Forty years until we get "personal nanofactories"?

A prominent futurist has predicted that in just forty years, we'll be able to produce anything from the basic building-blocks of matter itself.

Forty years ago the historian & broadcaster James Burke predicted the widespread use of personal computers, collection and storage of sensitive information and a political struggle against the introduction of identity cards. With astounding accuracy, Burke forecasted the omniscience of technology in homes, schools and businesses.

On Friday's Radio 4 PM programme, he was asked once again to speculate as to what the future might hold. 

Burke talked with confidence about the increasing importance of nanotechnology – the science of manipulating matter at an atomic and molecular scale. The most significant development of the next forty years will be the invention of the "personal nanofactory"; a 3D printer for atoms which will allow anyone to manufacture almost anything, for virtually nothing.

The late Richard Feynmann first envisaged these factories in the 1950s and they have continued to  elude scientists ever since. However, researchers now have more tools at their disposal than ever before. In the past, building structures on a nanoscale has been precarious; any background noise at all can drown out experimental readings. New labs in Sweden have just been built that are protected from external noises, vibrations, temperature fluctuations and electromagnetic fields. These could provide the ideal conditions for experiments that contribute towards the construction of personal nanofactories.

Burke firmly believes personal nanofactories will become a reality. This development will represent a significant shift in the existing global political and economic order. Put simply, it will collapse. Using air, water, dirt and acetylene gas to manufacture anything from “a bottle of Chardonnay” to “a house”, Burke thinks these machines will allow us to become “entirely autonomous”. The institutions that we have built are, in one way or another, concerned with solving the problem of scarcity. Governments have been installed to protect citizens and redistribute wealth. Once the personal nanofactory, “does it's thing”, Burke says, there will be “no point” to any of these.

So what will become of us – freed from the shackles of work and authority? Burke believes that we will significantly change the way we interact with others. He thinks we will give up living in overpopulated cities as the economies of scale that make these important, will simply disappear. Those who want to live isolated lives 'atop mountains' will be able to do so with ease. Many will live in small communities reminiscent of the medieval period. Contact at a distance will be covered by "3D holography", also made possible through nanotechnology.

Although he recognises we will have to face up to the "problem of abundance", his vision is ultimately an optimistic one. In Burke's utopian anarchy, people use their nanofactories to lead happy, healthy lives. The relative ease with which people could manufacture weaponry – and use it without fear of reproach - is overlooked. But perhaps they would have less reason to. Resource wars and economically motivated homicide would surely become a thing of the past.

Moreover, Burke does not consider that elites who stand to lose out might wish to repress such technology, or use it to their own, less harmonious ends. Perhaps, as has been the case for the internet, a settlement will be reached with governments who will maintain varying levels of control. You can use your nanofactory to build the most wonderful things – but only the things we say you can build.

Burke's vision is still a long way off and some are sceptical it well ever come to fruition. However, there are indeed developments being made that are moving the personal nanofactory, otherwise known as a 'molecular assembler' in the scientific community, out of the realm of science fiction and into the real world. In January this year, a working assembler was unveiled at the University of Manchester by Professor David Leigh. He now has plans to modify the machine to make it capable of producing penicillin. It's not yet building homes and is yet to render any government obsolete, but it is perhaps a step in the right direction.

If you haven't heard Eddie Mair's excellent interview with James Burke, you can listen to it here.

A replicator from Star Trek. Photograph: Getty Images

James is a freelance journalist with a particular interest in UK politics and social commentary. His blog can be found hereYou can follow him on Twitter @jamesevans42.

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The tale of Battersea power station shows how affordable housing is lost

Initially, the developers promised 636 affordable homes. Now, they have reduced the number to 386. 

It’s the most predictable trick in the big book of property development. A developer signs an agreement with a local council promising to provide a barely acceptable level of barely affordable housing, then slashes these commitments at the first, second and third signs of trouble. It’s happened all over the country, from Hastings to Cumbria. But it happens most often in London, and most recently of all at Battersea power station, the Thames landmark and long-time London ruin which I wrote about in my 2016 book, Up In Smoke: The Failed Dreams of Battersea Power Station. For decades, the power station was one of London’s most popular buildings but now it represents some of the most depressing aspects of the capital’s attempts at regeneration. Almost in shame, the building itself has started to disappear from view behind a curtain of ugly gold-and-glass apartments aimed squarely at the international rich. The Battersea power station development is costing around £9bn. There will be around 4,200 flats, an office for Apple and a new Tube station. But only 386 of the new flats will be considered affordable

What makes the Battersea power station development worse is the developer’s argument for why there are so few affordable homes, which runs something like this. The bottom is falling out of the luxury homes market because too many are being built, which means developers can no longer afford to build the sort of homes that people actually want. It’s yet another sign of the failure of the housing market to provide what is most needed. But it also highlights the delusion of politicians who still seem to believe that property developers are going to provide the answers to one of the most pressing problems in politics.

A Malaysian consortium acquired Battersea power station in 2012. Initially, it promised to build 636 affordable units. This was pretty meagre, but with four developers already having failed to develop the site, it was still enough for Wandsworth council to give planning consent. By the time I wrote Up In Smoke, this had been reduced to 565 units – around 15 per cent of the total number of new flats. Now the developers want to build only 386 affordable homes – around 9 per cent of the final residential offering, which includes expensive flats bought by the likes of Sting and Bear Grylls.

The developers say this is because of escalating costs and the technical challenges of restoring the power station – but it’s also the case that the entire Nine Elms area between Battersea and Vauxhall is experiencing a glut of similar property, which is driving down prices. They want to focus instead on paying for the new Northern Line extension that joins the power station to Kennington. The slashing of affordable housing can be done without need for a new planning application or public consultation by using a “deed of variation”. It also means Mayor Sadiq Khan can’t do much more than write to Wandsworth urging the council to reject the new scheme. There’s little chance of that. Conservative Wandsworth has been committed to a developer-led solution to the power station for three decades and in that time has perfected the art of rolling over, despite several excruciating, and occasionally hilarious, disappointments.

The Battersea power station situation also highlights the sophistry developers will use to excuse any decision. When I interviewed Rob Tincknell, the developer’s chief executive, in 2014, he boasted it was the developer’s commitment to paying for the Northern Line extension (NLE) that was allowing the already limited amount of affordable housing to be built in the first place. Without the NLE, he insisted, they would never be able to build this number of affordable units. “The important point to note is that the NLE project allows the development density in the district of Nine Elms to nearly double,” he said. “Therefore, without the NLE the density at Battersea would be about half and even if there was a higher level of affordable, say 30 per cent, it would be a percentage of a lower figure and therefore the city wouldn’t get any more affordable than they do now.”

Now the argument is reversed. Because the developer has to pay for the transport infrastructure, they can’t afford to build as much affordable housing. Smart hey?

It’s not entirely hopeless. Wandsworth may yet reject the plan, while the developers say they hope to restore the missing 250 units at the end of the build.

But I wouldn’t hold your breath.

This is a version of a blog post which originally appeared here.

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