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Dust-Sized Libertarians
Jonathan Berry • Robots that can eat you!
January 2003

There’s a revolution brewing, which may well transform how you live your life. What you eat and where you live may be the first things to change. Why you work will never be the same. The only body you’ve ever known may become obsolete. Don’t get too worried about it, though; a good sneeze will send its foot soldiers flying.

The revolution in question begins at the microscopic level. The age of nanotechnology is coming. Already starting to mature as a field for legitimate theoretical and practical inquiry, this science can be best understood as a sort of micro-mechanical engineering, whereby increasingly miniaturized machines are constructed for the sake of manipulating matter at ever-smaller levels. Ultimately, these general assemblers will be able to separate, position, and join molecules together in whatever configuration the controller desires, laws of nature permitting.

The Foresight Institute, a non-profit founded by the first Ph.D in nanotechnology (from M.I.T), states that nanotechnology entails machines composed of very few molecules (by our macroscale standards), able to create flawless molecular structures and self-replicate. Nanomachines will be able to construct from raw materials any thing conceivable, and their ability to self-replicate will shatter the cost of such manufacture, while enabling them to work at an exponentially faster rate. This sort of machine, also referred to as a “general assembler,” is in early stages of research today, and Foresight predicts that the first general assemblers will be fully developed within twenty to thirty years.

The potential in nanotechnology is simply staggering. Nanobots could be injected into the bloodstream to serve as an artificial immune system that even healthy patients could appreciate – a doctor at the controls is not as easily deceived as white blood cells. They could maintain vital organs, rejuvenate appearances, even combat aging by replacing telomerase (a sort of fuse that burns away throughout one’s life, which causes cells to stop replicating once it runs out) in cells and halting other ravages of age. Physiques could be enhanced through select muscle stimulation, and the senses sharpened. Life on the outside will change, too. Pollution could be eradicated worldwide in a matter of months. Homes could be constructed of “smartcrete” (composed of nanobots themselves) that rearranges its layout according to the desires of the owner. Any sort of food could be synthesized perfectly. Incredibly flat computer screens will fit on any surface (including tattoos). The dining room table will synthesize any meal one might desire, while trash gets broken down and absorbed.

All of these necessities and conveniences (and more) will be made possible by nanotechnology, and just as importantly, once the advances are made, implementing them will cost next to nothing. A few properly programmed self-replicating general assemblers can create more of themselves at an exponential rate from a feedstock of basic elements, then be directed to build whatever their owner wishes. Once the first machines are designed and built (at an admittedly high cost), the only subsequent costs are in raw materials and energy. Rocks, dirt, trash and water can supply most material requirements, and self-replicating general assemblers could turn every road in the world into photovoltaic solar cells (and a little farther in the future, take a chunk of Mercury and turn it into a Dyson hemisphere of solar cells that would catch virtually all of the solar energy from the side of the Sun that doesn’t face the Earth). It is enough to say that nanotechnology can end all material want on the planet. Every man, woman, and child can have more than enough to eat and every family a comfortable home of their own. Disease will cease plaguing mankind, and lifespans will extend indefinitely. All humanity will enjoy unprecedented health and wealth.

Of course, the spread of nanotechnology will transform the world economy virtually overnight. All physical labor will be done by machines, with far more productivity than what any man could hope to muster. The only jobs left will be in the creative and service industries. Research will of course continue, and the only manufacturing job left will be designing products for nanobots to make. Teachers, lawyers, doctors, police, judges, and most administrative jobs will still remain, among others. Freed from crushing labor, men will have the leisure to pursue higher education (which will cost far less, given that the material needs of university employees will have been satisfied by nanotechnology), cultivate artistic expression and appreciation, compete in athletics, participate in politics, or just spend more time with family and friends. Of course, nanotechnology cannot force man not to waste his newfound leisure time, but it can and will give him more of it.

A fact that should make the social engineer cringe is that none of this incredible prosperity comes from government intervention. No machinations of the state could possibly result in such plenty, and instead of a forced redistribution of wealth, this rising tide will lift all ships far beyond any point previously thought possible. The poor (if such people will still exist) of the nanotech age will pity the relative squalor that even the wealthiest suffered in our industrial age, just as we pity the filth and primitivism of the life led by kings in bygone eras. In fact, it is state intervention in the economy that will forestall the day all men can eat. Burdensome regulations and oppressive taxes slow the growth of the free market economy, and weigh down like a wet blanket on the progress in the research needed to realize nanotechnology. No child will have to go sick or hungry ever again, and the state’s only role will be to make those children wait longer.

This, however, will not likely satisfy the Left, for inequality will still be great, if not even increased by nanotechnology. Even though a child’s material needs of food, shelter, medical care, and teddy bears will be fulfilled, the Left will still look at the wealthiest individuals and demand similar luxury for everyone. Fortunately, however, this will also discredit their project. It is much easier to point to a starving child and say that the government should do something about it, than to someone who has all of his material needs met along with a 32" Plasma television set.

Of course, the heaven on Earth offered by nanotechnology is but a material one. Libertarians and liberals alike must set aside the visions of utopia that nanotechnology could bring, and understand that men need more than nutrition and comfort. The power of nanotechnology is that it eliminates all of the material problems that modern politics aims to solve, and thus gives man at least the chance to look up from his stomach and see the stars. Nanotechnology cannot make men contemplate virtue, but it does give him freedom from physical want, which often distracts man from such contemplation. This is an important argument that the Left has contributed to modern political discourse. Unfortunately, however, this idea has also detracted from it. While we have to realize that physical want makes it difficult to contemplate The Good, we also must understand that eliminating basic human needs does not guarantee access to virtue. Society is not necessarily more moral today than 500 years ago. Society cannot fix itself simply by abolishing need, but it is a start.

Jonathan Berry is a life-sized sophomore in Ezra Stiles College.


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