Like electricity and computing before it, nanotechnology will offer greatly improved efficiency in almost every facet of life. But as a general-purpose technology, it will be dual-use, meaning it will have many commercial uses and it also will have many military uses -- making far more powerful weapons and tools of surveillance. Thus, it represents not only wonderful benefits for humanity, but also grave risks.
Tomorrow we will discuss geopolitical implications, but first today we'll consider potential negative impacts on our current economic structure.
Josh Wolfe of Lux Capital, editor of the Forbes/Wolfe Nanotech Report, says, "Quite simply, the world is about to be rebuilt (and improved) from the atom up. That means tens of trillions of dollars to be spent on everything: clothing, food, cars, housing, medicine, the devices we use to communicate and recreate, the quality of the air we breathe, and the water we drink—all are about to undergo profound and fundamental change. And as a result, so will the socio and economic structure of the world. Nanotechnology will shake up just about every business on the planet."
Low-cost local manufacturing and duplication of designs could lead to economic upheaval, as major economic sectors contract or even collapse. To give one example, the global steel industry is worth over $700 billion. What will happen to the millions of jobs associated with that industry -- and to the capital supporting it -- when materials many times stronger than steel can be produced quickly and cheaply wherever they are needed?
Advanced nanotechnology could make solar power a realistic and preferable alternative to traditional energy sources. Around the world, individual energy consumers pay over $600 billion a year for utility bills and fuel supplies. Commercial and industrial use drives the figures higher still. When much of this spending can be permanently replaced with off-grid solar energy, many more jobs will be displaced.
The worldwide semiconductor industry produces annual billings of over $150 billion. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that the industry employs a domestic workforce of nearly 300,000 people. Additionally, U.S. retail distribution of electronics products amounts to almost $300 billion annually. All of these areas will be significantly impacted if customized electronics products can be produced at home for about dollar a pound, the likely cost of raw materials. If molecular manufacturing allows any individual to make products containing computing power a million times greater than today’s PCs, where will those jobs go?
Other nations will be affected as well. For example, the Chinese government may welcome the advent of exponential general-purpose molecular manufacturing for several reasons, including its potential to radically reduce poverty and reduce catastrophic environmental problems. But at the same time, China relies on foreign direct investment (FDI) of over $40 billion annually for much of its current economic strength. When those dollars to purchase Chinese manufactured goods stop flowing in, the required adjustments may not be easy and could result in violent struggles.
We’ve reviewed here the earthshaking impacts that molecular manufacturing is likely to have on business, investment, jobs, and, by extension, social stability. Geopolitical implications also must be considered. This technology may enable individual nations to achieve complete economic independence. Coupling that with the potential for rapid augmentation of offensive military power leads to the unsettling possibility of devastating warfare. That's tomorrow's topic.