Nanofactories: Brave, Or Grave New World?

A patient without medical insurance downloads a medicine’s formula to his computer. A personal “nanofactory” sits on his desk. It builds the medicine he needs, molecule by molecule, as if printing a document.

Next door, an aspiring tyrant has a nanofactory, too. He’s building guns, lots of guns. Enough to arm a militia.

These scenarios may sound like science fiction. In the view of a leading watcher of the emerging field of nanotechnology, they represent two views of what could be real life in the future.

Chris Phoenix has been studying these scenarios, keeping an eye for how a scientific revolution involving the smallest molecules will change everyday life.

Phoenix co-founded and serves as research director for the not-for-profit think tank called the Center for Responsible Nanotechnology (CRN). He’s been thinking a lot about nanotechnology—the science of controlling material as small as atoms—and how miniscule machines size could construct a huge variety of materials, or even reproduce themselves.

In theory a “personal nanofactory” containing huge numbers of these replicators could sit on a desk. CRN’s website says a machine like that “has the potential to alleviate most shortages, and enable a high standard of living for everyone who has access to it.”

Most shortages of what?


As the site puts it, nanofactories could produce lifesaving medical robots or untraceable weapons of mass destruction,” and major advances on this path are feasible within a decade. What happens when everyone has access to a technology worthy of a Bond villain?

Like many techno-futurists, the center seems to consider molecular manufacturing a net positive for humanity. Though Phoenix is certainly aware that it could be abused.

Phoenix explored the mind-blowing implications of emerging nanomanufacturing—the exciting, the frightening, and the in between—in a conversation with theIndependent.

New Haven Independent: Why should people be excited about nanoscale manufacturing?

Phoenix: There are several reasons why nanoscale tools building things is a very powerful idea. One is that small things work better. Small things move faster. Another reason is that atoms and molecules are very precise in a way that larger things are not. If you try to cut a board to exactly 16 inches wide, it won’t be exactly 16 inches wide. It’ll have some waverings, both because of the material and the cutting process. Everything that we build today is imprecise in this way.

When you’re working with molecules and you want to make a molecule that’s exactly ten atoms long, you can do it. There’s a kind of precision that’s available when you’re working with molecules that’s simply not available when you’re working with today’s manufacturing processes.

What are the first applications this would apply to?

Once you have nano-scale tools, you have a certain level of flexibility. Just like you can build anything out of Legos, you’ll be to build a wide variety of things out of molecules. The key technological tipping point is when you can build copies of the tools that are used to build the tools. Does that make sense?


When technological competence at the nanoscale reaches that level, within a very short time you can build as many copies of those tools as you want. Because of the general flexibility that I alluded to with Legos, you can build not only the tools but –simply by changing the software – you can build a wide variety of other things.

Most stuff that is nanoscale today is not built using nanoscale tools. It’s built with much bigger processes or else with ordinary chemistry, and that limits what we can create. It’s when you get to nano building nano that nanofactories become a possibility.

The reason why nano building nano is potentially so powerful is that you’ll be able to control those tools with software to build as many tools as you want and also a vast range of products limited mainly by our ability to design them.

Right now what are the obstacles to nano building nano?

There’s two main kinds of obstacles. One is technological. We don’t have a set of nanotools that can quite build copies of themselves. We’re getting closer. Several years ago, Ned Seeman built a machine out of DNA which was programmed by DNA strands and would make one of four DNA strands according to that program. That’s nano building nano, but it’s not quite closing the loop. It’s building a simpler product.

The other limitation is that people in general are not in general working very hard on this. [In 2000, venture capitalist and founder of Sun Microsystems] Bill Joy published an article called “Why the Future Doesn’t Need Us.” That article said that nanotechnology could essentially destroy the world with one laboratory accident.

Molecular manufacturing is the kind of nanotech that uses nanoscale tools to build more nanotech. It’s the field that introduced the word “nanotechnology” to the public. It was the source of a lot of excitement with [Dr. K. Eric] Drexler‘s book Engines of Creation.

Drexler from the start was thinking about biology as an inspiration for nanotechnology. One of the things he was picturing was using small self-contained robots as the units of manufacturing. You’d have a bunch of robots floating in a vat and working together they would build the product you wanted, like a rocket engine.

He spent about two or three paragraphs in his book warning that if someone hypothetically built a small free-floating fabrication system which could also use natural materials as a feedstock, and if this thing got out of the lab, it might replicate enough and consume and transform enough materials to use up the biosphere very quickly. This was called the grey goo scenario.

Unfortunately the name he chose was alliterative. And the idea of small self-replicating contaminants reached an atavistic fear of humans: insects. This was a very gripping idea and lots of science fiction authors picked it up and wrote stories about grey goo disasters. 

The Grey Goo

Are you worried about it?

Yes and no. The grey goo idea depends on small self-contained replicator-fabricators that use freely available biological materials to build copies of themselves. As far back as 1992, Drexler moved away from the bacteria inspired model and realized that if you just took the key mechanical components of the fabricators and fastened them down in orderly arrays inside a factory, they’d be more efficient, more controllable. You’d have one computer controlling 1,000 robot arms or chemical processing mills or whatever. 

So why are you worried?

Ah. I don’t know of any theoretical reason that would make it impossible to build a free-floating self-contained microscopic replicator-fabricator. Although there’s no conceivable commercial reason to build it some idiot might in theory build it for military research the same way we have massive stockpiles of poison gas in this country even though we never plan to use them.

It’s conceivable that someone would be stupid enough to build a completely useless replicator that was small enough to get lost and self-contained enough to keep working.

What reasons beyond fear of the apocalypse have sidelined progress?

Drexler, who developed these ideas, had published some scientific papers. [After] he wrote a popular book and started the Foresight Institute. Science fiction authors picked up on molecular manufacturing - not just the gray goo, but the benefits and other

Friction and wear became very serious problems as devices shrank. Drexler showed that atomically precise surfaces might have far less friction and wear than even today’s machines, but those who had built their intuition on MEMS didn’t always bother to learn his arguments—they just assumed he had ignored a key problem.

So scientists were frequently skeptical. Big science depends on politics in all senses of the word, and the politics just didn’t come together.

It would have cost many billions of dollars to develop molecular manufacturing before 2000. With better computers and better nanoscale tools and a number of key inventions that have been developed over the past few decades, it looks to me like it will take far less than a billion dollars to develop at least a primitive nanofactory by 2020.

How do you assess proposed rules for nanoscale manufacturing?

Nano building nano is a general purpose technology like electricity or the Internet or plastics. There are some hazards that are integral to the technology. More of the hazards of molecular manufacturing will come not from the nanofactory itself but from how the products are used.

When you can have as many nanofactories as you want making whatever you want that’s quite revolutionary. Products including advanced weapons, easy access to space, all sorts of information gathering devices that could be disruptive, or revolutionary or directly dangerous.  I see the relatively sudden access to that capability to make large quantities of highly advanced products as being a turning point that societies around the world will have to navigate. The navigation of this turning point will benefit from some forethought.

How far out is this turning point?

Within five years of a very well funded and concerted effort it could be possible to develop a general purpose nanofactory making products that would be highly competitive or in some cases simply game changers compared to today’s products. When such an effort might start I don’t know.

What are the things that need to be forethought?

One is intellectual property law. If nanofactories become available to the general public, then the general public will be able to manufacture any design they can download from the Internet. Arms control is another issue.

One of the first things that might come out of nanofactories are highly advanced computers. Imagine if everyone could own their own server farm and do data processing on it. There’s an old saying that knowledge is power. Anything more I said in that direction would be too speculative.

Corporations could lose their monopoly on whatever it is that they do.

Whether the balance will ever shift so that instead of buying a car from a company whose name is known worldwide, you buy a car from your neighborhood copy shop, like Kinko’s, I don’t know.

Certainly if we get to the point where it’s cheaper to build pots and pans with nanofactories than in some factory in China or Malaysia, world trade will shift.

Also with the ability to build weapons by completely new and more powerful manufacturing systems, there could be some changes to various arms races and it looks to me like arms races would become less stable.
Semiconductor lithography, the ability to build a vast number of transistors on a chip, is not very general purpose. But the use of those transistors is general purpose. When you put enough of those together you get a CPU and you can make it do anything. That has brought us the World Wide Web and hacker applications. Napster and the whole intellectual property kerfuffle has come about has come about because of a change of manufacturing: the ability to make one thing, transistors, in vast quantities, inexpensively. When we can make a vast range of things in vast quantities inexpensively there are going to be all kinds of implications.



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