poly: the economics of transition to nanotech

From: Damien Broderick <d.broderick@english.unimelb.edu.au>
Date: Fri Jan 07 2000 - 22:30:30 PST

Sorry to keep banging on about this, but I'm deep into revisions, updates
and expansions of my book THE SPIKE, for publication in the USA later this
year. I'm try to address some of the critical objections to v. 1.0,
especially certain complaints that the economics (implicit and explicit)
were handwaving and/or naive. I'm happy to stick by some of what I wrote
(eg, that we might end up with a gift economy if assemblers prove cheap and
tractable), but the vexing issue is the realistic pathway there.

Brutally: who pays, and why?

Here's what I've sketched in draft. It's thin as it stands. I'd welcome any
exact analytical commentary, either on or off list. If my terminology is
wrong, tell me. Urls to papers that have addressed these issues would be
especially welcome. If anyone knows Dr Drexler or his associates and wishes
to pass this along for their commentary, feel free to do so.

(I know this thread will immediately turn into a blistering debate on the
nature of the Buddha's views of spacetime, or the sociobiology of sport,
but I really would welcome some focussed reaction. We've got to get these
ideas out there, people, and I have a nice window right now. I would like
to make sure that what I'm saying is as informed and accurate as possible.
And as Prof Robin will tell you, I'm no economist.)


In what follows, `minting' is a user-friendly synonym for MNT, molecular


Once you have a working matter compiler, you can share out the job of
writing the programs to a hundred million nano hackers on the Internet.
Today, computer enthusiasts write reams of code and post it for free, or as
shareware--just for the pleasure of it, for the art, to show how good they
are, to earn the esteem of their peers. Increasingly, vast code structures
like the operating system Linux are `open source', freely available for
elaboration by a host of enthusiasts who participate in their development
and evolution. MP3 digital music is increasingly available on the Web, and
while the record companies were nervous at first, they are adapting,
learning to make money even when music of every kind is running free. In
the future enthusiasts will be up all night coding ever more subtle and
cunning Killer Apps for the mint, selling them from garage start-ups (until
the code pirates sell the CD-Roms at a 99 percent discount, or generously
steal and re-post your code on the net), or, like the graffiti tagger kids
did back in the 20th century, finding street glory by sending their own
applications out instantly onto the net as shareware and freeware.

Reality check--hard economics

We need to pause here and take a breath. Who is supposed to be funding this
leap into future technology, especially when its end result is a new kind
of productivity that bites the hand that feeds it? Grant for the sake of
argument that Drexler's trajectory of development is not impossible, even
that it makes quite a lot of sense. Somebody starts with first-stage
molecular nano-technology in the lab, and step by step a new industry
emerges, culminating in fourth-stage or mature minting. Each of those steps
needs to have its independent economic rationale. Corporations and private
investors must be convinced that their money will earn a good return--a
better return than if it were put into hamburger franchises or real estate.
Yet how can they sensibly arrive at that conclusion if the extravagant,
utopian dreams of nano's more vocal enthusiasts have any validity?
                To put the matter crudely: putting your nest egg into nanotechnology, it
might be said, would be like investing in a machine that could counterfeit
money, or turn lead into gold. Even if counterfeiting where not a crime,
imagine the inflationary consequences. Well, of course, in a way the
post-World War Two western economies and their banking systems have been
exactly such machines, pumping out paper money that is issued as a promise
against endless future growth. So far, with a hiccup or two, the global
economy has done quite well under this shaky fiction or non-stop juggling
act. That's because technology really has managed to produce more and more
for the same amount of effort.
                Barry Jones saw how things were going in the micro-electronics end of the
economy, and in Sleepers, Wake! put his finger on what will also drive the
development of minting. Miniaturisation, he notes:

        permits an exponential rise in output together with an exponential fall in
total inputs--energy, labor, capital, space and time. In economic history
there is no remote equivalent to this... This overturns the folk-wisdom
that for every advantage there is a corresponding disadvantage or price to
be paid (`You can't have your cake and eat it too').

Cybernetics theorist of the 1950s, Norbert Wiener, foresaw
computer-controlled automation as a kind of equivalent to slave labor, and
hence supposed that human workers in competition with these machines would
be driven into ruinous slave-wages themselves. That hasn't happened, by and
large, although there is an increasingly large number of people either
without work or sequestered in part-time work for McDonald's or the local
hypermart. Still, as Jones points out, Wiener's fears were misplaced
because he `failed to read economic history... Slaves don't provide markets
for sophisticated, diverse, personalised production. Computers break down
hierarchical work structures, providing the challenge/opportunity of
individual creativity.' Even so, he acknowledges, there are victims: those
lacking literacy and numeracy, people simply not able to join the
`information rich'.
                Still, all this is so only because investors can make money from
information technology and the hardware that supports it. The technical
dynamic that results in the frequent doublings recorded by Moore's law
might falter if consumers suspect (as many do now) that they are paying for
`bloatware', sloppy or massively redundant code requiring colossal extra
amounts of computing grunt to do pretty much the same jobs about as well.
If that happens, the national and international markets for an ever-growing
number of small computers and their software will become exhausted.
Meanwhile, the cost of refitting fabrication plants to create chips at
smaller and denser scales balloons. Why should canny investors choose to
move their money into the nano field if they can see, at the end of the
development tunnel, an even more frightening prospect: assembler machines
that literally compile material objects, including more of themselves?
Where's the profit in that?
                The answer, as usual, is that the market funds investments evaluated by a
variety of horizons. IBM has been profligate in funding pure research, and
has reaped rich rewards. Government-funded as well as privately-endowed
university researchers continue to pump out endless astonishing discoveries
and applications. Corporations such as Geron (in cancer, stem cell and
telomere research) and Zyvex and Ntech (in micro- and nanotech realms) work
on both immediate and long-term studies into topics that might yield truly
flabbergasting outcomes eventually and in the meantime could bring more
limited products to market.
                Recall the development curve of today's almost ubiquitous personal
computers, which started half a century ago as immense clunky behemoths,
passed through phases or epochs where prices dropped by consecutive orders
of magnitude so that first governments and their militaries could own
computers, then huge businesses, then smaller businesses with the arrival
of spreadsheets, then secretaries and students as word-processors became
common, and now the gadgets are getting as routine as personal phones (an
even more explosive marketing phenomenon), with specialised variants
lurking under the hood of your car or running your microwave cooker. It
will be the same with nanotechnology. Nobody expects K-Mart assemblers to
arrive overnight. By the time they do, a lot of money will have been spent,
a lot more recouped, and the economics of the world will have transitioned,
by small and large jolts, into a new equilibrium (if we are lucky) as odd
to our eyes today as the world of the Keynesian welfare state would have
been to an 18th century merchant.
                Even experts who differ with Drexler over the wilder outcomes of the new
miniaturisation technology agree that nano spells immense change in the
economy. Professor George M. Whitesides, Mallinckrodt Professor of
Chemistry at Harvard, sees nano as an extension of microelectromechanical
machinery (MEMs). He notes, as we saw above, that shrinking the scale of
superconductors, say, pushes up the costs of fabrication plants. `If you
want 20 percent return on investment, and you put in $10 billion, how many
microwidgets do you have to sell every year for the few years that that fab
is the state of the art? The answer is, a lot. And people who have to put
up the money don't like that.' In the immediate future, Whitesides expects
impacts from inexpensive microtechnology rather than nano. For example, he
predicts that instead of a newspaper `you might buy a sheet of paper; the
back side of it would be a battery, the front side of it would be a
display. You read it, scroll to find reference works on it, see animated
illustrations, and when you're done, you throw it away.' But making common
consumables like reusable and downloadable paper with embedded
microelectronics will provide some of the industrial base for more
adventurous miniaturisations. Whitesides warns that you can't just shrink a
machine and expect it to work. Those planning the creation of mints via a
developmental trajectory like Drexler's four stages will take that for
granted. It will be necessary to fund each step of the molecular nano
revolution by careful, incremental advances that are each profitable but
allow the shift to the next stage as it emerges from the lab.
                When that occurs, though, we really should expect to see some
extraordinary leaps. Some of the limits common to today's economics of
production and distribution will blow away. There is good news and bad in
this prognosis.


Damien Broderick
Received on Fri Jan 7 03:31:05 2000

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