What would you do, if given a machine that could make any physical object you wanted? What would happen to society? That’s a question raised by a theoretical type of machine with many different names – they may be called general assmblers, molecular assemblers, nanoforges, santa clause machines, or cornucopia machines. The important thing that defines them is that, given the correct raw materials and a blueprint, they can make anything you want. Some imagine cornucopia machines that are giant, entirely-automated factories; others are the domain of nanotechnology, specifically positioning individual atoms.
The laws of physics would seem to imply such machines are possible, although how small they could get, and how precise, and how quick, is a matter of debate – not to mention when to expect them. The United States Government’s DARPA is currently trying to produce a variety of “macro”-scaled products with atomic precisison, and James Burke, of the BBC1 series “Tomorrow’s World”, and with a solid record of predictions, thinks we could have a real cornucopia machine before 2100. K. Eric Drexler, who came up with the concept of molecular nanotechnology, insists molecular assemblers (which is to say, cornucopia machines that use nanotechnology to place individual atoms or molecules) are possible and indeed inevitable, but his colleague Richard Smalley, winner of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry, disagreed – and the debate they had about it is legendary. However a breakthrough back in 2013 actually created an extremely simple molecular assembler. While only capable of making proteins, and very slowly, it clearly proves that Dr. Drexler’s concept is sound.
You probably won’t see a cornucopia machine in the news next year, but hopefully this shows that, as far as scientists currently know, they are entirely possible. Of course, there’s more to futurism than just making bold pronouncements about technology – how would cornucopia machines affect society? Suddenly, everything would be available for the cost of the raw materials, plus the energy needed to make it. Basically the only things that would remain valuable are blueprints for complex objects and rare raw materials – and knowing the internet, blueprints would probably be pirated quite a lot.
This could do a lot of good for the world, seeing as world hunger would be eliminated, and even the most expensive medicines would be available to all. On the other hand, it would probably absolutely destroy the economy, requiring a massive shift in how we look at value and almost certainly putting an end to a great many traditional jobs. Of course, that wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing either; if you can produce the necessities for living at literally the price of dirt, why not watch telly all day, or take up a hobby? Basically, cornucopia machines would usher in an era of post-scarcity, which would radically change all of our lives, for better or worse. A lot has been written about potential post-scarcity societies, and we’ll cover the topic in more depth in the future, but for now I personally recommend that everyone think about what they’d want to do with their lives if they didn’t have to work for a living – at worst, you’ll have an idea of what might be fun during retirement!