Wikipedia's success is encouraging. An article from our friends at WorldChanging says...
Wikipedia has more entries than the Encyclopedia Britannica and Encarta combined (almost double Encyc. Britannica), and that’s just in English. In all languages, they expect to reach a terabyte of information in another year.
In fact, Wikipedia contains more information than any other single source -- over 1.5 million articles -- and they currently receive around 50 million hits per day.
They only get about 20% fewer hits than the New York Times, and expect to exceed it by next year. And yet, it’s an all-volunteer organization. Questions of the encyclopedia’s quality are more subjective, but hey, if you think an entry is bad, you can change it.
Could Wikipedia be used as a template for collection, improvement, and distribution of molecular manufacturing product design plans?
This is an important question, because it may be only a matter of time until the manufacture of products becomes as cheap as the copying of files.
An early tabletop nanofactory might weigh a kilogram (about two pounds). The amount of raw materials required to produce a new factory might cost only a few dollars or Euros, and a well-designed factory could process that much material in an hour or so. Once one such factory exists, it and its copies could be used to make an unlimited number of tabletop factories, cheap enough to give away.
If nanofactories were ubiquitous, then their products would be readily available. The only limits would be raw materials (completely renewable), access to product designs, and licensing fees. If a product design were created and given away for free, anyone who wanted or needed one could have it. Any product that could alleviate poverty or suffering might be instantly available to everyone.
This would only be possible, however, if nanofactories were not restricted to prevent the making of free products. Commercial entities would have a strong interest in preventing competition from products that people didn't pay for, and governments would be sweating over the malicious ways that an unrestricted factory might be used.
A completely unrestricted factory looks like a bad idea for several reasons, including intellectual property violations and the making of dangerous products. A tightly controlled factory is a bad idea for at least three reasons: heavy restrictions would prevent the alleviation of vast amounts of human suffering, would hinder the creation of an undreamed-of level of prosperity, and would also make a black market inevitable.
Some sort of compromise must be reached.
CRN's proposed solution is widespread deployment and ample access to free (or low cost) nanofactories with built-in technical restrictions to prevent the making of unapproved products.
Here's where the wiki idea comes in. Assuming that a binding international agreement can be reached for open distribution of restricted nanofactories (no easy accomplishment!), then the sharing and improvement of product designs is the next step.
Imagine a website -- a giant online catalog -- offering basic products for free, better products at market price, and high-end products as well. Search for the product you want, then download a basic version to your home nanofactory and build it for only the cost of raw materials and power. Want a fancier "name-brand" product, or a more advanced version with unique features? That will cost you something, and part of the cost will be returned to the designer(s) as a licensing fee.
Commercial entities could still be in business, designing upscale, prestigious, or especially innovative products. Many product designs, however, might be made freely downloadable, like freeware. Shared designs, on something like a wiki interface, could allow anyone to customize or make improvements.
All this requires substantial bandwidth and voluminous data storage, not to mention robust and highly sophisticated software to thwart evildoers. We won't downplay the obstacles, because they are very high. And the biggest challenge of all is getting everyone to agree on the principle and to cooperate in the practice.
Can it be done? Let's hope so, because until someone comes up with a better idea, this seems to be the only sensible choice. It's either work together, compromise, and share... or fight for control, and that could get really nasty.