Previous: Ralph Merkle

III. The Present State of Nanotechnology

c. Robert Freitas

Robert Freitas,, is a leading specialist in nanomedicine today in the world, i.e. applications of nanotechnology to medicine. He collaborates with Russian scientific audience. One can read his biography in Russian (Bio (Russian language)) as well as his interview with Russian audience (Interview (July 2004)) (in English). Freitas maintains Nanomedicine Art Gallery ( ).

1. Lunar factory study

In 1980 Robert Freitas together with William Gilbreath edited NASA self-replicating lunar factory study ( They presented the concept of a "seed" factory developing into an expanded system capable of replication, growth and production ("replication" being one aspect of production).

This concept is prominent for following reasons:

1) super automation with "very little intervention in the replication process except for supervisory and top-level guidance functions".

2) The place for this new type of production is proposed to be the Moon as "Earth-based industry (is) constrained by normal economic factors", i.e. cheap labor power. For capitalism, there is no incentive to automation when there are hundreds of millions of cheap workers in China.

3) A self-replicating factory provides a means for organizing potentially infinite quantities of matter, as each factory will reproduce itself and, for production purposes, would use the materials in its vicinity to make useful things.

4) This leads to the concept of "terraforming", i.e. alteration of space bodies so that they may support life and humans.

5) "Dispersal of humankind to many spatially separated ecosystems would ensure that no planetary-scale disaster... could threaten the destruction of all mankind and his accomplishments". This is a restatement of Von Braun's idea that the only way of ensuring the survival of humanity in the age of nuclear weapons is to spread in space, go to other planets and settle them.

6) "With the SRS humanity could set in motion a chain reaction of organization sweeping across the Universe at nearly the speed of light. This organized part of the Universe could itself be viewed as a higher level organism".

Social implications of "lunar factory":

1) "a terrestrial SRS (self-replicating system) could wreak economic havoc by manufacturing products for which the consumers who will use the products will not have to pay". Why? "Supply may be decoupled from demand to permit each person to possess all he wants, and more".

2) Freitas and Gilbreath write that the concept of "rate of return" on capital is under threat. "Will present-day governments and other national and international economic entities support the replicating factory concept it it is seen as a potential threat, capable of rendering obsolete the entire global economic order which now exists and under which they now operate?"

The answer is "No". The $11.7 million dollar study, done for president Carter in 1980, was "quietly declined with barely a ripple in the press".

It is curious to observe that Freitas and Gilbreath support the methodology of Merkle and Drexler, i.e. in their own words, a "top-down approach" must be supplemented by "bottom-top" approach:

"The top-down approach consists of carefully defining the overall problem, then decomposing that problem into simpler sub-problems. These sub-problems are, in turn, decomposed into sub-problems, and so on. The process continues, forming a lattice structure whose lowest tier nodes are low-level problems which are readily soluble... The top-down approach works best when there's a well-established goal and a mature technology. The bottom-up approach consists of supporting basic and applied fields related to the desire goal. Science and technology normally advance in bottom-up fashion. Researchers build on work of their predecessors".

"Top-down approach works well only when the relevant bottom-up 'homework' has been done in advance". So, a combination of "top-down" and "bottom-up" works best.

Still another methodological approach is to build models, i.e. small-scale and cheap things which let us know (study) about the behavior of big things. For example, Freitas and Gilbreath recommend to immediately start with a feasibility project of a lunar factory in order to understand all problems related with it.

2. "The Economic Impact of a Personal Nanofactory"

In 2006 Robert Freitas published "The Economic Impact of a Personal Nanofactory" (Full Paper (HTML)). What is a "personal nanofactory" (PN)? "The PN will be capable of building any manner of consumer goods using simple molecular feedstock". This molecular feedstock is represented by 4 chambers to the left, in the picture.

Freitas writes: "We assume that the PN will not be allowed to manufacture contraband, nor various types of weapons systems including ecophages [4], or more PNs (which would nullify the R&D funding and manufacturing business model)."

Why one PN should not be used to manufacture another PN? From a footnote: "It is unlikely that PNs will be sold that can make other PNs, because these could be a serious threat to the existing capitalist system and thus will be vigorously resisted by all possible means, once the power structure fully appreciates the threat and believes the threat to be both possible and imminent".

Thus we get a clear statement from a leader in nanotechnology that PN is "a serious threat to the existing capitalist system".

Freitas writes: "The base operating cost of a working PN, and hence the price of anything that can be manufactured by the nanofactory, should approximate the cost of the material and energy inputs."

Things will be manufactured by weight, as the only thing that really counts is the price of input molecules and energy. And hence, in the "economics" of nanotechnology period, 1 kg of a computer will cost the same as 1 kg of a good shoes:

"assuming that feedstock gases can be purchased by the consumer for a delivered price of $0.70/kg, and adding in the amortized initial capital outlay of $0.10/kg to buy the PN, and another $0.20/kg for prorated intangible costs, then the cost of manufacturing consumer products using a personal nanofactory should be about $1/kg. This is moderately cheaper than the current cost of nondurables like bread and meat at the grocery store ($3-$5/kg) [9b, 18], and 2-3 orders of magnitude cheaper than the current cost of commonplace durables such as a good pair of shoes ($100/kg) or a good laptop computer ($1000/kg)"

"Over time, most basic consumer goods should become commoditized with prices asymptotically approaching production + capital + intangibles costs..."

"a conservative assumption is that the introduction of personal nanofactories over a time period lasting, say, two decades will result in the average prices of consumer nondurables falling perhaps 5-fold from today’s prices, and the average prices of consumer durables falling perhaps 100-fold".

Food may basically become free: "PNs may bring down the prices of basic food and food products 5-fold, with basic nutrition becoming public domain."

"Public domain" means free, as most information on the Net today. Similar may happen to other products.

Freitas does not see that a fall in the prices of basic commodities will lead to a fall in profits, and assumes that interest rates will remain unchanged.

In a modern economy, the "service" sector dominates over production of commodities. The USA is one example of such an economy:

"In the 2005 U.S. economy, consumer durables accounted for 12.8% of all Personal Consumption Expenditures (PCE), nondurables were 29.0% of PCE, and services were 58.2% of PCE"

Freitas continues:

"By the end of the 20-year PN introduction period, services make up 95.5% of the private consumption economy, nondurables are 4.4% of PCE, and durables have almost vanished at 0.1% of PCE"

So, in the "economy" of nanotechnology era - although the word "economy" appears as outdated - the dominant sphere of activity will be "services". This does not mean that there will be no material production, just that the value of the product of this sector will tend to zero. The amount of sheer material things produced will increase, compared to today. This is similar to the value of agricultural sector fallingin the modern world, while the amount of physical products, compared to previous centuries, when agriculture was the main part of the economy, increases.

However, Freitas sees another possibility for "services":

"Of course, if most services no longer needed to be provided by humans—e.g., if most services could be provided by AI-enabled robotic slaves cheaply manufactured by PNs, thus allowing humans to become pure consumers with no need to produce anything of value or to serve anyone—then the value of human labor would have effectively fallen close to zero and the cost of services would then fall to the same degree as durable goods, since robots and AI-embedded computers are also durable goods"

It's possible that robots will do work performed today by "service" personnel (cleaning, maintenance, etc.), while people will engage in creative work. 

The effect of PN on employment:

“One likely result is that much of the manufacturing, agriculture and wholesale/retail trade sectors (about 40% of all employment in developed economies [20]) could face continuing downsizing pressures throughout the 20-year introduction period of the PNs. Up to 40% of all workers could be affected and they may experience wage stagnation, job loss, and a need for additional education or retraining for gainful employment in the service sector—much as displaced agricultural workers fled to the manufacturing sector a century ago”

Another effect of PN is that technology becomes basically information technologyThis becomes possible as a recipe of any one thing is transmitted over the Internet, after which this thing is produced in a PN. This is similar to today's 3D printers.

 3. Criticism of  Yuri Swidinenko

One criticism of Robert Freitas comes from Yuri Swidinenko. In an article "The top 5 most popular mistakes connected with nanotechnology" (in Russian), he writes that the second common mistake is that "in the era of nanotechnology all commodities will be very cheap and accessible to all".

He argues:

"No highly technological production can be cheap. The value of a ready-made product (in rough approximation) is defined by the sum of expenses on the production equipment, expenses for the raw materials for production and energy used, expenses associated with paying salaries of service personnel and payments for intellectual property (patents, etc.) Also we should not forget that in a ready-made product a significant role is played by the profit of manufacturer".

Swidinenko makes an analogy with software: "Bill Gates, the head of Microsoft, is the wealthiest man in the world; he made his billions of dollars on copies of software".

Objections to Yuri Swidinenko:

1) the information revolution has shown to us a decline in the concept of "intellectual property" and increasing use of free computers programs. These are either pirated versions of computer programs that were initially for sale, e.g. Windows, or completely new computer programs made for free distribution, e.g. Linux. Moreover, free sites edited by users take the first place in comparison to paid-for-content, commercial sites, e.g. Wikipedia vs. Britannica encyclopedias. Sharing of music online leads to a decline in sales of music albums. We can expect the same trend to continue in reference to films, audiobooks, and other online content. 

2) The cost of raw materials necessary for working of nanofactory will be "dirt cheap", to use an expression of Eric Drexler, for the necessary materials can be obtained literally from decomposition of dirt. The solar energy which the Earth obtains in the course of 1 minute is enough to cover all of today's energy needs in the course of 1 year. Nanotechnology can be used for collection of solar energy, as for example a common leaf does.


Economic article of Robert Freitas is the most important study to date of social implication of the coming nanotechnology revolution. In short, the capitalist system is under threat because nanotechnology production will involve no human labor, and thus the price of products will tend to zero. This will result in rate of return on capital tending to zero, and massive unemployment, under capitalist system of relations. Most of the products will be manufactured by the consumers themselves, simply by downloading an appropriate program from Internet. As "Business Week" wrote on 30 August 1999: "we'll be able to use the Internet to download not just software but hardware".

Next: Ray Kurzweil

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