Friday, August 1, 2008

Ending Scarcity

All economic systems thus far have been based on allocating scarce resources. Nomadic tribes clashed over the best hunting grounds, agricultural fiefdoms sought control over the most productive farmland, and industrial nation-states have warred over large mineral deposits. Historically, there simply hasn't been enough food, shelter, and consumer goods to go around. Thus, those with the most brute force backing them have traditionally taken what they wanted at the expense of those who were helpless to stop them.

Thankfully, however, not all of economics is zero sum, meaning that getting more for oneself doesn't always require taking something from others. Advances in the power of technology and the sophistication of social organization has allowed the human race to radically expand the size of the pie from which all our shares are cut. In an undeveloped state, any given area of land can only support a relatively small number of hunter-gatherers. But the advent of agriculture enabled an enormous increase in food production per square mile, allowing the development of cities. And industrialization has made mass production possible, providing the average person access to more manufactured goods than would have been imaginable before.

Supposing that further increases in available resources through advancements in technology and social organization won't happen would make little sense, given what we know has transpired in the past. In fact, a paradigm shift every bit as disruptive as the agricultural and industrial revolutions experienced thus far is rapidly approaching.

Increasingly, discussions of developments in the field of nanotechnology are moving out of publications geared only toward scientists or futurists and into the mainstream media. Nanotechnology simply refers to technology that involves the use of nanometer-sized objects - a nanometer is one-billionth of a meter. Though this relatively young field of science and engineering has many potentially promising applications, the most important by far is molecular manufacturing.

Molecular manufacturing is exactly what it sounds like: constructing artificial objects using components and processes at the molecular scale. Currently, electronics manufacturers are creating computer chips composed of transistors measuring only a few tens of nanometers across. In cutting-edge research projects, scientists and engineers are learning to build numerous types of structures at an equally minuscule scale. Eventually, these techniques will enable us to build almost anything from scratch.

One of the most important facts one needs to understand in order to grasp molecular manufacturing's full potential is that the vast majority of the products we use in our daily lives are composed of complex arrangements of just a few basic elements. Readily available raw materials can be combined to create almost any substance a person could ever need. Types of atoms that are uncommon on our planet's surface are important as well, but they are only needed in very small amounts.

Once molecular manufacturing has grown out of the lab and matured enough to achieve mass commercialization, material scarcity as we have traditionally known it will come to an end. Imagine a machine approximately the size of a car that is capable of printing out any desired object so long as it is supplied with the requisite elements, energy, and design schematics. If such a device were run on solar or wind power and were connected to the Internet, anyone in possession of one could at no cost over that of abundant, cheap raw materials easily create any object with its plans available online.

The most radical thing such a universal micro-factory would be able to do would be printing out all of its own parts. Thus, these amazing machines will be capable of reproducing themselves. If such a device were capable of manufacturing all of its components in a 24-hour period, then one could hypothetically go from having one such machine to having 1,073,741,824 of them in a single month.

Some researchers in the relevant fields, such as Neil Gershenfeld at MIT, believe advanced molecular-manufacturing technology will be available within the next twenty years. If this turns out to be correct, the world we know is about to be turned on its head. Without scarcity there would be no need for capitalism. All people would be able to provide for themselves directly.

(Cross-posted on the DI's main website.)

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