For today’s thought experiment, let’s imagine a future where there are household appliances, perhaps the size of a fridge or washing machine, that can build, atom by atom, anything that we want.
Let’s further imagine that the use of these machines is widespread, as is as common as fridges or television are today — so almost everyone in economically developed countries has one, and there are significant inroads in developing countries as well.
How would this change society? If everything can be made almost instantly, and at very little cost, what is left of value in the world?
The first thing we need to do is make a distinction between building something atom-by-atom based on a set of instructions and creating those instructions in the first place. If we have these machines, the former is rather straight-forward, we just plug in a set of designs into the machine and let it do its thing.
But what about the instructions themselves? As I see it, there would be two main ways to deal with this. The first would be to have a type of scanner, and this may well not be something that every household has, and in fact, may be pretty expensive and entirely out of the range of any individual to own. For instance, while almost everyone has a fridge, nobody owns a studio or factory that designs and makes fridges: this is left to companies full of specialists with access to large amounts of capital.
So while the ability to replicate designs would be widespread, there would still be a centralization of the design process itself.
The other alternative is that something can be designed from the ground up using a specific software tool. This is very much like the creative tools we have today available for graphic and UX/UI design, architecture layouts and engineering schematics.
We have already seen how these tools develop in many other verticals. They typically start out with very steep learning curves, which restricts them to only the top experts in their field. Over time, additional tools come into place that enables abstractions and make designing more and more accessible.
While initially a designer may have had to define a design pixel-by-pixel via typed instructions in the early days of computing, they can now use a graphical user interface to simply drag and drop a pointer and create a line of a specific length, gradient, and colour. We can teach a four-year-old to do this.
And so one can imagine that eventually, the ability to design new things for the replication machines to build would become widespread as well. What’s interesting here is that it means that the replication devices would be able to create entirely new items that have never been seen before but were just locked in the imagination of somehow who then decide to play around with the application on a Saturday afternoon.
Of course, there would have to be some controls, both at the replication stage as well as the design stage. We wouldn’t want someone to replicate 100kg of dynamite or a vial of the smallpox virus.
I would imagine that every single machine would be networked and that some AI system would be auditing all the instructions that each machine receives to ensure that nothing harmful is being created.
However, this central control of the replicating machines could, in itself, be dangerous. For instance, a hacker could hack the central system and have every machine build 100kg of dynamite and then set it alight, creating millions of explosions in every household and office in a country.
There is also the possibility of a remote shutdown. For instance, if you have an outstanding warrant, your home replication machine would be the first thing to be halted. You may not be able to get the daily essentials anywhere else because there would likely be no need to for supermarkets or shops of most kinds, except as a type of showroom, designed to showcase the products whose instructions you can then buy and make at home.
This does make me wonder if having replication machines in every home would accelerate the trend of more and more people living in social isolation. This has started with the advent of social media, remote work, and delivery services, with many people not having to leave the house at all to work, play, socialize, and more.
On the upside, this would make living in the countryside or a remote place far more pleasant because you can access any consumer goods you need without going to a nearby city or waiting for expensive and slow shipping.
I am making the assumption here that these replication machines can make anything out of pure air. They take in the atoms in the air, and then reshape them to any material required based on the design they are following. They would still require a power source, of course, so you could not do this utterly off-the-grid unless there is solar (but would this be powerful enough for the machines?) or some mini-nuclear battery.
The cost of any object would purely be related to the number of atoms required to make it, plus any licensing fees to be paid to the original designer of the item. I can imagine plenty of “open source” designs for everyday things like bananas and cutlery and cheaper, slightly worse designs for expensive licensing items like jewellery.
I would assume that everything would become much cheaper, perhaps by an order of magnitude or more. This, interestingly, points us to the direction that most industries would be wildly disrupted by such technology and may completely shut down.
Others would have to adapt. Amazon would not sell you physical goods but rather instructions on how to make them. You would use the website to browse and find things you want.