Michio Kaku: Can Nanotechnology Create Utopia?
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That’s physicist Michio Kaku talking about the upsides, downsides, insides and outsides of having a replicator like on Star Trek to make anything we’d ever need or want. It’s a compelling vision and he’s right that its implications go far beyond the economic to include cultural, social, even psychological. Kaku says it’s possible to make such a device and suggests we’ll have it in 100 years.

I say we’ll have it in 20.

A longtime friend of mine has significant pieces of a replicator functioning in his lab right now. He’s no mad scientist but a respected engineer who is known for his broad technical interests. Right now he can’t make you a mug of Earl Grey (hot), but he can lay down in nanoseconds trillions of atoms of any abundant element, placing those atoms not just in perfect rows, but also placing them in intricate patterns with other atoms to create familiar combinations as well as new materials the world has never seen before.

He is already creating new materials with unique properties that couldn’t exist before simply because no materials have ever been built by men or women to such precision.

Except they have been built to such precision and are every day inside plants and animals, just as Kaku cites the ribosome building a baby.

What’s going on here seems to be the same ability to replicate on a nanoscale that allows plant cell walls to be straight and rectilinear. It’s a self-organizing effect. It may be what makes life even possible at all.

Of course what my friend has done is very crude. The present procedure could eliminate the need for rare earth elements. It could make a fabulous substrate for semiconductors and a few years from now might make the semiconductors themselves with sub-nanometer precision. But it’s a long way from there to Earl Grey (hot).

Yet look at our rate of progress in decoding the human genome — something that 30 years ago was impossible yet today the only question is how much it costs, with that cost dropping in line with Moore’s Law.

What will my friend be able to build with his machine a decade from now?

DNA may be the blueprint for life, but it is not the factory. Going from blueprint to prototype requires an additive building technology and this is one that might work and there may well be others.

There’s going to be trouble, I’m sure, as people and institutions are threatened by the implications of these technologies just as Kaku explains so well.

What comes to my mind is the famous Pogo cartoon where the little ‘possum says “We have met the enemy and he is us.” Do you remember the line from the next panel in that strip? Hardly anybody does.

“We are surrounded by insurmountable opportunity.”