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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.

A replicator from Star Trek. Photograph: Getty Images

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.