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I was about to discuss the third of three concepts, but thought a look back would be appropriate at this time. In my earlier post I had shown that the photon/particle wave function could not be part of the photon/particle as this would violate the empirical Lorentz-Fitzgerald transformations and therefore, Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity. The wave function is only the photon/particle’s disturbance of the spacetime it is in, and therefore explains why photons/particles have wave properties. They don’t. They disturb spacetime like a pebble dropped into a pond. The pond’s ripples are not the pebble.

In the recent findings, Dr. Alberto Peruzzo, University of Bristol (UK) the lead author of the paper and quoting “The measurement apparatus detected strong nonlocality, which certified that the photon behaved simultaneously as a wave and a particle in our experiment, … This represents a strong refutation of models in which the photon is either a wave or a particle.” This is a very important finding and another step in the progress of science towards a better understanding of our Universe.

Those of you who have been following my blog posts will recognize that this is empirical validation using single structure test that shows that both wave and particle properties occur together. What is required next, to be empirically rigorous, is to either confirm or deny that this wave function is a spacetime disturbance. For that we require a dual structure test.

If this wave function is a spacetime disturbance, then Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity is upheld, and we would require a major rethink of quantum physics or the physics of elementary particles. If this wave function is a not spacetime disturbance but part of the particle structure, then there is an empirical exception to the Lorentz-Fitzgerald transformation and we would require a rethink of Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity.

Here is a proposal for a dual structure test (to test two alternative hypotheses) which probably only an organization like CERN could execute. Is it possible to disturb spacetime in a manner as to exhibit the properties of a known particle but has no mass? That is the underlying elementary particle is not present. I suppose other research institutions could attempt this, too. If successful … it will be a bigger discovery that Dr. Alberto Peruzzo and his team.

My money is on Lorentz-Fitzgerald and Einstein being correct, and I infer that the physics community of quantum and string theorist would not be happy at the possibility of this dual structure test.

So I ask, in the spirit of the Kline Directive, can we as a community of physicists and engineers come together, to explore what others have not, to seek what others will not, to change what others dare not, to make interstellar travel a reality within our lifetimes?

Previous post in the Kline Directive series.


Benjamin T Solomon is the author & principal investigator of the 12-year study into the theoretical & technological feasibility of gravitation modification, titled An Introduction to Gravity Modification, to achieve interstellar travel in our lifetimes. For more information visit iSETI LLC, Interstellar Space Exploration Technology Initiative.

Solomon is inviting all serious participants to his LinkedIn Group Interstellar Travel & Gravity Modification.

To achieve interstellar travel, the Kline Directive instructs us to be bold, to explore what others have not, to seek what others will not, to change what others dare not. To extend the boundaries of our knowledge, to advocate new methods, techniques and research, to sponsor change not status quo, on 5 fronts, Legal Standing, Safety Awareness, Economic Viability, Theoretical-Empirical Relationships, and Technological Feasibility.

In this post I discuss the second of three concepts, that if implemented should speed up the rate of innovation and discovery so that we can achieve interstellar travel within a time frame of decades, not centuries. Okay, I must remind you that this will probably upset some physicists.

One of the findings of my 12-year study was that gravitational acceleration was independent of the internal structure of a particle, therefore, the elegantly simple formula, g=τc2, for gravitational acceleration. This raised the question, what is the internal structure of a particle? For ‘normal’ matter, the Standard Model suggests that protons and neutrons consist of quarks, or other mass based particles. Electrons and photons are thought to be elementary.

I had a thought, a test for mass as the gravitational source. If ionized matter showed the same gravitational acceleration effects as non-ionized matter, then one could conclude that mass is the source of gravitational acceleration, not quark interaction; because the different ionizations would have different electron mass but the same quark interaction. This would be a difficult test to do correctly because the electric field effects are much greater than gravitational effects.

One could ask, what is the internal structure of a photon? The correct answer is that no one knows. Here is why. In electromagnetism, radio antenna’s specifically, the energy inside the hollow antenna is zero. However, in quantum theory, specifically the nanowire for light photons, the energy inside the nanowire increases towards the center of the nanowire. I’m not going to provide any references as I not criticizing any specific researcher. So which is it?

One could ask the question, at what wavelength does this energy distribution change, from zero (for radio waves) to an increase (for light photons)? Again, this is another example of the mathematics of physics providing correct answers while being inconsistent. So we don’t know.

To investigate further, I borrowed a proposal from two German physicists, I. V. Drozdov and A. A. Stahlhofen, (How long is a photon?) who had suggested that a photon was about half a wavelength long. I thought, why stop there? What if it was an infinitely thin slice? Wait. What was that? An infinitely thin slice! That would be consistent with Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity! That means if the photon is indeed an infinitely thin pulse, why do we observe the wave function that is inconsistent with Special Theory of Relativity? That anything traveling at the velocity of light must have a thickness of zero, as dictated by the Lorentz-Fitzgerald transformations.

The only consistent answer I could come up with was that the wave function was the photon’s effect or the photon’s disturbance on spacetime, and not the photon itself.

Here is an analogy. Take a garden rake, turn it upside down and place it under a carpet. Move it. What do you see? The carpet exhibits an envelope like wave function that appears to be moving in the direction the garden rake is moving. But the envelope is not moving. It is a bulge that shows up wherever the garden rake is. The rake is moving but not the envelope.

Similarly, the wave function is not moving and therefore spreads across the spacetime where the photon is. Now both are consistent with Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity. Then why is the Standard Model successful? It is so because just as the bulge is unique to the shape of the garden rake, so are the photon’s and other particles’ wave function disturbances of spacetime are unique to the properties of the photon & respective particles.

In my book, this proposed consistency with Special Theory of Relativity points to the existence of subspace, and a means to achieve interstellar travel.

There are a lot of inconsistencies in our physical theories, and we need to start addressing these inconsistencies if we are to achieve interstellar travel sooner rather than later.

Previous post in the Kline Directive series.

Next post in the Kline Directive series.


Benjamin T Solomon is the author & principal investigator of the 12-year study into the theoretical & technological feasibility of gravitation modification, titled An Introduction to Gravity Modification, to achieve interstellar travel in our lifetimes. For more information visit iSETI LLC, Interstellar Space Exploration Technology Initiative.

Solomon is inviting all serious participants to his LinkedIn Group Interstellar Travel & Gravity Modification.

I have just watched this video by Global Futures 2045.

This is my list of things I disagree with:

It starts with scary words about how every crisis comes faster and faster. However this is untrue. Many countries have been running deficits for decades. The financial crisis is no surprise. The reason the US has such high energy costs goes back to government decisions made in the 1970s. And many things that used to be crises no longer happen, like the Black Plague. We have big problems, but we’ve also got many resources we’ve built up over the centuries to help. Much of the challenges we face are political and social, not technical.

We will never fall into a new Dark Ages. The biggest problem is that we aren’t advancing as fast as we could and many are still starving, sick, etc. However, it has always been this way. The 20th century was very brutal! But we are advancing and it is mostly known threats like WMDs which could cause a disaster. In the main, the world is getting safer every day as we better understand it.

We aren’t going to build a new human. It is more like a Renaissance. Those who lost limbs will get increasingly better robotic ones, but they will still be humans. The best reason to build a robotic arm is to attach it to a human.

The video had a collectivist and authoritarian perspective when it said:

“The world’s community and leaders should encourage mankind instead of wasting resources on solving momentary problems.”

This sentence needs to be deconstructed:

1. Government acts via force. Government’s job is to maintain civil order, so having it also out there “encouraging” everyone to never waste resources is creepy. Do you want your policeman to also be your nanny? Here is a quote from C.S. Lewis:

“Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It would be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron’s cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience.”

2. It is wrong to think government is the solution to our problems. Most of the problems that exist today like the Greek Debt Crisis, and the US housing crisis were caused by governments trying to do too much.

3. There is no such thing as the world’s leaders. There is the UN, which doesn’t act in a humanitarian crisis until after everyone is dead. In any case, we don’t need the governments to act. We built Wikipedia.

4. “Managing resources” is codeword for socialism. If their goal is to help with the development of new technologies, then the task of managing existing resources is totally unrelated. If your job is to build robots, then your job is not also to worry about whether the water and air are dirty. Any scientist who talks about managing resources is actually a politician. Here is a quote from Frederic Hayek:

“The curious task of economics is to demonstrate to men how little they really know about what they imagine they can design. Before the obvious economic failure of Eastern European socialism, it was widely thought that a centrally planned economy would deliver not only “social justice” but also a more efficient use of economic resources. This notion appears eminently sensible at first glance. But it proves to overlook the fact that the totality of resources that one could employ in such a plan is simply not knowable to anybody, and therefore can hardly be centrally controlled.”

5. We should let individuals decide what to spend their resources on. People don’t only invest in momentary things. People build houses. In fact, if you are looking for an excuse to drink, being poor because you live in a country with 70% taxes is a good one.

The idea of tasking government to finding the solutions and to do all futuristic research and new products to shove down our throats is wrong and dangerous. We want individuals, and collections of them (corporations) to do it because they will best put it to use in ways that actually improve our lives. Everything is voluntary which encourages good customer relationships. The money will be funded towards the products people actually care about, instead of what some mastermind bureaucrat thinks we should spend money on. There are many historical examples of how government doesn’t innovate as well as the private sector: the French telephone system, Cuba, expensive corn-based ethanol, the International Space Station, healthcare. The free market is imperfect but it leads to fastest technological and social progress for the reasons Frederic Hayek has explained. A lot of government research today is wasted because it never gets put to use commercially. There are many things that can be done to make the private sector more vibrant. There are many ways government can do a better job, and all that evidence should be a warning to not use governments to endorse programs with the goal of social justice. NASA has done great things, but it was only because it existed in a modern society that it was possible.

They come up with a nice list of things that humanity can do, but they haven’t listed that the one of the most important first steps is more Linux. We aren’t going to get cool and smart robots, etc. without a lot of good free software first.

The video says:

“What we need is not just another technological revolution, but a new civilization paradigm, we need philosophy and ideology, new ethics, new culture, new psychology.”

It minimizes the technology aspect when this is the hard work by disparate scientists that will bring us the most benefits.

It is true that we need to refine our understandings of many things, but we are not starting over, just evolving. Anyone who thinks we need to start over doesn’t realize what we’ve already built and all the smart people who’ve come before. The basis of good morals from thousands of years ago still apply. It will just be extended to deal with new situations, like cloning. The general rules of math, science, and biology will remain. In many cases, we are going back to the past. The Linux and free software movement is simply returning computer software to the hundreds of years-old tradition of science. Sometimes the idea has already been discovered, but it isn’t widely used yet. It is a social problem, not a technical one.

The repeated use of the word “new”, etc. makes this video like propaganda. Cults try to get people to reset their perspective into a new world, and convince them that only they have the answers. This video comes off as a sales pitch with them as the solution to our problems, ignoring that it will take millions. Their lists of technologies are random. Some of these problems we could have solved years ago, and some we can’t solve for decades, and they mix both examples. It seems they do no know what is coming next given how disorganized they are. They also pick multiple words that are related and so are repeating themselves. Repetition is used to create an emotional impact, another trait of propaganda.

The thing about innovation and the future is that it is surprising. Many futurists get things wrong. If these guys really had the answers, they’d have invented it and made money on it. And compared to some of the tasks, we are like cavemen.

Technology evolves in a stepwise fashion, and so looking at it as some clear end results on some day in the future is wrong.

For another example: the video makes it sound like going beyond Earth and then beyond the Solar System is a two-step process when in fact it is many steps, and the journey is the reward. If they were that smart, they’d endorse the space elevator which is the only cheap way to get out there, and we can do it in 10 years.

The video suggests that humanity doesn’t have a masterplan, when I just explained that you couldn’t make one.

It also suggests that individuals are afraid of change, when in fact, that is a trait characteristic of governments as well. The government class has known for decades that Social Security is going bankrupt, but they’d rather criticize anyone who wants to reform it rather than fix the underlying problem. This video is again trying to urge collectivism with its criticism of the “mistakes” people make. The video is very arrogant at how it looks down at “the masses.” This is another common characteristic of collectivism.

Here is the first description of their contribution:

“We integrate the latest discoveries and developments from the sciences: physics, energetics, aeronautics, bio-engineering, nanotechnology, neurology, cybernetics, cognitive science.”

That sentence is laughable because it is an impossible task. To understand all of the latest advances would involve talking with millions of scientists. If they are doing all this integration work, what have they produced? They want everyone to join up today, work to be specified later.

The challenge for nuclear power is not the science, it is the lawyers who outlawed new ones in 1970s, and basically have halted all advancements in building safer and better ones. Some of these challenges are mostly political, not scientific. We need to get engineers in corporations like GE, supervised by governments, building safer and cleaner nuclear power.

If you wanted to create all of what they offer, you’d have to hire a million different people. If you were building the pyramids, you could get by with most of your workers having one skill, the ability to move heavy things around. However, the topics they list are so big and complicated, I don’t think you could build an organization that could understand it all, let alone build it.

They mention freedom and speak in egalitarian terms, but this is contradicted by their earlier words. In their world, we will all be happy worker bees, working “optimally” for their collective. Beware of masterminds offering to efficiently manage your resources.

I support discussion and debate. I am all for think-tanks and other institutions that hire scientists. However, those that lobby government to act on their behalf are scary. I don’t want every scientist lobbying the government to institute their pet plan, no matter how good it sounds. They will get so overwhelmed that they won’t be able to do their actual job. The rules of the US Federal government are very limited and generally revolve around an army and a currency. Social welfare is supposed to be handled by the states.

Some of their ideas cannot be turned into laws by the US Congress because they don’t have this authority — the States do. Obamacare is likely to be ruled unconstitutional, and their ideas are potentially much more intrusive towards individual liberty. It would require a Constitutional Amendment, which would never pass and we don’t need.

They offer a social network where scientists can plug in and figure out what they need to do. This could also be considered an actual concrete example of something they are working on. However, there are already social networks where people are advancing the future. is the biggest community of programmers. There is also with 1,000,000 projects. Sage has a community advancing the state of mathematics.

If they want to create their own new community solving some aspect, that is great, especially if they have money. But the idea that they are going to make it all happen is impossible. And it will never replace all the other great communities that already exist. Even science happens on Facebook, when people chat about their work.

If they want to add value, they need to specialize. Perhaps they come up with millions of dollars and they can do research in specific areas. However, their fundamental research would very likely get used in ways they never imagined by other people. The more fundamental, the more no one team can possibly take advantage of all aspects of the discovery.

They say there is some research lab they’ve got working on cybernetics. However they don’t demonstrate any results. I don’t imagine they can be that much ahead of the rest of the world who provides them the technology they use to do their work. Imagine a competitor to Henry Ford. Could he really build a car much better given the available technology at the time? My response to anyone who has claims of some advancements is: turn it into a demo or useful product and sell it. All this video offer as evidence here is CGI, which any artist can make.

I support the idea of flying cars. First we need driverless cars and cheaper energy. Unless they are a car or airplane company, I don’t see what this organization will have to do with that task. I have nothing against futuristic videos, but they don’t make clear what is their involvement and instances of ambiguity should be noted.

They are wrong when they say we won’t understand consciousness till 2030 because we already understand it at some level today. Neural networks have been around for decades. IBM’s Jeopardy-playing Watson was a good recent example. However, it is proprietary so not much will come of that particular example. Fortunately, Watson was built on lots of free software, and the community will get there. Google is very proprietary with their AI work. Wolfram Alpha is also proprietary. Etc. We’ve got enough the technical people for an amazing world if we can just get them to work together in free software and Python.

The video’s last sentence suggests that spiritual self-development is the new possibility. But people can work on that today. And again, enlightenment is not a destination but a journey.

We are a generation away from immortality unless things greatly change. I think about LibreOffice, cars that drive themselves and the space elevator, but faster progress in biology is also possible as well if people will follow the free software model. The Microsoft-style proprietary development model has infected many fields.

Femtotechnology: AB-Needles. Fantastic properties and Applications

after posting this on and seeing its shared on I was a bit shocked by the community of reads in their disregard for these thoughts on Femtotechnology. One reader was quoted to say

I don’t understand why people bother talking about femtotech when we barely even have nanotech…

And while the reader’s voice should be heard, I like to think that if we can imagine it, its worth being a part of the tool box. These ideas are some +50 years in the making and just as nanotech or any other tech this literature predating our abilities is necessary in crafting human kinds exploration. So this entry is a bit activist, and so what smile #fullspeedahead.


American history teachers praise the educational value of Billy Joel’s 1980s song ‘We Didn’t Start the Fire’. His song is a homage to the 40 years of historical headlines since his birth in 1949.

Which of Joel’s headlines will be considered the most important a millennium from now?

This column discusses five of the most important, and tries to make the case that three of them will become irrelevant, while one will be remembered for as long as the human race exists (one is uncertain). The five contenders are:

The Bomb
The Pill
African Colonies


My previous column concentrated on the Hall Weather Machine[1], with a fairly technocentric focus. In contrast, this column is not technical at all, but considers the premise that if we don’t know our past, then we don’t know what our future will be.

American history teachers praise Billy Joel’s 1980s song ‘We Didn’t Start the Fire’ for its educational value. His song is a homage to the 40-years of historical headlines since his birth in 1949. Before reading further, go to to hear it and to see the photographs that go with each phrase of the song.

Which of Joel’s headlines do you think will be most important, when considered by people a millennium from now? A thousand years is a long time.

Many of the popular figures Joel mentions from politics, entertainment, and sports have already begun to fade from living memory, so they are easy to dismiss. Similarly, which nation won which war will be remembered only by historians, though the genetic components of descendants affected by those wars will reverberate through the centuries. An interesting exercise would consider the most significant events of the eleventh century. English-speaking historians might mention the Battle of Hastings, but is Britain even a world power any longer? Where are the Byzantine, Ottoman, Toltec, and Holy Roman empires of a thousand years ago?

Note that there may be a difference between what most people 1,000 years from now will consider to be the most important and what may actually be the most important. In this case, just because the empires mentioned above are gone doesn’t necessarily mean they didn’t have a significant role in creating our present and our future — we may simply be unconscious of their effect.

I will consider a few possibilities before arguing for one headline that is certain to be remembered, rightfully so, ten thousand years from now — if not longer.

The Bomb

First, most thoughtful people would include the hydrogen-bomb. A few decades ago, almost everyone would have agreed wholeheartedly. At that time, the policy of Mutual Assured Destruction hung heavily over every life in the USSR and the United States (if not the world). With the USSR now gone, and Russia and USA not quite at each others throats, the danger from extinction via a full-out nuclear exchange may be lower. However, the danger of a nuclear attack that kills a few million people is actually more likely.

Up till now, for a nation to become a great power and thereby wield great influence, it needed the level of organization that depended on civilization. No matter how brutal their government or culture — such as Nazi Germany, Communist Soviet Union, or Ancient Rome — their organization depended on efficient education, competent administration, large-scale engineering, and the finer things in life — to motivate at least the elite. Even then, some of the benefit would trickle down as “a rising tide raises all boats”. Competent and educated slaves were a key to Roman Civilization, just as educated bureaucrats were essential to the Nazi and Soviet systems.

Now, however, we are getting into a situation in which atomic weapons give the edge to the stark-raving mad — anyone who is willing to use them. This situation could be most destructive to prosperous, open, humanistic, and civilized nations, because they may be less willing to give up their comfort and freedom to defend against this threat. It appears very likely that within a decade or less, any ragtag collection of pip-squeak lunatics will be able to level the greatest city on Earth, even if it is defended by the world’s strongest army. This is because the advances in nuclear enrichment technology (along with all technology) will make it easier for pip-squeak lunatics to acquire or manufacture nuclear bombs.

That being said, however, it is also true that really advanced technology — specifically privacy-invasive information technology, perhaps in the form of throwaway supercomputers in a massive network of dustcams — might stop the pip-squeak lunatics before they can build and deploy their nuclear bombs.

In addition, another decade of technological development will result in nanobots. By the way, this isn’t just my prediction (the defense of which is a subject of a future column), but also the opinion of inventive dreamers such as Raymond Kurzweil, and of conservative achievers such as Lockheed executives. The development of nanobots means that cellular repair of radiation damage may also become possible (though the problems of controlling trillions of nanobots and of how to detect and repair radiation damage are additional separate and very difficult engineering and biological issues). Michael Flynn examined some of the nuclear strategic issues of this nanotech application in his short story “Washer at the Ford”.[2]

The problem is that there may be a five year window during which our only defense against nuclear-bomb-wielding pip-squeak lunatics will be privacy-invasive information technology, run by the FBI, NSA, and CIA, and their counterparts around the world. Yes, you should be worried, but probably not for the reasons you may think. The danger is not as much that these government agencies may infringe on your rights, but that the very nature of their jobs means that they won’t be able to apply Kranstowitz’s weapon of openness[3] against those who want us dead. To make matters worse, the U.S. intelligence agencies will likely follow the complex laws[3] that protect the privacy of U.S. persons[4] — to the exclusion of catching the nuclear lunatics. This is one reason that FBI, NSA, and CIA directors get new gray hairs every night.

Another problem is that the pip-squeak lunatics will also be able to buy cheap, privacy-invasive information (and other) technologies. Petro-dollars, peasant-made knickknacks, and mining rights have given ethically-challenged individuals in third-world countries astonishing wealth. Many of the world’s richest men live in the world’s poorer countries.[5] They have also learned cruel and clever means by which to keep their peasants down. The question is whether or not they can run the expensive technology they bought with their wealth and power. Buying cheap technology is one thing, but controlling it requires skilled people, and skilled people are more difficult to control. Can the dictators keep a small cadre of trusty elites to run the technology? North Korea and Iran are interesting (and rather scary) test cases at the moment.

Another wild card is that while some dictatorships have become more totalitarian, there comes a point at which the downtrodden peasants (and students, and factory workers, and shopkeepers) don’t have anything to lose but their miserable lives. Meanwhile, totalitarian governments can’t keep up with technology as quickly as free ones can. This is when the system collapses of its own weight, and that is what happened to the USSR. The cell phone, Facebook, and Twitter-fed revolutions in Egypt, Libya, Syria, and elsewhere also seem to prove this point. Thus far, the Chinese leaders have been smart enough to adapt their economy without adapting their government. The jury is still out as to what will happen to them next (it may not be pretty for us if it ends badly, and there are many ways it can end badly).

Another wild card to consider is that most of the existing nuclear warheads are in the United States, Russia, and China. Americans conveniently forget, but non-Americans are very aware that the United States is (thus far) the only nation that has actually used an atomic bomb to kill people. On the other hand, America doesn’t have highly corrupt officials in charge of our nuclear arsenal (Pakistan), nor is it controlled by a near-dictator (Russia), nor by a totalitarian crazed nut-job (North Korea). In addition, a number of important Japanese leaders have publicly said that that controversial decision to bomb Hiroshima and Nagasaki was the correct one–“It could not be helped.“[6] A similar case might be made for Israel, which is surrounded by overwhelming numbers of Arab nations. Given the tensions in the area, a preemptive strike by Israel seems possible, if not likely. The important question then becomes: Under what grounds, if any, could such usage be justified? Of course, Iranian and other Arab leaders have often called for the total destruction of Israel, and eventually one of them may be willing to try it. On what grounds could they be justified?

Another issue is that once we lose New York or some other major city, Americans will accept any solution — including a totalitarian police state. So will the people of other democratic republics if they lose a major city to nuclear terrorists. But the solution is not necessarily a police state. David Brin has answered the “who guards the guardians” question with a clever answer: “We all do.” Over-simplified, his solution is to kiss most of your privacy goodbye. Either that or kiss your life, your liberty, and property, and your privacy all goodbye. Brin proposes that we should all submit to being on camera most of the time — as long as the camera essentially points both ways so we know who is watching us — i.e. the police, our neighbors, the pervert three blocks away, and our governments will know that we are watching them too. We must all shoulder the responsibility of policing our neighborhoods and our governments. The world will be like big village in which everyone knows everyone else’s business, but it’s OK because we are all accountable for our actions. Given the fact that human beings only behave when held accountable, it is the only real solution.[7]

Some may think it naive to expect that governments would ever allow their citizens to observe them in return for their observing us. On the other hand, between the increasing calls for government transparency, and the fact that even the chief of the IMF can be taken down by an lowly maid (with the help of the rule of law), there is hope. Not only that, but many of us have already given away much of our privacy on Facebook and YouTube. Don’t worry about it. Maybe I’m still a wide-eyed optimist, but look at the fall of the USSR empire. Nobody with two brain cells to rub together could have possibly predicted that it could have been so bloodless.

DARPA will certainly look for technological answers for nuclear bomb-related problems such as the nightmare of screening shipping containers. They will probably find some solutions, but during the critical transition phase towards productive nanosystems, will they be able to make those solutions affordable?

One nanotech solution to stopping nuclear bombs that are hidden in shipping containers is to stop all physical shipping altogether and just trade files over the internet, printing whatever you want on our desktops (BTW, you can build a very large printer in two steps). Our only problem then would be keeping our computer virus detectors up to date so that we don’t print something nasty.

To summarize, if anybody is around 1,000 years from now, then the nuclear bomb will not be considered an important issue.

The Pill

The second historically consequential development in the past 50 years that many people will propose as significant is the contraceptive pill.

Some claim that the Pill is necessary because we have a population problem. When I was in college in the 1970’s, it was “proven” to me, with the aid of computer models, that overpopulation was going to be the reason we were going to have food riots in the United States by 1985. So naturally, I’m as skeptical about overpopulation as I am about the imminent rapture. Everyone probably agrees that overpopulation results when the population exceeds the sustainable carrying capacity of the environment. But what determines that capacity? Technology multiplies it while ignorance, injustice, and war decrease it. On Earth today, there is currently no correlation between standard of living and population density.[8]

That being said, in a closed system, unlimited human population growth could result in a situation worse than simple human extinction. Natural ecosystems have population boom/crash cycles all the time, but other species don’t have access to nuclear bombs and other devices that can obliterate habitats. The overpopulation disaster on Easter Island occurred with a primitive culture. It still has grass, but not much of an ecosystem. Imagine what could have happened with modern technology.

The Pill fundamentally changed the relationship of men and women, the place of children in a family and, on the macro level, population dynamics. The family is the basic building block of society and civilization, not only because it is an economic unit (you don’t pay your spouse to wash the dishes or take out the garbage), but more importantly, because the family critically shapes the next generation. Therefore, a large change in family structures will have far-reaching effects, at least in the “short run” of five to ten generations. However, to steal from Jerry Pournell and Larry Niven: “Think of it as evolution in action.“[9] The people who embrace contraception as a path to “the good life” will (evolutionarily speaking) remove their vote for influencing their future within a few generations. It is true that for humans, memes may carry as much weight as genes, but the same process applies — as long as meme propagation is kept below a critical level, perhaps by co-traveling xenophobic memes. On the other hand, people who don’t have much of their material resources tied up in children may have more time to devote to meme propagation. However, many studies have shown than the people who have the greatest impact on teens and pre-teens are their parents.[10]

One possible result is that a millennium from now, the Pill will be a small blip, as inconsequential as the Shakers, and for essentially similar reasons. Nanotechnology-enabled life extension techniques will extend that blip for a while, but because the prolific pro-natalists will continue having even more children for their longer lives, more pro-natalists will be born to outvote the anti-natalists. This is why the Jewish Knesset now has a significantly higher percentage of Ultra-Orthodox than when it began,[11] why Utah’s government is almost 100% Mormon,[12] and why the Amish are one of the fastest growing minority in the world, with an average of 6.8 children per family.[13]

The opposing trend is controlled by a number of factors. First, the birth rate goes down as women’s educations go up. This occurs partially because practically speaking, it is more difficult to go to school while being married and raising children. More subtly, however, it is because school is an investment in learning a professional trade — it is a different investment than children. In addition, women and men are implicitly and explicitly taught that a better career is more important than raising more children.

The problem isn’t that women are being educated. The problem is that if they are taught something that results in the extinction of our egalitarian, humanistic, and liberal society by one that is misogynistic, xenophobic, and unjust, then something is wrong.

One weapon of the contraceptive culture is the reeducation of the pro-natalist’s children. Proponents of secularization would call this “giving people free access to all information” not “reeducation”. But when Bibles are banned from the classroom, and students are taught in many ways that they are just animals, it seems like imposition of a secular viewpoint. At least they could teach the debate — and at the end of the semester, the students could try to guess the teacher’s bias (if they can’t, then the teacher presented both views with equal force).

There are more than a million home-schooled children in the U.S., up to two-thirds of whom are there primarily because their parents fear the imposition of our government’s ideas on their children.[14] This quiet protest is so feared by governments that parents are prosecuted for doing this, not only in all totalitarian countries but even in some democratic nations.[15] The alternative is that the governments of open, liberal, and secularized nations (that accept contraception) will decide that the vote of the increasing minority is wrong. Could their right to vote be taken away? Of course it can; it has happened before.

A pessimistic view of this possibility of disenfranchisement is also supported by the prevalence of abortion in liberal democracies. Given the accuracy of ultrasound imagery, if we can ignore the right to life for our most innocent and helpless, then how safe is something as meager as the right to vote? Niemöller’s poem about trade unionists, Communists, and Catholics comes to mind.[16] So do the events in ancient Egypt, during the three or four hundred years between the famines that Joseph ameliorated (Genesis 50:22). The Egyptian upper class used contraception[17], and they felt threatened by the increasing numerical growth of the Jews, who had strict injunctions against it.

Is it good for our country that more than a million children are being taught by their parents? What if rebellious parents are teaching strange and dangerous ideas? How do we decide which ideas are dangerous? Do we censor and suppress them? After all, ideas have consequences.

The answer is that there are limits to what parents can do, but very few — if any — on what they teach. The whole point about freedom of religion is that we can believe what we want, as long as we do not destroy society or individuals with our actions. Our constitution was written not to limit individuals, but to put strict limits on government, since it is inherently more powerful.

The temptation to avoid having children is not limited to any particular culture. The reason is simple: raising children is an expensive, risky, and difficult investment. Parents must be willing to give up fancy vacations, luxury cars, time to themselves, a good night’s sleep, stress on their marriage, and many other things, thus weighing against the pro-natalist agenda. However, the culture that teaches that children are a blessing and a worthwhile investment instead of a cost will overcome those that do not — even if it tends to encourage people to be ignorant, misogynist, racist, and illogical (like two polygamist religions that start with the letter “M“[18]).

Cyril M. Kornbluth’s 1951 short story “The Marching Morons” illustrates another potential downside to the anti/pro-natalist issue by portraying a scenario in which selective pressure resulted in smart people breeding themselves out of existence. It also, despite the derogatory title, provides a warning: the originator of the “Final Solution” (placing all the fertile morons onto one-way rockets to nowhere) ends up screaming futilely as he himself is loaded on one of the last rockets. Kornbluth’s main premise seems logical. People are often willing to trade children for the better material things and higher standard of living, and those with more education are more willing to do so. But is the resulting cost to society worth it?

What will happen when productive nanosystems and advanced software lowers the price of goods and services to very low levels? Many other things will happen at the same time, but in a society of economic abundance, the expense of children will drop significantly — and will be limited only by attention span and desire (and possibly expanded by reproductive-enhancing technologies including parthenogenesis and male pregnancy). Is there a gene for liking children? Or is it a meme that is culturally transmitted? Evolution favors both. Of course, evolution may also favor a “Boys from Brazil“[19] scenario (in which numerous clones of a dictator are grown to reinstate his rule). This strategy may be successful as long as the clones survive to adulthood and can reproduce.

While a contraceptive culture is non-sustainable, especially in the face of a competing culture whose population is growing, it must be noted that a pro-natalist culture is also non-sustainable. Isaac Asimov pointed out that even if we could overcome all technological obstacles, any growth rate will eventually result in humanity becoming a big ball of flesh, expanding at the speed of light (BOFESOL, or BOF for short). At a modest 3% rate, we will reach the initial BOF in only 3,584 years. After that, the speed of light will limit growth.

However, the fact that a contraceptive culture is non-sustainable in a significantly shorter term than the pro-natalist one is why it makes sense for governments to support traditional religions in their efforts to maintain traditional morality and fertility. The difficult problem is finding ways to ensure the survival of a culture without it becoming xenophobic. This is difficult to do when we think that we have Absolute Truth and the One True Religion on our side. But then exactly how do we know that our particular set and ordering of values is the objectively correct one? Note that the denial of the existence of any objectively maximum set of values exists is itself a particular set of values. And note also that sustainability and tolerance are also values that, like all values, must be assumed because they cannot be proven.

Given the contradictory evidence and shifting values, it is likely that equilibrium between pro-natalist and contraceptive meme sets can never be reached. Instead, humanity will likely experience benign (and sometimes not-so benign) boom and crash cycles similar to those that natural ecosystems suffer from. Only for us, our cycles will be constrained by opinions and technological capabilities, not by predators.

African Colonies

A third historical event that may be of consequence a thousand years from now is “Belgians in the Congo”. The Belgian regime in the Congo was about as brutal and inhuman as any the Europeans imposed on its colonies. However, the European Empires spread Christianity in Africa — where it remains a fast-growing religion. This African event may be as significant as when the Spanish and Portuguese spread Christianity in Latin America, and will bring about a fundamentally different world than if Africa had gone Islamic, Hindu, or Confucian. Think of Latin American worshiping the Aztec gods with human sacrifice, or the impact on us if it were an Islamic Civilization. We would live in a very different world.

Then again, Africa may still turn Islamic. After all, Islam generally values large families, just like the fast-growing Mormon and Amish religions do. On the other hand, when Muslims become secularized, they reduce the number of their offspring, just like secularized Christians do — hence their accompanying philosophies will suffer the same fate. The result will be that in order to survive in the long term, future generations must be hostile to secularization, and probably hostile to each other’s religious views also (not a pleasant thought, even if they do share many of the same values). Over the next thousand years, in view of the exponential increase in technological power, which viewpoint will win? The answer depends on science, theology, and demographics.

A handful of nominal Christians destroyed the Aztec civilization, not because of their technology (though that helped), but because the Aztec civilization was based on a great and powerful falsehood — that in order for the sun to rise every morning, human blood needed to be shed — thereby earning the hatred of the neighboring tribes whose blood it was that was usually shed. Islam is not as false as the Aztec religion — otherwise it would not have lasted this long. But the jury is still out on whether it can survive the extreme technological advancement that productive nanosystems will bring. Will fanatical Muslims be able to design and build the nanotech equivalent of 747 jets that they can fly into the skyscrapers of their enemies? Or will they just learn how to use it in unexpected and terrorizing ways? Given the high level of technological advancement in the Muslim empire a thousand years ago, the answer seems to be “yes” to both questions. However, Islam’s ultimate rejection of reason is its Achilles heel, and in the past it helped lead to the decline of the Ottoman Empire after its peak in the 1300s. This is because Islam’s idea of Allah’s absolute transcendence is incompatible with the idea that the universe is ordered and knowable. Psychologically, the problem is that if the universe is not ordered and knowable, then why bother learning and doing science? Meanwhile, Hinduism has many competing gods, and this leads (like in ordinary paganism) to its rejection of the logical principle of contradiction — without which science is impossible. Confucianism seems to be more a moral code than a religious one, so it seems that it could be accommodating to technology — but that didn’t seem to help its practitioners develop it before they collided with the West. Similarly with Buddhism. Meanwhile, the decadent West’s deconstructionism and nihilism is gnawing at its parent’s roots, rejecting reason and science as merely tools of power.

It can be claimed that religious views will keep changing and splitting into new orthodoxies. In that case, the result will be an ever-shifting field of populations and sub-populations with none winning out completely over the others. But as far as I can tell, neither Judaism, Catholicism, Buddhism, nor Islam have changed any of their core beliefs in the past few millennia. In contrast, the Mormons have changed a number of their major doctrines, and so have the Protestants. This does not bode well for their long-term survival as a coherent organization, though the Mormons do have their high fertility on their side.

At the moment, the whole world is copying the Christian-rooted West, as many of their scientific elite are educated in Europe and the United States. It is difficult to say to what extent they understand the philosophical underpinnings of science. When their own universities start to educate their elite, their cultural assumptions will probably displace the Judeo-Christian/Greek philosophy of the West. Then what? It depends if science, which is the foundation of technological superiority, is simply a cargo cult that works. My claim is that science will only continue working for more than a generation or two if its underlying assumptions come with it — that the universe is both ordered and knowable.

These Judeo-Christian assumptions are huge — though atheists, agnostics, and (maybe) Muslims and Buddhists should also be able to accept them. However, every scientist still faces the question of why the universe is ordered and knowable (and if you’re not constantly asking the next question, especially the “why” question, then you’re not a very good scientist). The theistic answer of design by creator[20] is not too far away from the assumption of an ordered and knowable universe, and from there, one begins skating very close to the concept that we are made “Imago Dei”–in God’s image. Some people think that there is too much hubris and ego to that belief, but you don’t see dolphins landing on the Moon, or chimpanzees creating great symphonies (or even bad rap).

“Imago Dei” is the most logical conclusion once we can explain why the universe is predictable and knowable. And being made in God’s image has other implications, especially in terms of our role in this universe. Most notably, it promotes the idea of human beings as powerful stewards of creation, as opposed to subservient subjects of Mother Nature, and it will pit Nietzschean Transhumanists and Traditional Catholics against Gaian environmentalists and National Park Rangers.


Writing has been around for thousands of years, while the printing press has been around for almost 600. It would seem that the printing press was the one invention that, more than anything else, enabled the development of all subsequent inventions. Television could be considered an improvement over writing, and given that large amounts of video can be subject to slightly less interpretation than an equal amount of effort writing text, our descendants might get a better, more complete depiction of history than they could get from just text or physical artifacts. However, the television that Joel mentioned was controlled by the big three television networks. This was because the cost to entry was so high (currently from $200,000 to $13 million per episode). So the role of television of the 1960s was similar to the role of books in Medieval Europe, where the cost of a book was equivalent to the yearly salary of a well-educated person). For this reason, Joel’s headline will not be considered significant, though he was close.

He was close because television’s electronic video display offspring, the computer — especially when connected to form the Internet — will certainly be significant. It will be as significant as the nuclear bomb and the Pill combined, if and when Moore’s Law ushers in the Singularity. But Joel was writing a song, not engaging in future studies. We might as well criticize him for not mentioning the coining of the word “nanotechnology”.


A few of Billy Joel’s headlines may be remembered 1,000 years from now, but none mentioned so far will really be significant.

I would go out on a limb and say that other than the scientific and industrial revolutions, the American Constitution, and the virtual abolishment of slavery, little of consequence has happened in the last thousand years. There is, however, one significant event that happened in the 1400s. No, it’s not Spain kicking out the Muslims. It’s not even Admiral Zheng He, Admiral of China’s famed Dragon Fleet, sailing to Africa in the 1420s, though we’re getting warmer. As impressive as they were, Zheng’s voyages did not change the world. What did change the world was the tiny fleet of three ships that returned from the New World to Spain in 1492.

Apollo and Star Trek both pointed to the next and final frontier. It is true that little has happened in the American space program since Apollo, and with the retirement of the 1960s-designed Space Shuttle, even less is expected. This poor showing has occurred because the moon shot, as awe-inspiring as it was, was a political stunt funded for political reasons. The problem is that it didn’t pay for itself, and we therefore have a dismal space program. However, with communication, weather, and GPS satellites, we have a huge space industry. It’s all about the value added.

On the other hand, it’s the governmental space programs that seem to make the initial (and necessary) investments in the basic technology. More importantly, these programs give voice to that which makes us human — “to look at the stars and wonder”.[21]

Realistically, looking at the historical records of Jamestown and Salt Lake City, space development will occur when prosperous upper class families can sell their homes and businesses to buy a one-way ticket and homesteading tools. In today’s money, that would be about one or two million dollars. We have a long way to go to achieve that price break, though it helps that Moore’s Law is exponential.

There have only been a dozen men on the Moon so far, but Neil Armstrong will be remembered far longer than anyone else in this millennium. After the human race has spread throughout the solar system, and after it starts heading for the stars, everyone will remember who took the first small step. The importance of this step will become obvious after the Google Moon prize is won, and after Elon Musk and his imitators demonstrate conclusively that we are no longer in a zero sum game.

That is something to look forward to.

Tihamer Toth-Fejel is Research Engineer at Novii Systems.


Many thanks to Andrew Balet, Bill Bogen, Tim Wright, and Ted Reynolds for their significant contributions to this column.


1. Tihamer Toth-Fejel, The Politics and Ethics of the Hall Weather Machine, and
2. Michael Flynn, Washer at the Ford, Analog, v109 #6 & 7, June & July 1989.
3. Arthur Kantrowitz, The Weapon of Openness,
4. United States Signals Intelligence Directive 18, 27 July 1993,
5. e.g. Mexico, India, Saudia Arabia, and Russia Also, the petro-dollar millionaires in the Mideast
6. There is an interesting discussion at
7. David Brin,The Transparent Society, Basic Books (1999). For a quick introduction, see The Transparent Society and Other Articles about Transparency and Privacy,
8. Tihamer Toth-Fejel, Population Control, Molecular Nanotechnology, and the High Frontier, The Assembler, Volume 5, Number 1 & 2, 1997
9. Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle, Oath of Fealty. New York : Pocket Books, 1982
10. KIDS COUNT Indicator Brief, Reducing the Teen Birth Rate, July 2009.
11. From a small group of just four members in the 1977 Knesset, they gradually increased their representation to 22 (out of 120) in 1999 ( The fertility rate for ultra-Orthodox mothers greatly exceeds that of the Israeli Jewish population at large, averaging 6.5 children per mother in the ultra-Orthodox community compared to 2.6 among Israeli Jews overall ( ).
12. As of mid-2001, the Governor of Utah, and all of its Federal senators, representatives and members of the Supreme Court are all Mormon.
13. Julia A. Ericksen; Eugene P. Ericksen, John A. Hostetler, Gertrude E. Huntington. “Fertility Patterns and Trends among the Old Order Amish”. Population Studies (33): 255–76 (July 1979).
14. 1.1 Million Homeschooled Students in the United States in 2003.
15. HOMESCHOOLING: Prosecution is waged abroad; troubling trends abound in US
18. I should note that almost all of the people I have personally known from these two religions are trustworthy, intelligent, and a pleasure to meet. Despite what they are taught in their sacred texts.
19. Ira Levin, Boys from Brazil, Dell (1977)
20. There are many question to follow. How did He do it? Why is He masculine? Why did He do it? How do we know? That last question is especially relevant.
21. Guy J. Consolmagno, Brother Astronomer: Adventures of a Vatican Scientist, McGraw-Hill (2001)

I am a former Microsoft programmer who wrote a book (for a general audience) about the future of software called After the Software Wars. Eric Klien has invited me to post on this blog (Software and the Singularity, AI and Driverless cars) Here are the sections on the Space Elevator. I hope you find these pages food for thought and I appreciate any feedback.

A Space Elevator in 7

Midnight, July 20, 1969; a chiaroscuro of harsh contrasts appears on the television screen. One of the shadows moves. It is the leg of astronaut Edwin Aldrin, photographed by Neil Armstrong. Men are walking on the moon. We watch spellbound. The earth watches. Seven hundred million people are riveted to their radios and television screens on that July night in 1969. What can you do with the moon? No one knew. Still, a feeling in the gut told us that this was the greatest moment in the history of life. We were leaving the planet. Our feet had stirred the dust of an alien world.

—Robert Jastrow, Journey to the Stars

Management is doing things right, Leadership is doing the right things!

—Peter Drucker

SpaceShipOne was the first privately funded aircraft to go into space, and it set a number of important “firsts”, including being the first privately funded aircraft to exceed Mach 2 and Mach 3, the first privately funded manned spacecraft to exceed 100km altitude, and the first privately funded reusable spacecraft. The project is estimated to have cost $25 million dollars and was built by 25 people. It now hangs in the Smithsonian because it serves no commercial purpose, and because getting into space is no longer the challenge — it is the expense.

In the 21st century, more cooperation, better software, and nanotechnology will bring profound benefits to our world, and we will put the Baby Boomers to shame. I focus only on information technology in this book, but materials sciences will be one of the biggest tasks occupying our minds in the 21st century and many futurists say that nanotech is the next (and last?) big challenge after infotech.

I’d like to end this book with one more big idea: how we can jump-start the nanotechnology revolution and use it to colonize space. Space, perhaps more than any other endeavor, has the ability to harness our imagination and give everyone hope for the future. When man is exploring new horizons, there is a swagger in his step.

Colonizing space will change man’s perspective. Hoarding is a very natural instinct. If you give a well-fed dog a bone, he will bury it to save it for a leaner day. Every animal hoards. Humans hoard money, jewelry, clothes, friends, art, credit, books, music, movies, stamps, beer bottles, baseball statistics, etc. We become very attached to these hoards. Whether fighting over $5,000 or $5,000,000 the emotions have the exact same intensity.

When we feel crammed onto this pale blue dot, we forget that any resource we could possibly want is out there in incomparably big numbers. If we allocate the resources merely of our solar system to all 6 billion people equally, then this is what we each get:

Resource Amount
Hydrogen 34,000 billion Tons
Iron 834 billion Tons
Silicates (sand, glass) 834 billion Tons
Oxygen 34 billion Tons
Carbon 34 billion Tons
Energy production 64 trillion Kilowatts per hour

Even if we confine ourselves only to the resources of this planet, we have far more than we could ever need. This simple understanding is a prerequisite for a more optimistic and charitable society, which has characterized eras of great progress. Unfortunately, NASA’s current plans are far from adding that swagger.

If NASA follows through on its 2004 vision to retire the Space Shuttle and go back to rockets, and go to the moon again, this is NASA’s own imagery of what we will be looking at on in 2020.

Our astronauts will still be pissing in their space suits in 2020.

According to NASA, the above is what we will see in 2020, but if you squint your eyes, it looks just like 1969:

All this was done without things we would call computers.

Only a government bureaucracy can make such little progress in 50 years and consider it business as usual. There are many documented cases of large government organizations plagued by failures of imagination, yet no one considers that the rocket-scientist-bureaucrats at NASA might also be plagued by this affliction. This is especially ironic because the current NASA Administrator, Michael Griffin, has admitted that many of its past efforts were failures:

  • The Space Shuttle, designed in the 1970s, is considered a failure because it is unreliable, expensive, and small. It costs $20,000 per pound of payload to put into low-earth orbit (LEO), a mere few hundred miles up.
  • The International Space Station (ISS) is small, and only 200 miles away, where gravity is 88% of that at sea-level. It is not self-sustaining and doesn’t get us any closer to putting people on the moon or Mars. (By moving at 17,000 miles per hour, it falls fast enough to stay in the same orbit.) America alone spent $100 billion on this boondoggle.

The key to any organization’s ultimate success, from NASA to any private enterprise, is that there are leaders at the top with vision. NASA’s mistakes were not that it was built by the government, but that the leaders placed the wrong bets. Microsoft, by contrast, succeeded because Bill Gates made many smart bets. NASA’s current goal is “flags and footprints”, but their goal should be to make it cheap to do those things, a completely different objective.1

I don’t support redesigning the Space Shuttle, but I also don’t believe that anyone at NASA has seriously considered building a next-generation reusable spacecraft. NASA is basing its decision to move back to rockets primarily on the failures of the first Space Shuttle, an idea similar to looking at the first car ever built and concluding that cars won’t work.

Unfortunately, NASA is now going back to technology even more primitive than the Space Shuttle. The “consensus” in the aerospace industry today is that rockets are the future. Rockets might be in our future, but they are also in the past. The state-of-the-art in rocket research is to make them 15% more efficient. Rocket research is incremental today because the fundamental chemistry and physics hasn’t changed since their first launches in the mid-20th century.

Chemical rockets are a mistake because the fuel which propels them upward is inefficient. They have a low “specific impulse”, which means it takes lots of fuel to accelerate the payload, and even more more fuel to accelerate that fuel! As you can see from the impressive scenes of shuttle launches, the current technology is not at all efficient; rockets typically contain 6% payload and 94% overhead. (Jet engines don’t work without oxygen but are 15 times more efficient than rockets.)

If you want to know why we have not been back to the moon for decades, here is an analogy:

What would taking delivery of this car cost you?
A Californian buys a car made in Japan.
The car is shipped in its own car carrier.
The car is off-loaded in the port of Los Angeles.
The freighter is then sunk.

The latest in propulsion technology is electrical ion drives which accelerate atoms 20 times faster than chemical rockets, which mean you need much less fuel. The inefficiency of our current chemical rockets is what is preventing man from colonizing space. Our simple modern rockets might be cheaper than our complicated old Space Shuttle, but it will still cost thousands of dollars per pound to get to LEO, a fancy acronym for 200 miles away. Working on chemical rockets today is the technological equivalent of polishing a dusty turd, yet this is what our esteemed NASA is doing.

The Space Elevator

When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong.

—Arthur C. Clarke RIP, 1962

The best way to predict the future is to invent it. The future is not laid out on a track. It is something that we can decide, and to the extent that we do not violate any known laws of the universe, we can probably make it work the way that we want to. —Alan Kay

A NASA depiction of the space elevator. A space elevator will make it hundreds of times cheaper to put a pound into space. It is an efficiency difference comparable to that between the horse and the locomotive.

One of the best ways to cheaply get back into space is kicking around NASA’s research labs:

Scale picture of the space elevator relative to the size of Earth. The moon is 30 Earth-diameters away, but once you are at GEO, it requires relatively little energy to get to the moon, or anywhere else.

A space elevator is a 65,000-mile tether upon which we can launch things into space in a slow, safe, and cheap way.

And these climbers don’t even need to carry their energy as you can use solar panels to provide the energy for the climbers. All this means you need much less fuel. Everything is fully reusable, so when you have built such a system, it is easy to have daily launches.

The first elevator’s climbers will travel into space at just a few hundred miles per hour — a very safe speed. Building a device which can survive the acceleration and jostling is a large part of the expense of putting things into space today. This technology will make it hundreds, and eventually thousands of times cheaper to put things, and eventually people, into space.

A space elevator might sound like science fiction, but like many of the ideas of science fiction, it is a fantasy that makes economic sense. While you needn’t trust my opinion on whether a space elevator is feasible, NASA has never officially weighed in on the topic — also a sign they haven’t given it serious consideration.

This all may sound like science fiction, but compared to the technology of the 1960s, when mankind first embarked on a trip to the moon, a space elevator is simple for our modern world to build. In fact, if you took a cellphone back to the Apollo scientists, they’d treat it like a supercomputer and have teams of engineers huddled over it 24 hours a day. With only the addition of the computing technology of one cellphone, we might have shaved a year off the date of the first moon landing.

Carbon Nanotubes

Nanotubes are Carbon atoms in the shape of a hexagon. Graphic created by Michael Ströck.

We have every technological capability necessary to build a space elevator with one exception: carbon nanotubes (CNT). To adapt a line from Thomas Edison, a space elevator is 1% inspiration, and 99% perspiration.

Carbon nanotubes are extremely strong and light, with a theoretical strength of three million kilograms per square centimeter; a bundle the size of a few hairs can lift a car. The theoretical strength of nanotubes is far greater than what we would need for our space elevator; current baseline designs specify a paper-thin, 3-foot-wide ribbon. These seemingly flimsy dimensions would be strong enough to support their own weight, and the 10-ton climbers using the elevator.

The nanotubes we need for our space elevator are the perfect place to start the nanotechnology revolution because, unlike biological nanotechnology research, which uses hundreds of different atoms in extremely complicated structures, nanotubes have a trivial design.

The best way to attack a big problem like nanotechnology is to first attack a small part of it, like carbon nanotubes. A “Manhattan Project” on general nanotechnology does not make sense because it is too unfocused a problem, but such an effort might make sense for nanotubes. Or, it might simply require the existing industrial expertise of a company like Intel. Intel is already experimenting with nanotubes inside computer chips because metal loses the ability to conduct electricity at very small diameters. But no one has asked them if they could build mile-long ropes.

The US government has increased investments in nanotechnology recently, but we aren’t seeing many results. From space elevator expert Brad Edwards:

There’s what’s called the National Nanotechnology Initiative. When I looked into it, the budget was a billion dollars. But when you look closer at it, it is split up between a dozen agencies, and within each agency it’s split again into a dozen different areas, much of it ends up as $100,000 grants. We looked into it with regards to carbon nanotube composites, and it appeared that about thirty million dollars was going into high-strength materials — and a lot of that was being spent internally in a lot of the agencies; in the end there’s only a couple of million dollars out of the billion-dollar budget going into something that would be useful to us. The money doesn’t have focus, and it’s spread out to include everything. You get a little bit of effort in a thousand different places. A lot of the budget is spent on one entity trying to play catch-up with whoever is leading. Instead of funding the leader, they’re funding someone else internally to catch up.

Again, here is a problem similar to the one we find in software today: people playing catchup rather than working together. I don’t know what nanotechnology scientists do every day, but it sounds like they would do well to follow in the footsteps of our free software pioneers and start cooperating.

The widespread production of nanotubes could be the start of a nanotechnology revolution. And the space elevator, the killer app of nanotubes, will enable the colonization of space.


William Bradford, speaking in 1630 of the founding of the Plymouth Bay Colony, said that all great and honorable actions are accompanied with great difficulties, and both must be enterprised and overcome with answerable courage.

There is no strife, no prejudice, no national conflict in outer space as yet. Its hazards are hostile to us all. Its conquest deserves the best of all mankind, and its opportunity for peaceful cooperation may never come again. But why, some say, the moon? Why choose this as our goal? And they may well ask why climb the highest mountain? Why, 35 years ago, fly the Atlantic? Why does Rice play Texas?

We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.

It is for these reasons that I regard the decision last year to shift our efforts in space from low to high gear as among the most important decisions that will be made during my incumbency in the office of the Presidency.

In the last 24 hours we have seen facilities now being created for the greatest and most complex exploration in man’s history. We have felt the ground shake and the air shattered by the testing of a Saturn C-1 booster rocket, many times as powerful as the Atlas which launched John Glenn, generating power equivalent to 10,000 automobiles with their accelerators on the floor. We have seen the site where five F-1 rocket engines, each one as powerful as all eight engines of the Saturn combined, will be clustered together to make the advanced Saturn missile, assembled in a new building to be built at Cape Canaveral as tall as a 48 story structure, as wide as a city block, and as long as two lengths of this field.

The growth of our science and education will be enriched by new knowledge of our universe and environment, by new techniques of learning and mapping and observation, by new tools and computers for industry, medicine, the home as well as the school.

I do not say that we should or will go unprotected against the hostile misuse of space any more than we go unprotected against the hostile use of land or sea, but I do say that space can be explored and mastered without feeding the fires of war, without repeating the mistakes that man has made in extending his writ around this globe of ours.

We have given this program a high national priority — even though I realize that this is in some measure an act of faith and vision, for we do not now know what benefits await us. But if I were to say, my fellow citizens, that we shall send to the moon, 240,000 miles away from the control station in Houston, a giant rocket more than 300 feet tall, the length of this football field, made of new metal alloys, some of which have not yet been invented, capable of standing heat and stresses several times more than have ever been experienced, fitted together with a precision better than the finest watch, carrying all the equipment needed for propulsion, guidance, control, communications, food and survival, on an untried mission, to an unknown celestial body, and then return it safely to earth, re-entering the atmosphere at speeds of over 25,000 miles per hour, causing heat about half that of the temperature of the sun — almost as hot as it is here today — and do all this, and do it right, and do it first before this decade is out — then we must be bold.

John F. Kennedy, September 12, 1962

Lunar Lander at the top of a rocket. Rockets are expensive and impose significant design constraints on space-faring cargo.

NASA has 18,000 employees and a $17-billion-dollar budget. Even with a fraction of those resources, their ability to oversee the design, handle mission control, and work with many partners is more than equal to this task.

If NASA doesn’t build the space elevator, someone else might, and it would change almost everything about how NASA does things today. NASA’s tiny (15-foot-wide) new Orion spacecraft, which was built to return us to the moon, was designed to fit atop a rocket and return the astronauts to Earth with a 25,000-mph thud, just like in the Apollo days. Without the constraints a rocket imposes, NASA’s spaceship to get us back to the moon would have a very different design. NASA would need to throw away a lot of the R&D they are now doing if a space elevator were built.

Another reason the space elevator makes sense is that it would get the various scientists at NASA to work together on a big, shared goal. NASA has recently sent robots to Mars to dig two-inch holes in the dirt. That type of experience is similar to the skills necessary to build the robotic climbers that would climb the elevator, putting those scientists to use on a greater purpose.

Space debris is a looming hazard, and a threat to the ribbon:

Map of space debris. The US Strategic Command monitors 10,000 large objects to prevent them from being misinterpreted as a hostile missile. China blew up a satellite in January, 2007 which created 35,000 pieces of debris larger than 1 centimeter.

The space elevator provides both a motive, and a means to launch things into space to remove the debris. (The first elevator will need to be designed with an ability to move around to avoid debris!)

Once you have built your first space elevator, the cost of building the second one drops dramatically. A space elevator will eventually make it $10 per pound to put something into space. This will open many doors for scientists and engineers around the globe: bigger and better observatories, a spaceport at GEO, and so forth.

Surprisingly, one of the biggest incentives for space exploration is likely to be tourism. From Hawaii to Africa to Las Vegas, the primary revenue in many exotic places is tourism. We will go to the stars because man is driven to explore and see new things.

Space is an extremely harsh place, which is why it is such a miracle that there is life on Earth to begin with. The moon is too small to have an atmosphere, but we can terraform Mars to create one, and make it safe from radiation and pleasant to visit. This will also teach us a lot about climate change, and in fact, until we have terraformed Mars, I am going to assume the global warming alarmists don’t really know what they are talking about yet.2 One of the lessons in engineering is that you don’t know how something works until you’ve done it once.

Terraforming Mars may sound like a silly idea today, but it is simply another engineering task.3 I worked in several different groups at Microsoft, and even though the set of algorithms surrounding databases are completely different from those for text engines, they are all engineering problems and the approach is the same: break a problem down and analyze each piece. (One of the interesting lessons I learned at Microsoft was the difference between real life and standardized tests. In a standardized test, if a question looks hard, you should skip it and move on so as not to waste precious time. At Microsoft, we would skip past the easy problems and focus our time on the hard ones.)

Engineering teaches you that there are an infinite number of ways to attack a problem, each with various trade-offs; it might take 1,000 years to terraform Mars if we were to send one ton of material, but only 20 years if we could send 1,000 tons of material. Whatever we finally end up doing, the first humans to visit Mars will be happy that we turned it green for them. This is another way our generation can make its mark.

A space elevator is a doable mega-project, but there is no progress beyond a few books and conferences because the very small number of people on this planet who are capable of initiating this project are not aware of the feasibility of the technology.

Brad Edwards, one of the world’s experts on the space elevator, has a PhD and a decade of experience designing satellites at Los Alamos National Labs, and yet he has told me that he is unable to get into the doors of leadership at NASA, or the Gates Foundation, etc. No one who has the authority to organize this understands that a space elevator is doable.

Glenn Reynolds has blogged about the space elevator on his very influential, yet a national dialog about this topic has not yet happened, and NASA is just marching ahead with its expensive, dim ideas. My book is an additional plea: one more time, and with feeling!

How and When

It does not follow from the separation of planning and doing in the analysis of work that the planner and the doer should be two different people. It does not follow that the industrial world should be divided into two classes of people: a few who decide what is to be done, design the job, set the pace, rhythm and motions, and order others about; and the many who do what and as they are told.

—Peter Drucker

There are a many interesting details surrounding a space elevator, and for those interested in further details, I recommend The Space Elevator, co-authored by Brad Edwards.

The size of the first elevator is one of biggest questions to resolve. If you were going to lay fiber optic cables across the Atlantic ocean, you’d set aside a ton of bandwidth capacity. Likewise, the most important metric for our first space elevator is its size. I believe at least 100 tons / day is a worthy requirement, otherwise the humans will revert to form and start hoarding the cargo space.

The one other limitation with current designs is that they assume climbers which travel hundreds of miles per hour. This is a fine speed for cargo, but it means that it will take days to get into orbit. If we want to send humans into space in an elevator, we need to build climbers which can travel at least 10,000 miles per hour. While this seems ridiculously fast, if you accelerate to this speed over a period of minutes, it will not be jarring. Perhaps this should be the challenge for version two if they can’t get it done the first time.

The conventional wisdom amongst those who think it is even possible is that it will take between 20 and 50 years to build a space elevator. However, anyone who makes such predictions doesn’t understand that engineering is a fungible commodity. I can just presume they must never had the privilege of working with a team of 100 people who in 3 days accomplish as much as you will in a year. Two people will, in general, accomplish something twice as fast as one person.4 How can you say something will unequivocally take a certain amount of time when you don’t specify how many resources it will require or how many people you plan to assign to the task?

Furthermore, predictions are usually way off. If you asked someone how long it would take unpaid volunteers to make Wikipedia as big as the Encyclopedia Britannica, no one would have guessed the correct answer of two and a half years. From creating a space elevator to world domination by Linux, anything can happen in far less time than we think is possible if everyone simply steps up to play their part. The way to be a part of the future is to invent it, by unleashing our scientific and creative energy towards big, shared goals. Wikipedia, as our encyclopedia, was an inspiration to millions of people, and so the resources have come piling in. The way to get help is to create a vision that inspires people. In a period of 75 years, man went from using horses and wagons to landing on the moon. Why should it take 20 years to build something that is 99% doable today?

Many of the components of a space elevator are simple enough that college kids are building prototype elevators in their free time. The Elevator:2010 contest is sponsored by NASA, but while these contests have generated excitement and interest in the press, they are building toys, much like a radio-controlled airplane is a toy compared to a Boeing airliner.

I believe we could have a space elevator built in 7 years. If you divvy up five years of work per person, and add in a year to ramp up and test, you can see how seven years is quite reasonable. Man landed on the moon 7 years after Kennedy’s speech, exactly as he ordained, because dates can be self-fulfilling prophecies. It allows everyone to measure themselves against their goals, and determine if they need additional resources. If we decided we needed an elevator because our civilization had a threat of extermination, one could be built in a very short amount of time.

If the design of the hardware and the software were done in a public fashion, others could take the intermediate efforts and test them and improve them, therefore saving further engineering time. Perhaps NASA could come up with hundreds of truly useful research projects for college kids to help out on instead of encouraging them to build toys. There is a lot of software to be written and that can be started now.

The Unknown Unknown is the nanotubes, but nearly all the other pieces can be built without having any access to them. We will only need them wound into a big spool on the launch date.

I can imagine that any effort like this would get caught up in a tremendous amount of international political wrangling that could easily add years on to the project. We should not let this happen, and we should remind each other that the space elevator is just the railroad car to space — the exciting stuff is the cargo inside and the possibilities out there. A space elevator is not a zero sum endeavor: it would enable lots of other big projects that are totally unfeasible currently. A space elevator would enable various international space agencies that have money, but no great purpose, to work together on a large, shared goal. And as a side effect it would strengthen international relations.5

1 The Europeans aren’t providing great leadership either. One of the big investments of their Space agencies, besides the ISS, is to build a duplicate GPS satellite constellation, which they are doing primarily because of anti-Americanism! Too bad they don’t realize that their emotions are causing them to re-implement 35 year-old technology, instead of spending that $5 Billion on a truly new advancement. Cloning GPS in 2013: Quite an achievement, Europe!

2 Carbon is not a pollutant and is valuable. It is 18% of the mass of the human body, but only .03% of the mass of the Earth. If Carbon were more widespread, diamonds would be cheaper. Driving very fast cars is the best way to unlock the carbon we need. Anyone who thinks we are running out of energy doesn’t understand the algebra in E = mc2.

3 Mars’ moon, Phobos, is only 3,700 miles above Mars, and if we create an atmosphere, it will slow down and crash. We will need to find a place to crash the fragments, I suggest in one of the largest canyons we can find; we could put them next to a cross dipped in urine and call it the largest man-made art.

4 Fred Brooks’ The Mythical Man-Month argues that adding engineers late to a project makes a project later, but ramp-up time is just noise in the management of an engineering project. Also, wikis, search engines, and other technologies invented since his book have lowered the overhead of collaboration.

5 Perhaps the Europeans could build the station at GEO. Russia could build the shuttle craft to move cargo between the space elevator and the moon. The Middle East could provide an electrical grid for the moon. China could take on the problem of cleaning up the orbital space debris and build the first moon base. Africa could attack the problem of terraforming Mars, etc.

Because of the election cycle, the United States Congress and Presidency has a tendency to be short-sighted. Therefore it is a welcome relief when an organization such as the U.S. National Intelligence Council gathers many smart people from around the world to do some serious thinking more than a decade into the future. But while the authors of the NIC report Global Trends 2025: A Transformed World[1] understood the political situations of countries around the world extremely well, their report lacked two things:

1. Sufficient knowledge about technology (especially productive nanosystems) and their second order effects.

2. A clear and specific understanding of Islam and the fundamental cause of its problems. More generally, an understanding of the relationship between its theology, technological progress, and cultural success.
These two gaps need to be filled, and this white paper attempts to do so.

Christine Peterson, the co-founder and vice-president of the Foresight Nanotech Institute, has said “If you’re looking ahead long-term, and what you see looks like science fiction, it might be wrong. But if it doesn’t look like science fiction, it’s definitely wrong.” None of Global Trends 2025 predictions look like science fiction, though perhaps 15 years from now is not long-term (on the other hand, 15 years is not short-term either).

The authors of Global Trends 2025 are wise in the same way that Socrates was wise: They admit to possibly not knowing enough about technology: “Many stress the role of technology in bringing about radical change and there is no question it has been a major driver. We—as others—have oftentimes underestimated its impact. (p. 5).”

Predicting the development and total impact of technology more than a few years into the future is exceedingly difficult. For example, of all the science fiction writers who correctly predicted a landing on the Moon, only one obscure writer predicted that it would be televised world-wide. Nobody would have believed, much less predicted, that we wouldn’t return for more than 40 years (and counting).

Other than orbital mechanics and demographics, there has been nothing more certain in the past two centuries than technological progress.[2] So it is perplexing that the report claims (correctly) that “[t]he pace of technology will be key [in providing solutions to energy, food, and water constraints],” (p. iv) but it then does not adequately examine the solutions pouring out of labs all over the world. To the authors’ credit, they foresaw that nanofibers and nanoparticles will increase the supply of clean water. In addition, they foresaw that nuclear bombs and bioweapons will become easier to manufacture. However, the static nanostructures they briefly discuss are only the first of four phases of nanotechnology maturation—they will be followed by active nanodevices, then nanomachines, and finally productive nanosystems. Ignoring this maturation of nanotechnology will lead to significant under-estimates of future capabilities.

If the pace of technological development is key, then on what factors does it depend?

The value of history is that it helps us predict the future. We should therefore consider the following questions while looking backwards as far as we wish to look forward:

Where were thumb drives 15 years ago? My twenty dollar 8GB thumb drive would have cost $20,000 and certainly wouldn’t have fit on my keychain. How powerful will my cell phone be 15 years from now? What are the secondary impacts of throwaway supercomputers?
In 1995 the Internet had six million hosts. There are now over 567 million hosts and 1.4 billion users. At this linear rate, in 15 years there will be a trillion users, most of them automated machines, and many of them mobile.
In 1995 there were over 10 million cell phone users in the USA; now there are around 250 million. Globally, the explosion was significantly larger, with over 2.4 billion current cell phone users. What will the effect be of a continuation of smart, mobile interconnectedness?
The World Wide Web was born in 1993 with the release of the Mosaic browser. Where was Google in 1995? Three years in the future. What else can we have besides the world’s information at our fingertips?
The problem with using recent history to guide predictions about the future is that the pace of technological development is not linear but exponential—and exponential growth is often surprising: recall the pedagogical examples of the doubling grains of rice (from India[3] and China[4]) or lily pads on the pond (from France[5]). In exponential growth, the early portion of the curve is fairly flat, while the latter portion is very steep.

Therefore, to predict technological development accurately, we should probably look back more than 15 years; perhaps we should be looking back 150 years. Exactly how far we should look back farther is difficult to determine—some metrics have not changed at all despite technological advances. For example, the speed limit is still 65 MPH, and there are no flying cars commercially available. On the other hand, cross-country airline flights are still the same price they were thirty years ago, despite inflation. Moore’s Law of electronics has had a doubling time of about 18 months, but some technologies have grown much slower. Others, such as molecular biology, have progressed significantly faster.

More important would be qualitative changes that are difficult to quantify. For example, the audio communication of telephones has a measurable bit rate greater than that of the telegraph system, but the increased level of understanding communicated by the emotion in people’s voices is much greater than can be quantified by bit rate. Similarly, search engines have qualitatively increased the value of the Internet’s TC/IP data communication capabilities. Some innovators have pushed Web 2.0 in different directions, but it’s not clear what the qualitative benefits might be, other than better-defined relationships between pieces of data. What happens with Web 3.0? Cloud computing? How many generations of innovation will it take to get to wisdom, or distributed sentience? It may be interesting to speculate about these matters, but since it often involves new science (or even new metaphysics), it is not possible to predict events with any accuracy.

Inventor and author Ray Kurzweil has made a living out of correctly timing his inventions. Among other things, he correctly predicted the growth of the Internet when it was still in its infancy. His method is simple: he plots data on a logarithmic graph, and if he gets a straight line, then he has discovered something that grows exponentially. His critics claim that his data is cherry-picked, but there are too many examples in a wide variety of technologies. The important point is why Kurzweil’s “law of accelerated returns” works, and what its limitations are: it applies to technologies for which information is an essential component. This phenomenon, made possible because information does not follow many of the rules of physics (i.e. lack of mass, negligible energy and copying costs, etc.) partially explains Moore’s Law in electronics, and also the exponential progress in molecular biology that began to occur once we understood enough of its informational basis.

Technology Breakthroughs
The “Technology Breakthroughs by 2025″ foldout matrix in the NIC report (pp. 47–49) is a great start on addressing the impact of technology, but barely a start. It is woefully conservative–some of the items listed in the report have already been proven in labs. For example, “Energy Storage” (in terms of batteries) has already been improved by ten-fold[6] (Caveat: the authors correctly point out that there is a delay between invention and wide adoption; usually about a decade for non-information based product—but 2019 is still considerably before 2025.) Hardly any other nanotech-enhanced products were examined, and they should have been.[7]

The ten specific technologies represented, and their drivers, barriers, and impact were well considered, but there were no clear criteria for picking these ten technologies. The report should have made clear that the most important technologies are those that can destroy or reboot the world’s economy or ecosystem. Almost as important are technologies that have profound effects on government, education, transportation, and family life. Past examples of such technologies include the nuclear bomb, the automobile, the telephone, the birth control pill, the personal computer, the internet, and search engines.

Though there were no clear criteria for choosing critical technology; however the report correctly included the world-changing technologies of ubiquitous computing, clean water, energy storage, biogerontechnology (life extension/age amelioration), and service robotics.

The inclusion of clean coal and biofuels is understandable given a linear projection of current trends. However, trends are not always linear—especially in information-dependent fields. Coal-based energy generation is dependent on the well-understood Carnot cycle, and is currently close to the theoretical maximum. Therefore, new knowledge about coal or the Carnot cycle will not help us in any significant way—especially since no new coal is being made. In contrast, photovoltaic solar power is currently expensive, inefficient, and underused. This is partially because of our lack of detailed understanding of the physics of photon capture and electron transfer, and partially because of our current inability to control the nanostructures that can perform those operations. As we develop more powerful scientific tools at the nanoscale, and as our nanomanufacturing capabilities grows, the price of solar power will drop significantly. This is why global solar power has resulted in exponential growth (with a two-year doubling time) for the past decade or so. This also means that in the next five years, we will likely reach a point at which it will be obvious that no other energy source can match photovoltaic solar power.

It is puzzling why exoskeleton human strength augmentation made the report’s list. First, we already commercialized compact fork-lifts and powered wheelchairs, so further improvements (in the form of exoskeletons) will necessarily be incremental and therefore will have little impact. Second, an exoskeleton is simply a sophisticated fork-lift/wheelchair and not true human strength augmentation, so it will not elicit the revulsion that might be generated by injecting extra IGF-1 genes or implanting electro-bionic actuators.

While being smarter is certainly a desirable condition, many forms of human cognitive augmentation elicit fear and loathing in many people (as the report recognizes). In terms of potential game-changing potential, it certainly deserves to be included as a disruptive technology. But this is a prediction of new science, not new engineering, and as such, should be labeled as “barely plausible.” If human cognitive augmentation is included, so should other, very high impact but very highly unlikely scenarios such as “gray goo” (i.e. out-of-control self-replicating nanobots), alien invasion, and human-directed meteor strikes.

What should have made the list are many forms of productive nanosystems, especially DNA Origami,[8] Bis-proteins,[9] Patterned Atomic Layer Epitaxy,[10] and Diamondoid Mechanosynthesis.[11],[12],[13]. Other technologies that should have been on the list include replicating 3D printers (such as Rep-Rap[14]), the weather machine,[15] Solar Power Satellites (which DoD is currently investigating[16]), Utility Fog,[17] and the Space Pier.[18]

Technologically Sophisticated Terrorism
The report correctly notes that the diffusion of technologies and scientific knowledge will increase the chance that terrorist or other malevolent groups might acquire and employ biological agents or nuclear devices (p. ix). But this danger is seriously underestimated, given the exponential growth of technology. Also underestimated is the future ability to clean up hazardous wastes of all types (including actinides, most notably uranium and plutonium) using nanomembranes and highly selective adsorbents. This is significant, especially in the case of Self-Assembled Monolayers on Mesoporous Supports (SAMMS) developed at Pacific Northwest National Labs,[19] because anything that can remove parts per billion concentrations of plutonium and uranium from water can also concentrate it. As the price drops for this filtration technology, and for nuclear enrichment tools,[20],[21] eventually small groups and even individuals will be able to collect enough fissile material for nuclear weapons.

The partial good news is that while these concentrating technologies are being developed, medical technology will also be progressing, making severe radiation exposure significantly more survivable. Unfortunately, the end result is an increasing likelihood that nuclear weapons will be used as “ordinary” tactical weapons.

The Distribution of Technology
While it is true that in the energy sector it has taken “an average of 25 years for a new production technology to become widespread,” (p. viii) there are a few things to keep in mind:

Informational technologies spread much faster than non-informational technologies. The explosion of the internet, web browsers, and the companies that depend on them have occurred in just a few years, if not months. Even now, for example, updates for the Firefox Mozilla browser are spread worldwide in days. This increase in distribution will occur because productive nanosystems will make atoms as easy to manipulate as bits.

Reducing monopolies and their attended inefficiencies is necessary. Even sufficiently powerful technologies have trouble emerging in the face of monopolies. The report mentions “selling energy back to the grid,” but understates the value that such a distributed energy network would have on increasing our nation’s security. The best part about building such a robust energy system is that it does not require large amounts of government investment — only the placement of an innovation-friendly policy that mandates that utilities buy energy at fair rates.

Mandating Gasoline/Ethanol/Methanol-flexibility (GEM) and/or electric hybrid flexibility in automobiles could break the oil cartel.[22] This simple governmental mandate would have huge political implications with little cost impact on consumers (a GEM requirement would only raise the cost of cars by $100-$300).

Miscellaneous Technology Observations
The 2025 report states that “Unprecedented economic growth, coupled with 1.5 billion more people, will put pressure on resources—particularly energy, food, and water—raising the specter of scarcities emerging as demand outstrips supply (p. iv).”

This claim is not necessarily true. The carrying capacity of an arbitrary volume of biome is dependent on technology—increased wealth can pay for advanced technologies. However, war, injustice, and ignorance drastically raise the effort required to avoid scarcities.

The report listed climate change as a possible key factor (p. v) and stated that “Climate change is expected to exacerbate resource scarcities” (p. viii). But even the most pessimistic predictions don’t expect much to happen by 2025. And there is evidence that by 2025, we will almost certainly have the power to stop it with trivial effort.[23], [24]

The Foresight Nanotech Institute and Lux Research have also identified clean water as being one of the areas in which technology will have a major impact. There are a number of different nanomembranes that are very promising, and the Global Trends 2025 recognizes them as being probable successes.

The Global Trends 2025 report identified Ubiquitous Computing, RFID (Radio Frequency Identification), and the “Internet of Things” as improving efficiency in supply chains, but more importantly, as possibly integrating closed societies into the global community (p. 47). SCADA (Supervisory Control And Data Acquisition) which is used to run everything from water treatment plants to nuclear power plants, is a harbinger of the “Internet of Things”, but the news is not always good. An “Internet of Things” will simply give more opportunities for hackers and terrorists to do harm. (SCADA manuals have been found in Al-Qaeda safe houses.)

Wealth depends on Technology
The 2025 report predicts that “the unprecedented transfer of wealth roughly from West to East now under way will continue for the foreseeable future… First, increases in oil and commodity prices have generated windfall profits for the Gulf states and Russia. Second, lower costs combined with government policies have shifted the locus of manufacturing and some service industries to Asia.”(p. vi)

But why would that transfer continue? If the current exponential growth of solar power continues, then within five years it will be obvious that oil is dead. Some of the more astute Arab leaders understand this; one Saudi prince said, “The Stone Age didn’t end because we ran out of stones, and the oil age won’t end because we run out of oil.”

China and India have gained a lion’s share of the world’s manufacturing, but is there any reason to believe that this will continue? Actually, there is one reason it might: most of the graduate students at most American Universities are foreign-born, and manufacturing underlies a vital part of the real wealth of a society; this in turn depends on its access to science and engineering. On the other hand, many of those foreign graduate students remain in the United States to become U.S. citizens. Even those who return to their home countries maintain personal relationship with American citizens, and generally spread positive stories about their experiences in the U.S., leading to more graduate students coming to the United States to settle.

The prediction that the United States will become a less dominant power is a sobering one for Americans. However, of the reasons listed in the report (advances by other countries in Science and Technology (S&T), expanded adoption of irregular warfare tactics, proliferation of long-range precision weapons, and growing use of cyber warfare attacks) the only significant item is S&T (Science and Technology). This is not only because S&T is the foundation for the other reasons listed, but also because it can often provide a basis for defending against new threats.

S&T is not only the foundation of military might, more importantly it is a foundation of economic might. However our economy rests not only on S&T, but also on economic policy. And unfortunately, everyone’s crystal ball is cloudy in this area. Historically , our regulated capitalism seems to be the basis for much of our wealth, and has been partially responsible for funding S&T. This is important because while human intelligence and ingenuity are scattered relatively evenly among the human race,[25] successful inventions are not. This is because it generally requires money to turn money into knowledge—that is research. After the research is done, the process of innovation—turning knowledge into money—begins, and is very dependent on the surrounding economic and political environment. At any rate, the relationship between the technology and economics is not clear, and certainly needs closer examination.

Wealth depends on Technology depends on Theology
The 2025 report contained some unspecified assumptions regarding economics, without defining what real wealth is, and on what it depends. At first glance, wealth is stored human labor—this was Marx’s assumption, and is slightly correct. However, one skilled person can do significantly more with good tools, hence the conclusion that tools are the lever of riches (hence Mokyr’s book of the same name[26]).

But tools are not enough. As Zhao (Peter) Xiao, a former Communist Party member and adviser to the Chinese Central Committee, put it:

“From the ancient time till now everybody wants to make more money. But from history we see only Christians have a continuous nonstop creative spirit and the spirit for innovation… The strong U.S. economy is just on the surface. The backbone is the moral foundation.” [27]

He goes on to explain that we are all made in the image and likeness of God, and are therefore His children, this means that:

The Rule of Law is not just something to cleverly avoid, but the means to happiness.
There is a constraint on unbridled and unjust capitalism.
People become rich by working hard to create real wealth, not by gaming the system—which creates waste and inefficiency. [28]

Xiao does not believe in “prosperity gospel” (i.e. send a televangelist $20 and God will make you rich). He understands that a economic system works more efficiently without false signals and other corruption—i.e. a nation will only have a prosperous economy if it has enough moral, law-abiding citizens. In addition, he may be hinting that the idea of Imago Dei (“Image of God”) explains how human intelligence drives Moore’s Law in the first place—if God is infinite, then it makes sense that His images will be able to endlessly do more with less.

The 2025 report mentions Islam fairly often but does not analyze it in depth. Oddly enough, the United States has been at war with Islamic nations longer than any other; starting with the Barbary pirates. So it behooves us to understand Islam to see if there are any fundamental issues that might be the root cause of some of these wars. Many Americans have denigrated Islam as a barbaric 6th century relic, not realizing the Judeao-Christian roots of this nation go back even farther (and are just as barbaric at times). Peter Kreeft has done an excellent job of examining the strengths of Islam, exhorting readers to learn from the followers of Mohammed.[29] But the purpose of this white paper is to investigate how Islamic beliefs hurt Muslims—and us.

There is no question that most Islamic nations have serious economic problems. Islamabad columnist Farrukh Saleem writes:

Muslims are 22 percent of the world population and produce less than five percent of global GDP. Even more worrying is that the Muslim countries’ GDP as a percent of the global GDP is going down over time. The Arabs, it seems, are particularly worse off. According to the United Nations’ Arab Development Report: ‘Half of Arab women cannot read; One in five Arabs live on less than $2 per day; Only 1 percent of the Arab population has a personal computer, and only half of 1 percent use the Internet; Fifteen percent of the Arab workforce is unemployed, and this number could double by 2010; The average growth rate of the per capita income during the preceding 20 years in the Arab world was only one-half of 1 percent per annum, worse than anywhere but sub-Saharan Africa.‘[30]

There are two possible reasons for the high rate of poverty in the Muslim world:

Diagnosis 1: Muslims are poor, illiterate, and weak because they have “abandoned the divine heritage of Islam”. Prescription: They must return to their real or imagined past, as defined by the Qur’an.

Diagnosis 2: Muslims are poor, illiterate, and weak because they have refused to change with time. Prescription: They must modernize technologically, governmentally, and culturally (i.e. start ignoring the Qur’an).[31]

Different Muslims will make different diagnosis, resulting in a continuation of the simultaneous rise of both secularized and fundamentalist Islam. This is the unexplained reason behind the 2025 report’s prediction that “the radical Salafi trend of Islam is likely to gain traction (p. ix).” While it is true that economics is an important causal factor, we must remember that economics are filtered through human psychology, which is filtered through human assumptions about reality (i.e. metaphysics and religion). The important question about Islam and nanotechnology is this: How will exponential increases in technology affect the answers of individual Muslims to the question raised above? One relatively easy prediction is that it will drive Muslims even more forcefully into both secularism and fundamentalism—with fewer adherents between them.

We must also address the underlying question: What is it about Islam beliefs that causes poverty? Global Trends 2025 points out that there is a significant correlation between the poverty of a nation and female literacy rates (p. 16). But the connection goes deeper than that.

A few hundred years ago, the Islam world was significantly ahead of Europe–technologically and culturally—but then Islamic leaders declared as heretics their greatest philosophers, especially Averroes (Ibn Rushd) who tried to reconcile faith and reason. Christianity struggled with the same tension between faith and reason, but ended up declaring as saints their greatest philosophers, most notably Thomas Aquinas. In addition, Christianity declared heretical those who derided reason, such as Tertulian, who mocked philosophy by asking “What does Athens have to do with Jerusalem”. Reason is vital to science and technology. But the divorce between faith and reason in Islam is not a historical accident; just as it is not an accident in Christianity that the two are joined—these results are due to their respective theologies.

In Islam, the relationship between Allah and humans is a master/slave relationship, and this is reflected in everything–most painfully in the Islam concept of marriage and how women are treated as a result (hence the link between poverty and female literacy). This belief is rooted in more fundamental dogma regarding the absolute transcendence of Allah, which is also manifested in the Islamic attitude towards science. The practical result, as pointed out earlier, is economic poverty (documented in Mokyr’s The Lever to Riches, and recognized in the 2025 report (p. 13) where it points out that science and technology is related to economic growth). Pope Benedict pointed out that If Allah is completely transcendent, then there is no rational order in His creation[32]—therefore there would be little incentive trying to discover it. This is the same reason that paganism did not develop science and technology. Aristotle started science by counterbalancing Plato’s rationalism with empiricism, but they (and Socrates) had to jettison most of their pagan beliefs in order to lay these foundations of science. And it still required many centuries to get to Bacon and the scientific method.

The trouble with most Americans is that we have no sense of history. Islam has been at war (mostly with Judaism and Christianity) for millennia (the pagans in their path didn’t last long enough to make any difference). There is little indication that anything will change by 2025. Israel and its Arab neighbors have hated each other ever since Isaac and Ishmael, almost 4000 years ago (if the Qur’an is to be believed in Sura 19:54). The probability that the enmity between these ancient enemies will cool in the next 15 years is infinitesimally small. To make matters worse, extracts of statements by Osama Bin Laden indicate that the 9/11 attack occurred because:

America is the great Satan. Actually, many Christian Evangelicals and traditional Catholics and Jews sympathize with Bin Laden’s accusation in this case (while deploring his methods), noting our cultural promotion of pornography, abortion, and homosexuality.
American bases are stationed in Saudi Arabia (the home of Mecca), which many Muslims see as a blasphemy. It is difficult for Americans to understand why this is so bad—we even protect the right to burn and desecrate our own flag.
Our support for Israel. Since Israel is one of the few democracies in the Mideast, and since it’s culture doesn’t raise suicide bombers, it seems quite reasonable that we should support it—it’s the right thing to do. As an appeal to self-interest, we can always remember that over the past 105 years, 1.4 billion Muslims have produced only eight Nobel Laureates while a mere 14 million Jews have produced 167 Nobel Laureates.

Given the history of Islam’s relationship with all other belief systems, the outlook looks gloomy. If the past 1400 years are any guide, Islam will continue to be at war with Paganism, Atheism, Hinduism, Judaism, and Christianity—both in hot wars of conquest and in psychological battles for the hearts and minds of the world.[33]

Muslim Demographics
The 2025 report made a wise decision in covering demographic issues, since they are predictable. But it did not investigate the causal sources (personal and cultural beliefs) of crucial demographic trends. The report writes that “the radical Salafi trend of Islam is likely to gain traction” in “those countries that are likely to struggle with youth bulges and weak economic underpinnings. (Page ix)”

This is certainly an accurate prediction. But what human beliefs lead to behavior that leads to youth bulges and weak economies? The answer is quite complex, partially because the Quran is not crystal clear on this issue. But generally “Muslim religiosity and support for Shari’a Law are associated with higher fertility” and that better education, higher wealth, and urbanization do not reduce Muslim fertility (as it does with other religions). The result is that while religious fundamentalism in Islam does not boost fertility as much as it does for Jewish traditionalists in Israel, it is still true that “fertility dynamics could power increased religiosity and Islamism in the Muslim world in the twenty-first century.“[34]

Other Practical Aspects of Islam Theology
One of the reasons the Western world is at odds with Islam is because of different views on freedom and virtue. Americans generally value freedom over virtue. In Islam, however, virtue is far more important than freedom, despite the fact that virtue requires an act of free will. In other words, Muslims don’t seem to realize that if good behavior is forced, then it is not really virtuous. Meanwhile, here in the USA we seem to have forgotten that vices enslave us—as demonstrated by addictions to drugs, gambling, and sex; we have forgotten that true freedom requires us to be virtuous—that we must bridle our passions in order to be truly free.

A disturbing facet of Islam is that it requires the death of an apostate. Theologically, this is because Allah is master, not father or spouse (as most often portrayed in the Bible), and submission to Allah is mandatory in Islam. While it is true that Christianity authorized the secular authorities to burn a few thousand heretics over two thousand years, these were in extreme situations of maximum irrationality that were fixed fairly quickly hundreds of years ago (often a single thoughtful bishop or priest stopped an outbreak). In contrast, fatwahs demanding the death penalty for apostates and heretics are still common in Islamic countries.[35]

Theology, Technological Progress, and Cultural Success
Religions do not make people stupid or cowardly. President Bush may have called the 9/11 Islamic terrorists cowardly, but they were not. They went to their deaths as bravely as any American soldier. Nor were they stupid—otherwise they never would have been able to pull off the most devastating terrorist attack on the U.S. in our relatively short history, cleverly devising a way to use our open society and our technology to maximal effect. But as individuals they were deluded, and their culture could not design or build jumbo jets; hence they used ours. This means that Islamic terrorists will be glad to use nanotechnological weapons as eagerly as nuclear ones—once they get their hands on them. The problem, of course, is that nano-enhanced weapons will be much easier to develop than nuclear ones.

Ever since the time of the Pilgrims, Americans have considered themselves citizens of a “bright, shining city on the hill” and much of the world agreed, with immigrants pouring in for three centuries to build the most powerful nation in history. Our representative democracy and loosely-regulated capitalism, regulated by individual consciences based on a Judeo-Christian foundation of rights and responsibilities, has been copied all over the world (at least superficially). But will this shining city endure?

It is the task of the U.S. National Intelligence Council to make sure that it does, and their effort to understand the future is an important step in that direction. Hopefully they will examine more closely the impact that technology, especially productive nanosystems, will have on political structures. In addition, they need to understand the theological underpinnings of Islam, and how it will affect the technological capabilities of Muslim nations.

For a better government-sponsored report on how technology will affect us, see Toffler Associates’ Technology and Innovation 2025 at


[1] National Intelligence Council, Global Trends 2025: A Transformed World and

[2] Earlier exceptions are rare, though technology has been lost occasionally—most notably 5th century Europe after the fall of the Roman Empire, and 15th century China after the last voyage of Admiral Zeng He’s Treasure Fleet of the Dragon Throne.

[3] Singularity Symposium, Exponential Growth and the Legend of Paal Paysam.

[4] Ray Kurzweil, The Law of Accelerating Returns. March 7, 2001.

[5] Matthew R. Simmons, Revisiting The Limits to Growth: Could The Club of Rome Have Been Correct, After All? (Part One). Sep 30 2000. Note that technological optimists always quote the chess example, while environmental doomsayers always quote the lily pad example.

[6] High-performance lithium battery anodes using silicon nanowires, Candace K. Chan, Hailin Peng, Gao Liu, Kevin McIlwrath, Xiao Feng Zhang, Robert A. Huggins & Yi Cui, Nature Nanotechnology 3, 31 — 35 (2008).

[7] See Nanotechnology’s biggest stories of 2008 and Top Ten Nanotechnology Patents of 2008

[8] Paul Rothemund. Folding DNA to create nanoscale shapes and patterns, Nature, V440N16. March 2006.

[9] Christian E. Schafmeister. The Building Blocks of Molecular Nanotechnology. Conference on Productive Nanosystems: Launching the Technology Roadmap. Arlington, VA. Oct. 9–10, 2007.

[10] John N. Randall. A Path to Atomically Precise Manufacturing. Conference on Productive Nanosystems: Launching the Technology Roadmap. Arlington, VA. Oct. 9–10, 2007.

[11] Ralph Merkle and Robert Freitas Jr., “Theoretical analysis of a carbon-carbon dimer placement tool for diamond mechanosynthesis,” Journal of Nanoscience and Nanotechnology. 3(August 2003):319-324;

[12] Robert A. Freitas Jr. and Ralph C. Merkle, A Minimal Toolset for Positional Diamond Mechanosynthesis, Journal of Computational and Theoretical Nanoscience. Vol.5, 760–861, 2008

[13] Jingping Peng, Robert. Freitas, Jr., Ralph Merkle, James Von Ehr, John Randall, and George D. Skidmore. Theoretical Analysis of Diamond Mechanosynthesis. Part III. Positional C2 Deposition on Diamond C(110) Surface Using Si/Ge/Sn-Based Dimer Placement Tools. Journal of Computational and Theoretical Nanoscience. Vol.3, 28-41, 2006.

[14] Adrian Bowyer, et al. RepRap-Wealth without money.

[15] John Storrs Hall, The Weather Machine. December 23, 2008,

[16] National Security Space Office. Space-Based Solar Power As an Opportunity for Strategic Security: Phase 0 Architecture Feasibility Study.

[17] John Storrs Hall, Utility Fog: The Stuff that Dreams are Made Of.

[18] John Storrs Hall, The Space Pier: A hybrid Space-launch Tower concept.

[19] Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, SAMMS: Self-Assembled Monolayers on Mesoporous Supports.

[20] OECD Nuclear Energy Agency. Trends in the nuclear fuel cycle: economic, environmental and social aspects, Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development 2001

[21] Mark Clayton. Will lasers brighten nuclear’s future? The Christian Science Monitor/ August 27, 2008.

[22] Paul Werbos, What should we be doing today to enhance world energy security, in order to reach a sustainable global energy system? See also Robert Zubrin, Energy Victory: Winning the War on Terror by Breaking Free of Oil. Prometheus Books. November 2007.

[23] John Storrs Hall, The weather machine. December 23, 2008,

[24] Tihamer Toth-Fejel, A Few Lesser Implications of Nanofactories: Global Warming is the Least of our Problems, Nanotechnology Perceptions, March 2009.

[25] Exceptions would be small groups who were subject to selective pressure to increase intelligence, such as the Ashkenazi Jews.

[26] Joel Mokyr , The Lever of Riches: Technological Creativity and Economic Progress. Oxford University Press, USA (April 9, 1992).

[27] Zhao (Peter) Xiao, Market Economies With Churches and Market Economies Without Churches

[28] ibid.

[29] Peter Kreeft, Ecumenical Jihad: Ecumenism and the Culture War, Ignatius Press (March 1996). More specifically, Kreeft points out that Muslims have lower rates of abortion, adultery, fornication, and sodomy; and higher rates of prayer and devotion to God. Kreeft then repeats the Biblical admonition that God blesses those who obey His commandments. For atheists and agnostics, it might be more palatable to think of it as evolution in action: If a group encourages behavior that reduces the number of capable offspring, then it is doomed.

[30] Farrukh Saleem, Muslims amongst world’s poorest weakest, illiterate: What Went Wrong. November 08, 2005

[31] ibid.

[32] Pope Benedict XVI. Faith, Reason and the University: Memories and Reflections. University of Regensburg, September 2006.

[33] Note that this report is not a critique of Muslim people—only their beliefs (though it may not feel that way to them).

[34] Kaufmann, E. P. , “Islamism, Religiosity and Fertility in the Muslim World,” Annual meeting of the ISA’s 50th Annual Convention: Exploring the Past, Anticipating the Future. New York, NY. Feb 13-15, 2009.

[35] On the other hand (to put things in perspective), compared to the atheists Stalin, Mao, and Pol Pot, even the most deadly Muslims extremists are rank amateurs at mass murder. Perhaps that is why Communism has barely lasted two generations, while Islam has lasted fourteen centuries. You just can’t go around killing people.

Tihamer Toth-Fejel, MS
General Dynamics Advanced Information Systems
Michigan Research and Development Center

At a fundamental level, real wealth is the ability to fulfill human needs and desires. These ephemeral motivators are responsible for the creation of money, bank ledgers, and financial instruments that drive the world—caveat the fact that the monetary system can’t buy us love (and a few other necessities). Technologies have always provided us with tools that enable us to fulfill more needs and desires for more people with less effort. The exponential nanomanufacturing capabilities of Productive Nanosystems will simply enable us to do it better. Much better.

Productive Nanosystems
The National Nanotechnology Initiative defines nanotechnology as technologies that control matter at dimensions between one and a hundred nanometers, where unique phenomena enable novel applications. For particles and structures, reducing dimensions to the nanoscale primarily affects surface area to volume ratios and surface energies. For active structures and devices, the significant design parameters become exciton distances, quantum effects, and photon interactions. Connecting many different nanodevices into complex systems will multiply their power, leading some experts to predict that a particular kind of nanosystem—Productive Nanosystems that produces atomically precise products—will dramatically change the world.

Productive Nanosystems are programmable mechanoelectrochemical systems that are expected to rearrange bulk quantities numbers of atoms with atomic precision under programmatical control. There are currently four approaches that are expected to lead to Productive Nanosystems: DNA Origami[1], Bis-Peptide Synthesis[2], Patterned Atomic Layer Epitaxy[3], and Diamondoid Mechanosynthesis[4]. The first two are biomimetic bottom-up approaches that struggle to achieve long-range order and to increase complexity despite using chaotic thermodynamic processes. The second two are scanning-probe-based top-down approaches that struggle to increase productivity to a few hundred atoms per hour while reducing error rate.[5]

For the bottom-up approaches, the tipping point will be reached when researchers build the first nanosystem complex enough to do error correction. For the top-down approaches that can do error correction fairly easily, the tipping point will be reached when subsequent generations of tip arrays no longer need to be redesigned for speed and size improvements while using control algorithms that scale well (i.e. they only need generational time, synthesized inputs, and expansion room). When these milestones are reached, nanosystems will grow exponentially—unnoticeably for a few weeks, but suddenly they will become overwhelmingly powerful. There are many significant applications foreseen for mature Productive Nanosystems, ranging from aerospace and transportation to medicine and manufacturing—but what may affect us the hardest may be those applications that we can’t foresee.

Thus far, no scientific reason has been discovered that would prevent any of the four approaches from leading to Productive Nanosystems, much less all of them. So when an early desktop nanofactory prints out the next generation of Intel’s processor (without a $8 Billion microphotolithography fab plant), or a sailboat goes out for a weekend cruise and collects a few kilograms of gold or plutonium from seawater, people will sit up and take notice that the world has changed. Unfortunately, by then it will be a bit late — they will be like Neanderthals staring at a jet fighter that just thundered by overhead, and is already half-way to the horizon.

Combined with sufficient medical knowledge of how the human body should operate at the nanoscale, Productive Nanosystems may also be able to cure all known diseases, and perhaps even reverse the seven mechanisms of aging. For example, replacing red blood cells with microscopic artificial red blood cells (consisting of pressurized tanks and nanocomponents) will enable people to hold their breath for four hours.[6] Such simple nanobots (with less complexity than a microwave oven) may save the lives of many patients with blood and heart disorders. Other nanostructures, such as artificial kidneys with biocompatible nanomembranes, may prevent end-stage renal failure. One important caveat however, is that Productive Nanosystems can only move atoms around—they are useless when we don’t know where the atoms are supposed to go. Discovering the optimal positions of atoms for a particular application is new science, and inherently unpredictable.

In contrast to inventing new science, connecting nanodevices together to form a Productive Nanosystem is an engineering problem. If done correctly, it will make possible nanofactory appliances that can “print” anything (caveat the flexibility of the output envelope, the range and limits of the input molecules, the “printing” process, and the software).[7] These developments should increase our average standard of living to levels that would make Bill Gates look like a pauper, while reducing our carbon footprint to negative numbers, and replacing the energy and transportation infrastructures of the world.

After all, we currently have a technologically-enhanced standard of living that kings and pharaohs of old would envy, but we certainly haven’t reached utopia yet. On the other hand, atomically precise products made by Productive Nanosystems will be able to reduce economic dependency to a square meter of dirt and the sunshine that lands on it, while simultaneously lowering the price to orbit to $5/lb. Those kinds of technological capabilities might buy a significant amount of economic and political freedom.

The collisions between unstoppable juggernauts and immovable obstacles are always fascinating—we just cannot tear our eyes away from the immense conflict, especially if we have a glimmer of the immense consequences it will have for us. So it will be when Productive Nanosystems emerge from the global financial meltdown. To predict what will happen in the next decade or so, we must understand the essential nature of wealth, and we must understand the capabilities of productive nanosystems. Plus we must understand the consequences of their confluence. This is a tall order. Like any new technology, the development of Productive Nanosystems will depend on economics and politics, primarily the Rule of Law and enforceable contracts. But then the formidable power of Productive Nanosystems to do more with less will significantly affect some of the rules that govern economics and politics.

In the past few months, many people have panicked over plummeting retirement accounts, tumbling real estate values, and the loss of jobs by their coworkers (if not themselves). The government’s subsequent response has been equally shocking, as government spending has skyrocketed with brain-numbing strings of zeros being added to the national debt. Historically in both the U.S. and abroad, an expansion of the money supply in excess of the production of real goods and services has invariably produced inflation.

To make some sense of what is happening, and of how we might get out of this mess, it might be useful to re-examine the concept of wealth. Karl Marx’s “labor theory of value” identified human labor as the only source of wealth, but there are at least three major errors with this view. First, valuable material resources are spread unequally over this planet (which is why mining rights are so important). Second, tools can multiply the value of a person’s labor by many magnitudes (and since tools are generated by human labor and other tools, the direction and specific accomplishments of human labor become important). Third, political and social systems that incentivize different types of human behavior (and attitudes) will significantly increase or decrease the amount of real wealth available. Unfortunately, the tax rates of most political systems decrease the incentive to produce real wealth, and few of them provide an incentive to encourage the ultimate source of real wealth: the valuable ideas in the minds of inventors and innovators.

But what is that real wealth? Basically, it is the ability to fulfill human needs and desires. This means that (as subjective value theory claims), one person cannot know the needs and desires of another, and therefore all central planning schemes will fail. Statistics are fallible for a number of reasons, but mostly because reality is too complex: In the chaotic interplay of causal forces in the real world, the injection of a brilliant idea into a situation that is sensitive to initial conditions can change the world in very unpredictable ways. Also, central planning fails because human beings in power (i.e. politicians) are too susceptible to temptation (as in rent-seeking), and because the illogical passions that drive many human decisions cannot be encompassed by bureaucratic rules (or bureaucratic minds, for that matter).

By its very nature, real wealth requires government to uphold the inalienable rights of its citizens (including property rights), to provide for the common good by creating and orderly environment in which free citizens may prosper with their work, and to protect the weak from the strong. So government plays an important role in creating real wealth.

Wealth is often associated with money, but money is simply a counter: it replaced the barter of objects and services because it is an efficient marker that facilitates the exchange and storage of real wealth.[8]

Productive Nanosystems will only rearrange atoms, so they will not change what money and real wealth are. However, because Productive Nanosystems will provide a precise and powerful mechanism for rearranging atoms, they will be able to fulfill more human needs and desires than ever imaginable. But it still won’t be free.

Nanotechnologies and their applications will not be easily bartered, and atoms of different elements will still have relative scarcities (along with energy), so money will still be very useful. Unfortunately, it also means that deficit spending will still be inflationary. But will that be bad?

Early medieval Christian, Jewish, and Islamic societies all denounced usury as immoral, thereby preventing fractional reserve banking and inadvertently reducing the supply of available capital for business expansion. Some people are suspicious of the consequences and ethics of fractional reserve banking, based on an instinctive uneasiness that it seems like a Ponzi-scheme — creating money out of nothing. But while a Ponzi scheme is always based on extravagant promises and fraudulent misrepresentation, fractional reserve banking can serve a beneficial role (i.e. generate real wealth) as long as the fraction that banks choose to lend is commensurate with the velocity of money, risk weighted credit exposure, and the productivity of different forms of real wealth.[9] In today’s non-agricultural post-industrial society, the optimum reserve percentage has been calculated to be around 10%, and that is what the legal limit has been for some time. Unfortunately, greed being what it is, people have found loopholes in that law. In the United States this began occurring most notably in the early 1990s with the repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act of 1933 and the creation of Collateralized Debt Obligations.[10]

In the olden days, monetary expansion occurred when the king called in all the coins, shaved them or diluted the alloy that made them up, and then re-issued them. This was the old-fashioned form of deficit spending. This trick became easier with the invention of paper money, and became even more easy as financial services moved into electronic bits. Other than being a theft from future lenders by present borrowers, deficit spending skews the value decisions of consumers and investors, causing them to spend and invest money differently than they would if they knew how much real money actually existed. Another problem develops when bankers start underwriting government bonds, giving them powerful incentives for pressuring governments to maximize profit for themselves—not to benefit the country or its citizens (this is especially true when those in power build monopolies to reduce competition).

The expenses of running a bank, along with the expansion of the money supply via fractional reserve banking means that lenders must charge a reasonable interest rate to stay in business (at the same time, the exploitation of the poor by charging exorbitant interest is certainly unjust). The expansion of the money supply then maximizes the productivity of human labor as population grows and technology improves. This is why most economists think that the money supply should expand at the same rate as the growth in goods and services. Otherwise deflation occurs as the exchange value of the money increases to meet the expanded demand. At best, deflation only makes it more difficult for businesses get loans for expansion; at worst it signals the beginning of a deflationary spiral, in which falling prices give consumers an incentive to delay purchases until prices fall further, which in turn reduces overall economic activity, etc.

Thus deficit spending skews the economical signal between production and consumption. This is why it is harmful, especially as deficit spending increases, and especially if the spending is politically charged. With respect to nanotechnology, the salient point is that deficit spending incentivizes short-run gains over long term investments. The real problem is that this bias makes the investment necessary for nanotechnology-enabled productivity much more difficult to attain, even though such an investment could ameliorate the negative impact of the current deficit spending.

Nanotechnology can do nothing about correcting distorted economic signals. However, nanotechnology can increase productivity. And if it increases productivity as fast as the money supply grows, then we may not suffer from hyperinflation—though admittedly outracing politicians on a spending binge will be no mean trick. Whether it does or doesn’t depends on some sensitive initial conditions that may or may not trigger a psychological tipping point at which many people realize that more claim-tickets (dollars) to wealth have been printed (or stored as zeros in some computer’s memory) than can ever be redeemed. So they start selling panic- selling—exchanging paper or electronic money for anything with a more solid aspect of reality. The enhanced properties of primitive nanotech-enabled products will certainly have a dramatic effect on reality—this will be even more true with Productive Nanosystems—many of which may seem miraculous. Why worry about whether the numbers in your checking account are “real” as long as they cover the credit card bill next month for medical nanobots we would buy online and download today? The big question is *if* the medical nanobots will really be available or not.

Unfortunately, even in the best case many individuals will suffer because hyper-increased productivity may cause hyper-increased money flows. If the flow of money hyper-accelerate does (and even if it doesn’t), the hyper-acceleration of productivity will undoubtedly cause more economic and social turbulence than most people can handle. This is a matter for concern, because many scenarios predict very significant amounts of turbulence as Productive Nanosystems reach a tipping point. By analogy, the recent financial meltdown is to the nanotech revolution what a kindergarten play dress rehearsal is to the Normandy invasion.

Why is the advent of Productive Nanosystems so significant, why is it bad (if it is), and what are we going to do about it?

First, it seems obvious that a rapid commercialization of Productive Nanosystems will cause turbulent economic fluctuations that hurt people who aren’t fast enough to adjust to them. But how do we know that Productive Nanosystems will cause massive fluctuations?

Briefly, it is because they are so powerful. For example, building nanoelectronic circuits on a desktop “printer” instead of a fab plant will probably bankrupt the many companies needed to build the fab plant (no matter whether it is a mere $2B as it is today, or whether it may top $50B as expected a few Moore’s generations from now). It is difficult to predict what would happen if the desktop “printer”, or nanofactory, could print a copy of itself, but a continuation of “business as usual” would not be possible with such an invension.

Second, why is the quick development of Productive Nanosystems bad? Or is it?

Though many Americans today have adequate material comforts, we do not have some of the freedoms taken for granted by kings of old. Trinkets and baubles are not equivalent to freedom, and nanotech-enabled trinkets are trinkets nonetheless. On the other hand, atomically precise products made by productive nanosystems will be able to reduce economic dependency to a square meter of dirt and the sunshine that lands on it, and lower the price to orbit to $5/lb. Those kinds of abilities will buy a significant amount of economic and political freedom, especially for those with more than a square meter of dirt and sunshine. Just as the settlement of the New World had large effects on the Old, an expansion off-planet would have huge implications for those who stay behind. Given such possibilities and pushing Bill Joy’s overwrought fears of nanotechnology aside,[11] it seems that there is cause for concern, but there is also cause for hope.

Third, what are we going to do about it?

Part of the problem is that the future is not clear. Throwing more smart people at the problem might help reduce the amount of uncertainty, but only if the smart people understand why some events are more likely to occur. Then they need to explain to us and to policy makers the technical possibilities of Productive Nanosystems and their social consequences.

Second, we need to invest in Productive Nanosystems. Historically, we know that companies such as Google and Samsung, who increased their R&D spending after the dotcom bubble of 2001, came out much stronger than their competition did. In 2003, China ranked third in the world in number of nanotechnology patents, but in recent months Tsinghua University has often had more than twice as many nanotechnology patents pending as any other U.S. university or organization. Earlier, the Chinese had duplicated [12] Rothemund’s DNA Origami experiment within months of the publication of his seminal article in Nature. Those who invest more money with more wisdom will do much better than those who do not invest, or who invest foolishly.

The other part of the problem is that we often don’t have the intestinal fortitude to do what is right, even when we know what it is. As human beings, we are easily tempted. Neither increased intelligence nor mature Productive Nanosystems will ever help us get around this problem. About the only thing we can do is practice ethical and moral behavior now, so that we get into the habit now before the consequences become enormous. Then again, judging from the recorded history, legends, and stories from ancient sources, the last six thousand years of practice has not done us much good.

Some of our current financial meltdown occurred because we were soft-hearted and soft-headed, encouraging the making of loans to people who couldn’t pay them back. Other financial problems occurred because of greed—the attempt to make money quickly without creating real wealth. Unfortunately, the enormous productivity promise of Productive Nanosystems may only encourage that type of risky gambling.

There is also the problem that poverty may not only be the lack of money. This means that in a Productive Nanosystem-driven economy, poverty will not be the lack of real wealth, but something else. If that is true, then what is real poverty? Is it ignorance? Self-imposed unhappiness? The suffering of injustice? I don’t know, but I suspect that just as obesity plagues the poor more than the rich, a hyper-abundant society will reveal social dysfunctions that seem counterintuitive to us today. Some characteristic disfunctionalities, such as wealth producing sloth, are obvious. Others are not, and they are the ones that will trap numerous unsuspecting victims.

Eric Drexler has identified a few things that will be valuable in a hyper-abundant society: new scientific knowledge, and land area on Earth (the limit of which has been a cause of wars since humans first left Africa). Given the additional gifts of disease-free and ageless bodies, I would add a few more valuables, listed by increasing importance: the respect of a community, the trust of friends outside the increasingly byzantine labyrinth of law, the admiration of children (especially your own), the total lifelong commitment of a spouse, and the peace of knowing one’s unique destiny in this universe. We should all be as lucky.

1. Paul W. K. Rothemund, Folding DNA to create nanoscale shapes and patterns, Nature, Vol 440, 16 March 2006.
2. Christian Schafmeister, Molecular lego. Scientific American 2007;296(2):64–71.
3. John Randall, et al., Patterned atomic layer epitaxy — Patent 7326293
4. Robert A. Freitas Jr., Ralph C. Merkle, “A Minimal Toolset for Positional Diamond Mechanosynthesis,” J. Comput. Theor. Nanosci. 5(May 2008):760-861;
5. The Zyvex-led Atomically Precise Manufacturing Consortium has recently met their DARPA-funded Tip-Based Nanofabrication project’s Phase I metrics by writing 100 dangling bond wires, half of them 36.6nm x 3.5nm and half 24.5nm x 3.5 nm in 5.66 minutes. That is 1.5 million atoms per hour, but the error rate was ±6.4%, which is unacceptable for Productive Nanosystems (unless they implement error correction, which for Patterned Atomic Layer Epitaxy may or may not be easy because the high mobility of hydrogen at the operating temperature of the process).
6. Tihamer Toth-Fejel. Respirocytes from Patterned Atomic Layer Epitaxy: The Most Conservative Pathway to the. Simplest Medical Nanorobot. 2nd Unither Nanomedical and Telemedicine Technology Conference. Quebec, Canada. February 24–27, 2009.
7. Chris Phoenix and Tihamer Toth-Fejel, Large-Product General-Purpose Design and Manufacturing Using Nanoscale Modules: Final Report, CP-04-01, NASA Institute for Advanced Concepts, May 2005.
8. The Federal Reserve distinguishes value exchange as M1 and the [storage] of value as M2. For a good description of the history and role of money, see Alan Greenspan, Gold and Economic Freedom.
9. Karl Denninger describes the benefits and drawbacks of fractional reserve banking, pointing out that the key determinate is whether or not the debts incurred are productive (e.g. investments in tooling, land, or education) vs. consumptive (e.g. heating a house, buying a bigscreen TV, or going on vacation). See
10. Marc and Nathalie Fleury, The Financial Crisis for Dummies: Securitization.
11. Bill Joy, Why the future doesn’t need us. Wired (Apr 2000) On some issues, Bill Joy was so far off that he wasn’t even wrong. See “Why the Future Needs Bill Joy”
12. Qian Lulu, et al., Analogic China map constructed by DNA. Chinese Science Bulletin. Dec 2006. Vol. 51 No. 24

Thanks to Forrest Bishop, Jim Osborn, and Andrew Balet for many excellent critical comments on earlier drafts.

Tihamer Toth-Fejel, MS
General Dynamics Advanced Information Systems
Michigan Research and Development Center

People have been worried about nanotechnology for quite some time now; nano-asbestos, advanced nano-enabled weapons, and self-replicating “gray goo” nanobots that accidentally go out of control. But what if everything goes right? What if nanotubes and nanoparticles are functionalized to stay out of the ecosystem? What if there are no major wars? What if nanoreplicators are never built, or if they are, they use modern error correction software to never mutate? What happens if nanotechnology fulfills humanity’s desires perfectly?

In the next decade or so, a new type of desktop appliance will be developed—a nanofactory that consists of very many productive nanosystems—atomically precise nanoscale machines that work together to build bulk amounts of atomically precise products.

The Foresight Technology Roadmap for Productive Nanosystems has identified a number of different approaches for building these atomically precise systems of machines that can produce other nanosystems These approaches include Paul Rothemund’s DNA Origami, Christopher Schafmeister’s Bis-proteins, Joe Lynden’s Patterned Atomic Layer Epitaxy, and Robert Freitas and Ralph Merkle’s Diamondoid Mechanosynthesis,, and Each of these approaches has the potential of building the numerous nanoscale electronic, mechanical, and structural components that comprise productive nanosystems.

The ultimate result will be a nanofactory that can build virtually anything—limited only by the laws of physics, the properties of the input feedstock, and the software that controls the device.

The concern is that this relatively primitive application—if successfully deployed as expected—will pose significant challenges, even if nobody accidentally makes a mistake or puts it to evil ends. Consider the simple, safe, and optimistic possibilities made possible by a nanofactory that can build a wide variety of atomically precise, large-scale products out of a few different input elements (say carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, iron, silicon, germanium, boron, phosphorus, and titanium) The factory itself would not be nano-sized; it would be an appliance that is approximately the same size as a desktop printer. However, its multi-material 3D output products would be atomically precise at the nanoscale.

The first and most valuable product of a nanofactory will be another nanofactory. The second most valuable product will be a system that refills the nanofactory’s “inkjet cartridge” using inexpensive feedstock, and the third will be a machine that turns sand into photovoltaic solar cells (with which to power the nanofactory). It is not clear what would one would print next. Programmable material for a holodeck? Wearable supercomputers? A few pounds of medical nanobots?

In any case, a few months to a few years after the first commercial release of a nanofactory, almost everyone will have one. It is not clear what the price might be—perhaps $1000. The price could not drop to zero, though it might approach the cost of dirt, sunshine, and the time required to print a nanofactory.

Diamond and its carbon-based relatives are an engineer’s best friend; being 50 times stronger than steel, only their atomic structure differentiates it from coal. Once people have a printer that can inexpensively make arbitrary, atomically perfect diamondoid nanostructures out of carbon, they are going to make everything out of it—from wearable supercomputers and skyscrapers that reach Low Earth Orbit to medical nanobots and flying cars—anything that doesn’t violate the laws of physics and has a CAD file description available on the web. Therefore, any cheap sources of carbon will be snatched up quickly.

Because human desire is essentially infinite, the demand for carbon will reach very high levels fairly quickly.

Air is free, and so is the carbon dioxide in it.

If taking carbon dioxide out of the air became economically favorable (and with inexpensive solar power it probably will be), then the result will be a ‘tragedy of the commons’. This would solve CO2-caused global warming with a vengeance, but would result in global freezing—and worse. If enough carbon dioxide in the air was removed, plant life would start to die.

Futurist Keith Henson has predicted that to counteract this outcome, the Sierra Club will frantically strip-mine all the coal under Wyoming and burn it as dirty a manner possible to save the rain forests. If Henson is correct, then Congress might pass laws that make it illegal to take CO2 from the air. But how will the government enforce a ban against unauthorized CO2 extraction?

Nanotechnology, of course.

Unfortunately, a government with unfettered nanotechnology-enhanced enforcement powers would likely be a dictatorship that makes the totalitarian regime of Orwell’s 1984 look like a kindergarten playground.

An alternative to a dictatorship would involve ownership of air. This sounds strange and preposterous until we remember that the American Indians thought that land ownership was strange and preposterous.

A more jarring alternative might involve the re-engineering of plants so that they can live without carbon dioxide, perhaps by using silica as a structure material (as diatoms do). Do we really trust ourselves to recreate Earth’s biosphere in such a drastic manner? Some optimists will tell us not to worry about such drastic genetic modification on the ecosystem; we will back up the whole thing on the web somewhere, and use modern software revision-tracking software to keep it safe

Admittedly, these scenarios seem rather far-fetched. However, as Foresight Institute co-founder Christine Peterson put it, “If you look out into the long-term future and what you see looks like science fiction, it might be wrong. But if it doesn’t look like science fiction, it’s definitely wrong”

We are not yet at the level of technological maturity at which we can confidently assert that widescale nanofactory development and distribution is inevitable. Of the four main approaches to Productive Nanosystems, only the most rudimentary lab demos have proven the concepts. Therefore, the suggestion that nanofactories will alter the conditions of anthropogenic global warming may be met with skepticism — as it should. However, in light of the exponential progress in nanotechnology in the past few years, it is likely that some version of the carbon dioxide tragedy of the commons will happen in some form or another. Researchers, policy makers, and the public at large must become aware of these possibilities, and thoughtfully analyze them. Otherwise disruptive events may cause panic, as most scenarios predict a quick transition from initial invention to wide distribution of these technologies.

Ultimately, this prediction means two things. First, that wasting precious time, money, and effort on stopping global warming will increase the risk of other, more serious catastrophes. Second, we will need to set aside any conservative values regarding the preservation of the Earth’s ecosystem as it currently exists. Change will happen. The good news is that a Space Pier and other low-cost methods to orbit will be available for conservatives who are intent on preserving the status quo biosphere elsewhere in the solar system. Of course, these are the same people who are probably the most emotionally resistant to leaving, which might lead to conflicts.

Howard Bloom gently points out that “Nature is not a motherly protector”. Putting it more bluntly and extending the anthropomorphism, Mother Nature is a brutal psychopath who uncaringly tortures and slaughters her children. She does not build nice little eco-friendly Gardens of Eden. In fact, there have been 148 major die-offs, and six much bigger mass extinctions (in which over 90% of species on this planet were wiped out—each and every time). Those die-offs resulted from natural physical disturbances in a universe that is fine-tuned to allow carbon-based life to emerge. It’s a mixed message, but the message is simple: Adapt or die. Nanotechnology will not change that message. However, it will provide us with better biotech tools that will enable us to (for better or worse) manipulate our bodies and brains.

As the nanotechnology revolution begins, we will need to think hard about its secondary effects and ethical implications. The sheer magnitude of changes will cause us to consider carefully our ultimate role in the universe, our essential nature as human persons, the meaning of our lives, and what we really, really desire.

Tihamer Toth-Fejel, MS
General Dynamics Advanced Information Systems
Michigan Research and Development Center

May 2: Many U.S. emergency rooms and hospitals crammed with people… ”Walking well” flood hospitals… Clinics double their traffic in major cities … ER rooms turn away EMT cases. — CNN

Update May 4: Confirmed cases of H1N1 virus now at 985 in 20 countries (Mexico: 590, 25 deaths) — WHO. In U.S.: 245 confirmed U.S. cases in 35 states. — CDC.

“We might be entering an Age of Pandemics… a broad array of dangerous emerging 21st-century diseases, man-made or natural, brand-new or old, newly resistant to our current vaccines and antiviral drugs…. Martin Rees bet $1,000 that bioterror or bioerror would unleash a catastrophic event claiming one million lives in the next two decades…. Why? Less forest, more contact with animals… more meat eating (Africans last year consumed nearly 700 million wild animals… numbers of chickens raised for food in China have increased 1,000-fold over the past few decades)… farmers cut down jungle, creating deforested areas that once served as barriers to the zoonotic viruses…” — Larry Brilliant, Wall Street Journal