Nanotechnology & Intellectual Property

Wired magazine has done a couple of articles about how someday people will be able to manufacture personal items using some king of fabricator thingy. If nanotechnology lives up to our expectations, eventually we’ll be seeing devices that are basically computers hooked up to tanks full of nanorobots which can assemble things from their component elements, atom by atom.

Will all this mean that patents will become as difficult to enforce as music copyrights are today?

I went to the Wired website and couldn’t find any articles on the topic of nano-manufacturing. (I looked for nano and manufacture, nano and build, manufacture and atom…)

When I put in nanobot, I got this:

which is an article about a nanometer sized motor using chemical reactions to turn a propeller, but nothing on fabrication.

So, my WAG is that such technology is a loooooooong ways away if it is even possible. (Wired, IMHO, is more reliable than Popular Science but less so than Discover).

Difficulties as I see them:
Nanobots would have to have transmitters, motors and manipulators. Plus enough on board intelligence to respond to commands. Not very easy on something that is made of only a few molecules.

Manufacture would still require the raw material. (The nanobot can’t make silicon or iron out of thin air).

Material properties depend, in part, upon the method of construction. I can’t just put two pieces (or even atoms) of copper next to each other and watch them bond. I need to apply heat. That would mean the nanobots would need little lasers.

Even if all that was true, it would take a long damned time to build up anything one atom at a time.

There are other, easier and more likely, possibilites for home fabrication units.

Caveat: IANANE TIAAE (I am not an nano-technology expert, though I am an engineer)

In addition, keep in mind that nanotechnology would be a horrendously ineffecient way to build something big. Imagine building a car atom by atom. Even if you had 80,000,000,000,000,000,000 little 'Bots doing the work, that’d take a lot longer than just smelting down the metal plates and slamming 'em together with ten-foot-tall machines.

Smaller isn’t always better (just ask any man :D).

As for patents… I wouldn’t sweat it, much. Nanotech, by it’s very (theoretical) nature, would be unstable and difficult to direct. It’d be very tough for some college nerd to put together seven molecules and call it a robot. A lot harder than writing an albeit-complex coding algorithm.

However, as with any new technology, potential for abuse is rampant. However, there’s more to the enforcement of patents than just the prevention of manufacture… how will microscopic machines allow someone to get a pirated object onto store shelves?

If you are interested in nanotech, I recommend the book “Engines of Creation” by Eric Drexler, it’s the bible of nanotechnology.

Regarding efficiency, it would be by far the MOST efficient way of manufacturing. The nanites would reproduce exponentially to meet any manufacturing task.

Regarding patents, if nanotechnology takes off, then the economy would be so drastically altered that the concept of a patent would likely be obsolete. Suddenly, anything that can be imagined can be manufacured, almost for free. It would cost no more to physically manufacture a space shuttle than to make a bicycle.

Well, you’d still have to purchase the component elements, although nanotechnology would probably make almost anything recyclable. And all those robots and the controller need power.

If nanite systems ever become practical for household use, I imagine we’d start seeing Napster-like software that allows people to download plans for things and send them to their robot controlers.

Read the book “The Assemblers of Infinity” for a nice fictional send up on Nano Technology.

One of the biggest problems with the concept is that the most efficient nano-bot design would have to be able to self replicate. The process of self replication would not be much different from that of nano-assembling anything else. Sheer scale of economy predicts this.

The big problem is this; if the replicating nano-bots got out of control they could multiply and eventually disassemble the entire surface of the earth down to a pile of goo in a week or two. This is one technology that is going to have to go through a vast and critical development phase. You thought labs working with Anthrax and E. Coli were dangerous? Imagine a lab where the “agent” can take apart the very walls of the building to get out.

MEMS (Micro Electro Mechanical Systems) hold vast promise for the future and will hold sway for some time to come. Micro assembly nano-technology that is capable of self replication is another matter entirely. I would feel a whole lot better if its development took place on a space station or the moon.

Hardly. Efficiency calls for doing lots of work with minimal effort. Building trillions upon trillions upon trillions of little robots just to place a single screw doesn’t seem very efficient to me.

Fastening hardware isn’t very necessary when things are built in one whole unit. Nano-assembly will create things all of a piece. Why have separate parts when your nano-bots build a contiguous structure atom by atom? All you have to do is shovel the raw materials into a tank with the bots. They will segregate the atoms and reconstitute them into the desired form. Hardware will so fifteen minutes ago.

Another work of fiction that speculates on the effects nanotechnology will have on society is ‘The Diamond Age’ by Neal Stephenson.

OK, we don’t have actual nanotechnology yet, so we can’t say exactly how quickly 'bots could build something. Let’s see if we can find something similar, for comparison: We want something that is capable of processing raw materials, either into a finished product, or into greater processing capacity. It’ll need mechanisms to get the raw materials, and to gather/concentrate the energy it needs. We want it to build up the final structure on a very small scale, using microscopic components molecularly bonded together. It so happens that we already have objects which meet this description. They’re called “trees”. Do you really want to wait 50 years for your new car to finish growing?

Chronos, I don’t think it’s valid to compare biological processes to nanotechnological processes.

A tree is using all its resources not to just grow, but to keep as much of its cells alive. Nanites will spend much more of their energy and resources towards building. Of course, not 100 percent. They will still have to reproduce, and possibly retrieve instructions.

Maybe I can dig up my copy of “Engines Of Creation” tonight and see what it says about manufacture times.

It’s called “maintenance”. What if you want to upgrade the video card in your computer? It’d be pretty hard if it’s all in one big piece. Instead of just yanking one card out and slapping the other card in, you’d need to pour several trillion nanobots onto the computer, let them deconstruct one card, and them reconstruct the other.

Do you have any idea how long it’d take to build stuff atom-by-atom, instead of doing it en masse? Nanotechnology, by the very nature of it’s smallness, would be suited for SMALL TASKS. Y’know, like mapping transistors on a microchip, eliminating cancer cells in the body… but for BIG TASKS, you rely on BIG MACHINERY. After all, how much precision does it take to build a car door?

What you guys don’t understand is that it won’t be two or three nanomachines laying down atoms. It will be millions.

Again, I recommend “Engines of Creation” by K. Eric Drexler. Here’s an excerpt from page 58-59.

Why would you want to upgrade anything in your computer if you can rebuild a whole computer as easily and cheaply as building a pencil?

<ahem> Computer. Tea, earl grey, hot, and a new 1 gigahertz PC.

Damn didnt work.