I was reminded this week of my My 'Napsterization of Matter' thought exercise by the UK University of Bath's Replicator project news.

Napsterization of Matter

'Napsterization of Matter' is a thought exercise I’ve been toying with for some years now.  I'd like to share it with you...

Imagine the following possible future and then ask yourself the questions posed at the end of this article:

The Replicator

The year is 2034. Nanotech-based 'rendering machines', or ‘Replicators’, are available that can render any object.  The objects copied and rendered can have moving parts.  Assume there are no constraints on the objects copied or rendered such as size, complexity, or atomic structure.

The 'base' material that is transformed during the replication process into a rendered object can be made of anything, such as a steel chair, trash, a fallen tree, a old VCR, or water.  All the Replicator machine needs in order render any object is to have access to the source material to be transformed and the data file of the real-world object to be rendered containing all the information required to do so.

The Scanner

Scanners are also available that can analyze any object at the atomic level and store the object’s data as a real-world object file (an .RWO file) that can be read and rendered by the Replicator.

One day I’m at home in the US and admiring my newly acquired coffee cup.  The shape of the cup is unusual, and I want to share, physically, its aesthetic qualities with my friend, Bob, who lives in Malaysia.  I get my hand-held scanner, switch it on and proceed to scan the cup.  The scanner distinguishes the 2 separate objects within range of the scanner: the mug and the table the mug is upon.  The cup’s representational data is now stored as an .RWO file, with perfect fidelity.

The Distribution

I review the object on-screen and confirm it has been successfully scanned.  I then send the file to my friend who I know has a ‘Replicator’.

He mails be back a day later, thanking me for the unusual cup, but mentions he has modified the cup’s handle to be more comfortable on the hand.  I get my original cup, put it into the Replicator, upload Bob’s new version of the .RWO file and transform the old  cup to Bob’s new cup design.  I agree it is more comfortable.  So I upload the new file to my object-casting blog for others to download, view in their object-viewer and render at their pleasure.  The next day, the file is available on one of file-sharing network for others the download at will.

The Warning

A week later I receive a Cease-and-Desist order via email from The Aero Cup Corporation:

“Dear Mr Barnett,

It has come to out attention that you are illegally distributing our product over the internet, as well as breaking the product’s terms of use as the product has been modified without permission.  We know the file you are distributing is based on our design as the encrypted digital watermark ID that is integrated at the time of the product’s manufacturing is present (see details attached).  This unique watermark ID is physically embedded in every individual product we manufacture and therefore copied into any .RWO file that represents our product.  This allows us to keep track of our product or derivatives.

As we hope you understand, protecting our intellectual property allows us to continue to develop new, innovative products purchased legally by our customers.  We hope that you remove the file from you object-casting blog site

You should also be aware that the cup you acquired has no referring license agreement in our customer records.  Please expect the Aero Cup in you possession to self-destruct at 12.00 AM GMT,12 March 2034, as the embedded nano-wi-fi receiver will not have received its daily Green Status Signal from our system.  You should not attempt to drink from the Aero Cup from the time of receiving this mail…”

The Questions

The questions that occur to me about this imaginary world where anything can be copied, essentially for free, are the following:

Economy

  • What would happen to the price of goods?
  • Would money lose its meaning?
  • How would markets and economies be changed?
  • How would our notions of wealth and property ownership be changed?

Commerce, Brands and DRM

  • How could brands maintain their value when any product could be copied with perfect fidelity?
  • Would brands matter?
  • How would brands evolve?
  • What new industries would be created or destroyed?
  • What restrictions should there be on the copying, distribution and modification of physical products?

Government and Society

  • What dangers or opportunities for society would this technology present?
  • What role would, or should government have to play in terms of regulation, distribution and access to the relevant set of technologies?
  • What effect, positive or negative, would this technology have on the environment?
  • If everyone could have anything without limit, would that make us happy, healthy and peaceful?

Further reading