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 Manchester attack will define this election: Broadcasters have a careful line to tread

It's right that the government should be given a chance to respond, but they must not be allowed to use it to campaign.

Every election campaign has its story, its place in the political history of this country. 2017 will forever be known for Manchester and the horror of the attack on Britain's young; and fighting terrorism will be a theme, overt or underlying, of what we see and hear between now and polling day.

The broadcasters have covered the events comprehensively yet sensitively. But they are aware that we're in an election campaign too; and when other news drives aside the carefully-balanced campaign formats, ministerial appearances give them a dilemma.

The fact is that what the Prime Minister and Home Secretary are doing in response to Manchester is newsworthy. It was Theresa May's duty to implement the recommendations of her security advisers on the elevation of the terror alert, and it would have been unthinkable for the news channels not to broadcast her various statements.

But it is also true that, if the bomb hadn't been detonated, Tuesday would have been a day in which the PM would have been under relentless damaging scrutiny for her u-turn on social care. All the opposition parties would have been in full cry across the airwaves. Yet in the tragic circumstances we found ourselves, nobody could argue that Downing Street appearances on the terror attack should prompt equal airtime for everyone from Labour to Plaid Cymru.

There are precedents for ministers needing to step out of their party roles during a campaign, and not be counted against the stopwatch balance of coverage. Irish terrorism was a factor in previous elections and the PM or Northern Ireland secretary were able to speak on behalf of the UK government. It applied to the foot and mouth epidemic that was occupying ministers' time in 2001. Prime ministers have gone to foreign meetings before, too. Mrs Thatcher went to an economic summit in photogenic Venice with her soulmate Ronald Reagan three days before the 1987 election, to the irritation of Neil Kinnock.

There are plenty of critics who will be vigilant about any quest for party advantage in the way that Theresa May and Amber Rudd now make their TV and radio appearances; and it’s inevitable that a party arguing that it offers strength and stability will not object to being judged against these criteria in extreme and distressing times.

So it's necessary for both broadcasters and politicians to be careful, and there are some fine judgements to be made. For instance, it was completely justifiable to interview Amber Rudd about the latest information from Manchester and her annoyance with American intelligence leaks. I was less comfortable with her being asked in the same interview about the Prevent strategy, and with her response that actions would follow "after June", which edges into party territory and would be a legitimate area to seek an opposition response.

When the campaigning resumes, these challenges become even greater. Deciding when the Prime Minister is speaking for the government and nation, or when she is leader of the Conservative Party, will never be black and white. But I would expect to see the broadcast bulletins trying to draw clearer lines about what is a political report and what is the latest from Manchester or from G7. They must also resist any efforts to time ministerial pronouncements with what's convenient for the party strategists' campaign grid.

There might also usefully be more effort to report straight what the parties are saying in the final days, with less spin and tactical analysis from the correspondents. The narrative of this election has been changed by tragedy, and the best response is to let the politicians and the public engage as directly as possible in deciding what direction the nation should now take.

Roger Mosey is the Master of Selwyn College, Cambridge. He was formerly editorial director and the director of London 2012 at the BBC.

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