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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Calum Kerr on Governing the Digital Economy

With the publication of the UK Digital Strategy we’ve seen another instalment in the UK Government’s ongoing effort to emphasise its digital credentials.

As the SNP’s Digital Spokesperson, there are moves here that are clearly welcome, especially in the area of skills and a recognition of the need for large scale investment in fibre infrastructure.

But for a government that wants Britain to become the “leading country for people to use digital” it should be doing far more to lead on the field that underpins so much of a prosperous digital economy: personal data.

If you want a picture of how government should not approach personal data, just look at the Concentrix scandal.

Last year my constituency office, like countless others across the country, was inundated by cases from distressed Tax Credit claimants, who found their payments had been stopped for spurious reasons.

This scandal had its roots in the UK’s current patchwork approach to personal data. As a private contractor, Concentrix had bought data on a commercial basis and then used it to try and find undeclared partners living with claimants.

In one particularly absurd case, a woman who lived in housing provided by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation had to resort to using a foodbank during the appeals process in order to prove that she did not live with Joseph Rowntree: the Quaker philanthropist who died in 1925.

In total some 45,000 claimants were affected and 86 per cent of the resulting appeals saw the initial decision overturned.

This shows just how badly things can go wrong if the right regulatory regimes are not in place.

In part this problem is a structural one. Just as the corporate world has elevated IT to board level and is beginning to re-configure the interface between digital skills and the wider workforce, government needs to emulate practices that put technology and innovation right at the heart of the operation.

To fully leverage the benefits of tech in government and to get a world-class data regime in place, we need to establish a set of foundational values about data rights and citizenship.

Sitting on the committee of the Digital Economy Bill, I couldn’t help but notice how the elements relating to data sharing, including with private companies, were rushed through.

The lack of informed consent within the Bill will almost certainly have to be looked at again as the Government moves towards implementing the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation.

This is an example of why we need democratic oversight and an open conversation, starting from first principles, about how a citizen’s data can be accessed.

Personally, I’d like Scotland and the UK to follow the example of the Republic of Estonia, by placing transparency and the rights of the citizen at the heart of the matter, so that anyone can access the data the government holds on them with ease.

This contrasts with the mentality exposed by the Concentrix scandal: all too often people who come into contact with the state are treated as service users or customers, rather than as citizens.

This paternalistic approach needs to change.  As we begin to move towards the transformative implementation of the internet of things and 5G, trust will be paramount.

Once we have that foundation, we can start to grapple with some of the most pressing and fascinating questions that the information age presents.

We’ll need that trust if we want smart cities that make urban living sustainable using big data, if the potential of AI is to be truly tapped into and if the benefits of digital healthcare are really going to be maximised.

Clearly getting accepted ethical codes of practice in place is of immense significance, but there’s a whole lot more that government could be doing to be proactive in this space.

Last month Denmark appointed the world’s first Digital Ambassador and I think there is a compelling case for an independent Department of Technology working across all government departments.

This kind of levelling-up really needs to be seen as a necessity, because one thing that we can all agree on is that that we’ve only just scratched the surface when it comes to developing the link between government and the data driven digital economy. 

In January, Hewlett Packard Enterprise and the New Statesman convened a discussion on this topic with parliamentarians from each of the three main political parties and other experts.  This article is one of a series from three of the MPs who took part, with an  introduction from James Johns of HPE, Labour MP, Angela Eagle’s view and Conservative MP, Matt Warman’s view

Calum Kerr is SNP Westminster Spokesperson for Digital