Saturday, September 20, 2014

Nanotechnology: the end of Scarcity? (2005)

The Pathfinders Column from the May 2005 issue of the Socialist Standard

The Greek philosopher Democritus, doubtless toying with his tea, first imagined cutting up a piece of cake until he arrived at a fundamental piece he couldn't cut (Greek a-tom, uncut). Then, much later, Rutherford tried to cut it anyway. Then Richard Feynman wondered what would happen if, instead of cutting atoms, you simply stuck them together like Leggo. In theory, he mused, you could build anything out of anything. And then a futuristic science writer brought the idea to the public's attention with the 1986 classic Engines of Creation (now downloadable as a complete PDF from here .
And so was born nanotechnology. "Nanotechnology... Technology that operates on the scale of a nanometre, which is a millionth of a millimetre. To give you some idea, your fingernails probably grew about six nanometres in the time it has just taken you to read this paragraph."Independent on Sunday, March 13, 2005.
Five years ago few people had heard of it. But then Prince Charles, with his finger on the pulse as usual, announced his personal fears that nanotechnology might accidentally turn the world into a huge dead swamp of gunk. This idea of runaway replication (the 'grey-goo theory', reminiscent of Kurt Vonnegut's 'ice-nine' in his 1963 novel Cat's Cradle) was first proposed, and then recently rejected by Drexler himself as alarmist (New Scientist, June 12, 04). However, it doesn't take much to start a scare, and the environmentalist lobby have already begun making demands for legislation over this 'Frankenstein' technology,and new laws are on the way (New Scientist Oct 9,2004)
New laws, and the technology is not even in its infancy, it's still a growing foetus. But the worry is that nanoparticles are already cropping up unannounced in consumer products like suntan lotion before anybody's really sure they're good for us. Capitalism is not willing to wait, it wants profits now, any way it can. Nanoparticles are presently only good for filtering, so they go in face creams. But this is nano at its most trivial.
The real achievement is in construction. We already have nanotrees, nanotubes, nanobots and buckyballs, strange 60+ atom molecular cages harder than a diamond. Buckytube compounds are 5 times less dense than steel but 30 times stronger, while bonding them to polymers could lead to a new generation of superlight car and aircraft composites up to 20 times stronger. Drexler envisages such aircraft with engine trouble gently parachuting to earth instead of crashing. Meanwhile costs are plummeting. In 2002 nanotubes cost €300 per gram, while in 2004 it was €30 (New Scientist Sept 18, 04).
Even this is nothing but an hors d'oevre. The main course, and the cause of Charles Windsor's sleepless nights, is replication. If nanomachines can self replicate, they could in theory eat the world if they got out of control. But then, thinks Drexler, why would we design them to do that? What we want is constructive replication - houses, cars, machinery, clothes, even food - grown in vats, silently, unaided, without fuss and without waste. The ability to replicate any material means the end of material scarcity for the planet.
Drexler is well worth reading, even now. But in amongst his infectious enthusiasm there was a big hole waiting for the question that he didn't ask. What would capitalism do with this technology? Free food? Free houses? Free everything? Hardly! Markets would collapse, and power elites with them.
Nanotechnology would instigate a social revolution whether anyone wanted it or not. So perhaps it's just as well that replicating nanobots are still a long way from losing their virginity. 'Nanotechnology: small science, big deal' is at the Science Museum, London SW7 (0870 870 4868) to 31 August.
How would socialism deal with the impending energy crisis?
At present, if socialism had to guarantee an average western standard of living to everyone on the planet, global energy needs would approximately quadruple. Although there are many ways in which capitalism wastes huge amounts of energy, socialist society would still be looking for effective carbon-free sources, and one of these is, inevitably, the nuclear option. While the implications of this option under capitalism gives no cause for confidence, it may be that an advanced nuclear programme, uninfected by the profit motive, could be viable.
Capitalism's problem, apart from the tendency to skimp safety and disposal costs, is the threat of uranium being enriched and used as a weapon. Consequently, two new ideas on the drawing board will probably not go any further, but in money and war-free socialism they might well find a new lease of life.
Nuclear Power to take away (from New Scientist)
Small sealed reactors that can be delivered to anywhere in the world are being developed buy the US Department of Energy. The idea behind the small, sealed, autonomous reactor (SSTAR) is that conventional nuclear stations produce about a gigawatt of electricity, making them unsuited for remote locations which have neither the technological infrastructure to refuel or maintain them or the national grid to distribute that much power.
"In a SSTAR the nuclear fuel, liquid lead coolant and a steam generator is sealed inside the housing, along with steam pipes ready to be hooked up to an external generator turbine. A version producing 100 megawatts would be 15 metres tall, 3 metres in diameter and weigh 500 tonnes.  A 10-megawatt version is likely to weigh less than 200 tonnes." When the fuel is exhausted after 30 years, the unit would be collected for recycling.
To make it work, the uranium has to recycle itself into plutonium 239, effectively making the reactor a fastbreeder. In this circumstance, reliability is a crucial factor, and if any faults develop alerts can be sent over satellite radio channels to the D of E or to an international agency overseeing the reactors. Despite the 'forest of alarms' built into the unit, there is no real guarantee that a rogue state couldn't break in and steal the plutonium. The D of E hopes to have a working prototype by 2015. This column expects to see that ambition firmly spiked.
Who would do the dirty work in socialism?
While conventional socialist views on cooperation and division of voluntary labour deal quite well with this question, there is no need for people to do the unpleasant work if a machine could do it instead, and a new development presents an intriguing possibility.  Step forward - at 10 cms per hour - the insect-munching Ecobot.
While there is nothing very new about robot technology, their dependence on a power supply means  there always has to be a human somewhere in the system to feed it. But now a new generation of release and forget robots may be possible, powered by the common housefly, whose exoskeleton can be broken down into sugars used to produce electricity.
Although Ecobot is at present astonishingly slow, and its method of trapping the flies (using large  amounts of human dung as bait) decidedly unattractive, it can last an impressive five days on just eight large flies.
Uses would include any type of routine maintenance, perhaps most appropriately in the sphere of
agriculture, potentially releasing humans from many of the most tedious tasks.