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.

Photo: Getty
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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder