Dr. Michio Kaku, a theoretical physicist at the City University of New York, and regular contributor to numerous TV documentaries on subjects within physics, has offered up an intriguingly titled video on the website Big Think that’s spreading like wildfire through social media: Can Nanotechnology Create Utopia? You can watch the video (5+ minutes long) below.
Kaku starts off by discussing the quest for utopias that fueled the early settlers of the New World. Oddly, his main example is the Shakers. A little background is in order here: The Shakers took a monastic pledge of celibacy. That sort of lifestyle inevitably dwindles your numbers. In fact, the sect probably would have died out in the 19th century, but for the Civil War, during which they took in large numbers of orphans. However, Kaku cites as one of the main causes of Shakers disappearing (they haven’t by the way, there are still a few Shakers) the issue of scarce resources. You see, in the cold winters they couldn’t get enough seeds and this created scarcity, which in turn led to conflict, or so Kaku seems to believe or wants us to believe. In point of fact, the Shakers were among the first organizations to create a business through mail order, and one of the main things they sold were seeds.
But Kaku’s expertise is not the history of religions in the colonial United States, rather, it's theoretical physics. I think based on his next example of utopias we can safely say that the emphasis should be on “theoretical” because what we get is a discussion of a Star Trek replicator.
In the video Kaku draws a comparison between a Star Trek replicator and the molecular manufacturing of table-top factories and universal assemblers. He explains that with these universal assemblers we become “like gods” able to turn wood into glass. If I had these god-like powers, I doubt my first feat would be turn wood into glass, but I guess he was just illustrating a point.
And what is his point? Well, when we get these universal assemblers and can make anything we want just by pressing the button “Ferrari,” we will be in a world of such abundance that it will seem like a kind of utopia.
However, Kaku cautions that this utopia has interesting philosophical repercussions, which he illustrates by describing a near-entire episode of Star Trek. I won’t bother you with the plot here, but the question it raises are along the lines of: Will we lose the will to work with all this abundance?
This kind of handwringing over a nanotechnology future is really the bailiwick of the Center for Responsible Nanotechnology. They could devote great tomes to concerns over a possible outcome that is so far away that not only can nobody predict when it might come (with the exception of an exceptional futurist like Ray Kurzweil) but some believe may never come.
These naysayers who question the physics of universal assemblers do not deter Kaku because we already have a replicator as proof: Ribosomes. Kaku explains that ribosomes turn your cheeseburger into the DNA that makes for the next generations of humans.
Of course, it took nature a few billion years to come up with this feat of molecular manufacturing. With that time frame in mind, should we really be worrying ourselves about the ironic hardships delivered upon us by a utopia that was created by a reproductive technology for which there is little indication will happen anytime soon?
Dexter Johnson is a contributing editor at IEEE Spectrum, with a focus on nanotechnology.