Re: poly: the economics of transition to nanotech

From: Forrest Bishop <>
Date: Fri Jan 07 2000 - 16:32:20 PST

Damien Broderick wrote:

> 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.

Some brief comments:

Um, I don't think that assemblers will change economics that drastically. It
will still require capital, energy, materials, land (on Earth or otherwise) labor
(human or AI), and most of all time to produce goods and services. What
self-rep provides is a method of 'automatically' growing the means of
production, which is already the case with agriculture.

> Brutally: who pays, and why?

Most of the rich stay rich, most of the poor stay relatively poor, same as it ever was.

> 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. ...

> ==================
> 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.

But there are nowhere near 10^8 people doing this, or even capable ofdoing it. More like 10^3
or 10^4 worldwide (a guess).

> 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.

Imagine roving gangs of corporgov thugs crushing their competition(cf history of AT&T, ASCAP,

> Reality check--hard economics
> We need to pause here and take a breath. ...
> 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.

Technology could have done (and did) exactly as well under the gold standard.Imo, we are
witnessing the end game of the current paper currency schemes.
These things historically end badly.

> 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.

If that is the case then nanotech is a brick wall for gains made throughminiaturization,
leaving exponential growth at the mercy of available
resources. It takes time to ship things through space.

> In economic history
> there is no remote equivalent to this...

I submit the agricultural revolution was somewhat similar- spread some seeds,wait around
(found civilizations in spare time), harvest.

> 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').
> ....

> 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,

I think you mean "semiconductors".

> 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.'

This already exists (it's not a prediction), but it's too expensive to throw away.

Forrest Bishop
Interworld Productions, LLC
Institute of Atomic-Scale Engineering
Received on Fri Jan 7 16:35:37 2000

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