will instead work on a molecular level, rearranging the composition and structure of molecules in the raw materials to give us anything in the world that has a blueprint.
The era of nanofabricators
At first these nanofabricators will be like the first computers, as large as rooms. Over time however, these tiny factories could be miniaturised enough to fit on your desk at home. Just pour in the raw materials like dirt, water, perhaps some metal filings here and there, and you can have anything you like. Download a blueprint of the latest communication device, or your weekly diabetes prescription drug, maybe a new light-up coffee mug to replace the one you broke. The nanofabricator can then get to work tearing apart the molecules in the materials you provided, and rebuilding them into whatever you asked for.
A fabricator on the space station in the game ‘Prey’.
The idea for this machine has been around for decades. Way back in the 1990s Eric Drexler, widely considered to be the father of nanotechnology, wrote about molecular assembler, machines capable of manipulating matter on a nano scale. He himself was inspired by a lecture by world-famous physicist Richard Feynman, who talked about future technology able to move individual atoms to manipulate larger chunks of matter. SO far, these machines don’t yet exist, but they’re certainly theoretically possible.
So what would happen if we do ever invent such machines? What happens to the world trade markets when every home has a nanofabricator capable of turning electricity and plentiful raw materials into finished products? Food is just a combination of carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, phosphorus, same as any medical drugs. You don’t need to buy clothes when you can manufacture them yourselves. And if we fully adopt renewable sources of energy around the world as we’re attempting to right now, if every home has solar panels and batteries enough to be self-sufficient, what then do you buy and sell on a daily basis?
All of a sudden, the only things of monetary value in the world are raw materials, the nanofabricators themselves, and the blueprints they follow. Raw materials themselves would be found all around us. Heck, recycling becomes so much easier when you can reuse old parts and scrap to make anew. So the blueprints then are the prime assets. But what do you even sell blueprints for when everyone has whatever they need thanks to the creation machines? How could that ever make a profit? Perhaps it’s more likely then that blueprints will become akin to open source code, where independent developers tweak and refine existing schematics, then releasing them to the world for the cycle to continue.
The thing is, the question itself is so vast, and rife with so many variables, we just can’t comprehend how it would play out. Perhaps, however, it’ll be the beginning of a new world, one where caring for everyday needs isn’t an odious task anymore. Perhaps the commotion this sort of invention will cause a new type of conflict on a global scale. Or perhaps the technology will prove impossible to accomplish after all. Either way, people like Burke believe the answer is almost at hand, and those of you reading this now might still be around to see it.