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« Traditional Industry & Nanotechnology | Main | Pandora’s Box »

January 18, 2005


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Mike Deering

At least no one can accuse you of sugar coating it.

John B

Mike -

Are you seriously suggesting that there'll ever be NO trade, short of some sort of Malthusian scenario?

Do you think that populations of people will give up collecting things for their historical appeal?

How about the sale/trade of nanotech construction capabilities/templates?

Some things will still need some centralization - communications, for instance, else everyone will be using their own protocols and the "Tower of Babel" would come to exist. This in turn at least /could/ drive some economic activities.

Nanotech is incapable of atomic transmutation. You may find that nanotech will therefore make rare and/or precious elements even more valuable. (Note that this would include things like gold or platinum, but not most gems as they could theoretically be nanofactured using fairly common materials.)

Yes, I know there's a large amount of rare elements dissolved in seawater, in other bodies of the solar system or other sources which could become economically viable extraction options with nanotech, but with a scarcity of scarce things, those few things which could not be copied IMO would become even more treasured than they currently are.

There will probably still be farming to trade as well, at least until foodstock nanoproduction becomes accepted. (I'd expect that would require a lot of mechanochemical material manipulations to get 'right', as compared to that which will be 'survivable')

Finally, there'll be another trade item used quite a bit - energy. Some areas are poor bids for generating solar power for various reasons - winter, regular cloud cover, etc. If people would wish to remain there, they'll need to find some other method to make ends meet on the power budget. (As a devil's advocate point, thermal differentials from coretaps or deep water might well be made to work, among other options (wind, tidal, etc))


Karl Gallagher

Following up on John, IP and services are becoming a steadily larger portion of international trade. I figure MNT would take that asymptotic. "Economic security" will include people's desires to have the latest, greatest, and most fashionable music / clothing designs / gadget templates, so there'll be lots of trade.

OTOH, World War One is an existence proof of war breaking out between major trading partners, so that won't necessarily prevent wars from breaking out. But I think you're right that intra-national and transnational threats are the most likely dangers.

Tom Craver

I think you're missing one logical, if equally grim conclusion.

If it is so difficult to know what your enemy is doing with nanotech, it is impossible to be certain that they have not set up a doomsday device that you haven't located. And if there is no other workable form of deterrence, nations may decide the controllable risk of keeping around a doomsday system is preferable to certain death. Doomsday systems may be the default approach, if someone can't come up with something better that doesn't require every nation turning into Pollyanna.

One slightly less grim possibility - each nation might design their weapon to only destroy half of the people in the nations they consider likely to have attacked them, but only trigger their own doomsday weapon if at least 9 out of 10 of their own people have been killed. If every nation does this, there's still a strong deterrent effect, and one doomsday weapon going off won't trigger a chain reaction that kills everyone.

Mike Treder, CRN

John, you're right that a complete cessation of trade seems unlikely, but we must examine the potential impact of a significant shift in the need for trade. How might that affect the thinking of nervous neighbors with a history of mistrust and violence?

Tom, yours is another equally grim conclusion. My hope is that because we managed to avoid global nuclear war (so far, at least), we'll find a way to put effective international regulations and treaties in place for nanotech weapons that will require transparency and provide security through openness.

John B

Mike -
It seems to me that you're assuming that diamondoid mechanochemistry will severely harm the global economy either immediately or after some very short period of time.

I agree, with significant R&D and no technical pitfalls, it will /eventually/ alter things dramatically, but until you have widely available nanofactories, sufficient supplies of feedstock(s) & power, and some large number of templates for the different mechanical properties of carbon-carbon bonding, I think you'll find that many people will still be interested in that Taiwanese-made toaster oven, a German-made BMW, and so forth.

*IF* nanotech springs full-bore, instantly, into an advanced capabilities state, then yes, there'll be an incredible stress on the world economy that could cause dramatic problems, WW III and/or malthusian 'solutions' possibly among them. However, is that so likely?

Given that it seems the most likely short-term approach may be Drexlerian-style hydrated diamondoid, this puts many limits on what 'can be'.

-Can't make nutritious (or even tasty!) food directly. Just don't have the tools to handle all the different atoms in question.

-Can't make medicine directly, for the same reasons.

-Can't duplicate modern computers or media with their reliance on metallics, silicon, etc

-Unless there's a purely hydrocarbon solar cell, you'll be limited to mechanical power generation - and how will you conduct that power off?

While being able to dress everyone in woven buckytube clothing is conceivably a step forward, it's not going to prevent large amounts of trade from going on.

Or am I missing something here - are you supposing that basic, functional diamondoid nanotech will very quickly become a general assembler capability?


Michael Vassar

There are definitely pure hydrocarbon solar cells.
You can easily make computers that can interface with modern computers and download their contents. After that who needs modern computers?
Feedstock manufacturing plants can probably be mass-produced in miniature. Doint the same for medical manufacturing plants will be harder, but may be practical.
Food is the main show-stopper.

John B

Pure hydrocarbon solar cells? *blink* As in nothing other than hydrogen and carbon atoms in some configuration(s)? Could you point me to a link on these - I'd greatly appreciate it! (what hydrocarbon gets used for the conductors, fer instance?)

As for feedstock manufacture, the question in my mind is the development curve. As far as I know, the feedstock molecule selected by Merkle in his Hydrocarbon Metabolism paper isn't commercially available in large quantities and purities. (At least, several hours with my buddy Google was unable to turn up any references some 8-9 months ago). If there's an alternate feedstock material you'd suggest that'd be available in the quantities and purities required for exponential growth of nanofactories, I'd appreciate a pointer.


Tom Craver

I agee that MM will likely take years to mature and roll through our economy. But I don't see anything in what Mike wrote that suggests otherwise?

I think we've avoided nuclear war largely because no one really wants to start one - just the fallout danger (and perhaps the resulting international disapproval) is too undesirable to risk it, except as a last resort to survive. Nukes are mainly useful for deterrence.

Will that apply to clean, precisely targetable nanoweapons? That is part of where I was going in discussing doomsday systems - the creation of deterrence.

I don't have a lot of confidence in international agreements. Nuke proliferation was constrained more by lack of the technical expertise and resources, and threats and bribery from those who already had a lot of them. If "agreements" are really just the velvet glove over an iron fist, it might work. Maybe.

jim moore

You don't need the hydrogen to make solar cells all you need is carbon. Buckytubes (because of their mobile electrons) will absorb light. As you vary the length of the tube you vary the wavelength of the light that is absorbed. If you ever took Physical Chemistry and remember the "electron in a box" model this link will make a lot of sense.


Nah, trade will actually greatly *increase* in the MNT world, not decrease. Sorry, but I'm afraid you guys at CRN still don't understand capitalism.

The need for trade in *physical* goods will disappear in MNT, but any one with a high school knowledge about capitalism should realize that 80% of economic value never resided in physical goods at all.

Intellectual property is what all the trade will be in. It is *designs* that will be valuable. That's no different to many goods and services now. If you go down to your local bookshop for instance, the actual cost of the physical paper in the book is only a couple of dollars. 90% of the value of the books is in the intellectual property.

John B

Jim - thanks for the link! Fascinating stuff - still have to wonder how you'd transfer electrical potential in a hydrocarbon, however. The only way I can think of is along the lines of fluidics, except I don't know of any particularly useful hydrocarbon species for ionic or electron transfer (ie, conductivity).

Maybe a better approach to the problem might be the mechanical transmission of power? Especially early in nanotech development, won't the great majority of the devices be mechanical in nature, not electrical/photonic?


Michael Vassar

Carbon nanotubes are perfect for transmitting power, but graphite works fine too within its plane.

Chris Phoenix, CRN

On trade:

Marc, it's true that a lot of the value of goods traded today is IP. That doesn't mean that pure IP will be a good basis for today's style of trade.

To take a simple example, look at the entertainment industry. File sharing has caused enough worry for them to buy new laws. So the first scenario is that IP could be traded, but is easy enough to copy unpaid that repressive systems get set up.

The second scenario is that IP is traded, but some nations decide to opt out of the system, going "off grid" and being self-sufficient. Of course they'd be embargoed, like North Korea and Cuba. But they might find it easier to get by with a combination of copied and homegrown blueprints. This could happen if big nations get monopolistic (e.g. with heavy patent policy).

The third scenario is that there's free trade in blueprints--and they're easy enough to invent that they become outsourced and commoditized. If blueprints are priced by the work that went into them rather than by their value to customers, then most of the value will be created at point of manufacture (locally) not at point of design.

So I wouldn't say there'll be *no* trade *in general*. We should perhaps modify our language to make that clear. But I can see several scenarios where trade could be massively disrupted, at least for a few nations, and maybe for all of them.


Chris Phoenix, CRN

On speed of development, and materials:

We take hydrocarbon nanotech (bucky and diamond) as a marker for "all hell breaks loose." Once you get there, you can build nanofactories, computers, a variety of medical devices. Once you have nanofactories, you can build massively parallel microfluidic chemistry systems, even more medical devices, aerospace hardware, cheap greenhouses...

With the chemistry systems and computers, I'd be surprised if you couldn't quickly develop the technology to make nourishing paste. Doesn't sound appetizing--but put a brand name on it like TigerBar, and an attractive wrapping, and people will eat it.

Thermionic solar cells have been made out of CVD diamond. Some buckytubes are good conductors; others are semiconductors; transistors and LEDs have already been made from them. And graphene conducts ballistically. So there should be no problem in building computers and solar cells. (Mechanical computers should work too.)


John B

Somehow, I'd thought it took doping to make a buckytube a conductor or semiconductor. EG: http://domino.research.ibm.com/comm/pr.nsf/pages/news.20020520_nanotubes.html has quite a few other elements involved. And yet Smalley has an interview online at http://www.businessweek.com/1998/35/b3593018.htm which indicates that sealed nanotubes make 'an excellent wire'.

I guess I'm confused here - could someone clarify a bit more on nanotube (semi-)conductivity?

Additionally, thanks for the "massively parallel microfluidic chemistry systems" - hadn't considered that take on it. Yick. That complicates things a good bit, even without multiatomic mechanochemistry...

In general, consider my reservations above overridden. Thanks for the clarifications and expansions, everyone.


Philip Moriarty


Nanotubes can be of either metallic or semiconducting character depending on the manner in which the graphene sheet is 'wrapped' to form the tube. (More specifically, the chiral vector determines the band structure of the tube). There's a concise description at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nanotube.


John B

Thanks, Philip. Fascinating reading...

Heh. Guess I got lucky and learned something new today.

John B

Chris & Mike -

This discussion might be reworking into a standalone article on its own - explaining why even carbon (hydrocarbon, really, but you know what I mean) mechanosynthesis could be such a big deal. Adding other elements later increases the capability, but just pointing out the full potential available might be useful...


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