Arnold Kling  

Nanotechnology and the Economy

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Ronald Bailey reports,


Nanotechnology would make it possible for 100 billion people to live sustainably at a modern American standard of living, while indoor agriculture using high-efficiency inflatable ten-pound diamond greenhouses would help restore the world's ecology. The ultimate limit to economic growth seems to be heat pollution, the waste energy radiated away from nanotech devices.

Read the whole article.

I am becoming increasingly bullish on materials science and nanotechnology as solutions to problems of energy conservation, energy production, and health care. I am becoming somewhat bearish on attempts to use the genome in health care. With genomics, I am more struck by the complexity of the problems than by the impact of the solutions. It sort of reminds me of the people putting together computer models of the economy in the 1970's, when optimists claimed that with enough equations, enough complexity, and enough computing power they could get it right. That research program proved to be mostly a disappointment.

For Discussion. How many years away is the nanotech future described at the conference on which Bailey reports?



TRACKBACKS (3 to date)
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The author at Knowledge Problem in a related article titled WILL NANOTECH CHANGE OUR ENERGY FUTURE? writes:
    Lynne Kiesling I'd have to say the simple answer is "yes", although the nuances of those changes are a lot more difficult to predict. Ronald Bailey writes at Reason about a recent nanotech conference he attended that made some predictions... [Tracked on November 1, 2004 8:53 AM]
COMMENTS (8 to date)
Lawrance George Lux writes:

Promise is always much greater than accomplished fact, so I would estimate fifty years before marginal nanotech goes online. It always amazes me that the two major areas where nanotechnology could best be utilized are never discussed: namely, biodegeneration of radioactive materials, and nanotech polution composters. lgl

Anup writes:

Be skeptical, be very skeptical of anybody who promises you that technology is going to solve all out problems, specially the environmental once. It has been pretty well observed that technologies take something on the order of 50 years to mature, penetrate the market, and have large scale societal impact like the one we are talking. Nanotechnology is still in it's infancy, not to mention costs, potential energy and environmental impacts. So, I would guess that we will not see the "No Atom Left Behind" World Earth Catalogue until at least 2075.

Engineer-Poet writes:

I don't think we can specify when we'll "get nanotech".  There are too many little gotchas on the way from lab-demonstrated phenomenon to product at Home Depot, and too many things that need to come together to make it happen.  If we get serendipitous breaks we might get something in ten years; if we don't, it might take fifty.

One thing that's for certain:  we have an increasing number of candidates for the energy technology that could be "it", and it only takes one of them succeeding in each category to bring on the revolution.  As time goes on the probability of success approaches one.

Dezakin writes:

Tell you what... the 'nanotech future' that Bailey reports is allready here. 100 billion people can live sustainably at a modern American standard of living, and have been able to for the past 50 years, ever since we discovered how to utilize nuclear energy.

All other resources are gated on our energy resources, and theres enough nuclear fuel thats economically recoverable to run a civilization with our energy needs for several hundred million years.

Now while nanotech techniques are certainly powerful tools, they aren't transformative the way computers are, nor are they necissary to paint futures of abundance. Nanotech as such will show up very gradually, with different kinds of plastics, smaller chips, smarter drugs, and engineered organisms in a rather gradual fasion, but really its just evolution of the original industrial revolution.

Bill Fellers writes:

Dezakin makes an excellent point about energy. If we were to have a long-term energy defecit in the US, the vast majority of anti-nuclear-power people would disappear or be shouted down. We would then ramp up hundreds of breeder reactors--which were developed just in time for Chernobyl; oh, cruel history!--and buy lots of electric cars. People who worry about energy are ignorant people. Anyway, nanotech is on the way, just not as soon as Bailey hopes. My quesion: Will I live long enough for biotech to reach the level of physics? Will I see the mastery of genetics and biology in general before I pass away? Listen closely: There is absolutely no physical reason that, with enough time and effort, we cannot master biology. We will if we don't destroy ourselves first.

Robert Schwartz writes:

As I said before, our problems are political not technological, The Technology is a McGuffin.

shamus writes:

Nanotech will take at least 50 years to obtain real economic significance. The technical problems are daunting.

Brett Bellmore writes:

I was an attendee at the recent Foresight conference, and as a mechanical engineer with some background in chemistry and biology, it's my conclusion that most of the obstacles to nanotechnology are in the bootstrapping end of it. We're faced with the equivalent of attempting to assemble an industrial robot using the Empire State building as an assembly tool. A daunting task, but once you've done it, you set the skyscraper aside, and use the robot.

Aside from the bootstrapping problem, I've yet to see any show stoppers. However, everything I've seen also suggests that nanotechnology will be a VERY energy intensive way of manufacturing things. So perhaps we'd better get started on those breeder reactor farms...

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