CRN Director of Research Chris Phoenix was asked by the U.S. National Academy of Sciences to prepare one-page briefing papers for each of their recent committee sessions investigating molecular manufacturing. Over the last several days, we have been posting those papers here.
Today, the final topic is Impacts of Molecular Manufacturing:
The development of molecular manufacturing can be divided into three stages. Basic molecular manufacturing simply means the formation of molecular structures under direct mechanical control. It does not require high throughput. Exponential molecular manufacturing is the use of nanoscale molecular manufacturing tools to build more of themselves, leading to high throughput. Integrated molecular manufacturing is the integration of such tools into massively parallel structures, "nanofactories," that can combine their outputs into large products.
Basic molecular manufacturing is close to being achieved today. Because of its limited productivity, it will be useful mainly for research and perhaps for a few specialized nanoscale devices such as sensors. Its risks and concerns should be comparable to other nanoscale technologies, and of low magnitude because of the small quantities that will be manufactured.
Exponential molecular manufacturing could be used to build relatively large quantities of product. The amount built will depend on the value of the product; since a 100-nm tool might process its mass in as little as 100 seconds, and 100 production cycles each doubling the number of tools could produce tons of them, there will be no technical limit on the amount that could be produced. Sub-micron products could contain millions of nanoscale features apiece, sufficient for extremely compact computer components, advanced medical devices, or integrated sensing platforms. The rapid production speed might enable rapid product design cycles. This level of technology has the potential to disrupt several industries and produce non-trivial amounts of nano- and submicron particles with their attendant health and environmental concerns.
Integrated molecular manufacturing could benefit from the high throughput and rapid prototyping of the exponential stage; in addition, the ability to design products at larger scales would allow a few nanoscale devices to be reused and recombined via standard engineering techniques. The applicability of the technology would depend largely on the cost of raw materials and the performance of the finished materials. A self-contained automated general-purpose manufacturing system using cheap feedstock to build strong materials could produce a wide range of competitive products. Diverse material properties and behaviors could be emulated with the flexibility of nanoscale construction.
Distributed general-purpose manufacturing of high-performance products has many potential impacts. Production of weapons, various forms of vice, and intellectual property violations would be difficult to regulate, and clumsy attempts could create an intractable black market infrastructure. The easing of logistic constraints could have military implications, as could sudden advances in robotics and aerospace. If used widely enough, a shift in industrial use of raw materials and location of manufacture could affect resource production and international trade patterns.
Runaway self-replicators (sometimes known as "Ice 9," "Prey scenario," or "gray goo") do not appear to be a primary concern. Development of molecular manufacturing would never produce small self-contained self-replicators. (The multi-generation tools in the exponential manufacturing stage would be absolutely reliant on external control.) There is virtually no reason to attach molecular manufacturing functionality to any product, even weapons. A runaway replicator would have to combine a molecular manufacturing system, a chemical gathering and processing system, and a blueprint storage system, plus a protective shell—all in a package small enough to evade easy cleanup. Although this appears theoretically possible, it could not possibly happen by accident, and deliberate attempts would be extremely difficult. However, collective environmental damage from large-scale use of non-replicating products could be a problem, depending on how cheap the products are.
Additional risks could result from attempts to anticipate the above risks. A perception that another nation was about to develop a military advantage could result in preemptive action or arms races. For several reasons including difficulty of monitoring, low political barriers to use, and more controllable weapons, an arms race based on integrated molecular manufacturing appears likely to be less stable than the nuclear arms race was.
On the positive side, large-scale use of inexpensive advanced technology could replace inefficient or missing infrastructure. Advanced components and materials could make space access cheaper and easier. Rapid prototyping and production of nanoscale devices could greatly advance health research and care.
We look forward to hearing your comments and questions about this or any of the previous briefing papers.