How a machine that can make anything would change everything

These tiny factories will be large at first, like early computers, but soon enough you’ll be able to buy one that can fit on a desk. You’ll pour in some raw materials—perhaps water, air, dirt, and a few powders of rare elements if required—and the nanofabricator will go to work. Powered by flexible photovoltaic panels that coat your house, it will tear apart the molecules of the raw materials, manipulating them on the atomic level to create…anything you like. Food. A new laptop. A copy of Kate Bush’s debut album, The Kick Inside. Anything, providing you can give it both the raw materials and the blueprint for creation.

It sounds like science fiction—although, with the advent of 3D printers in recent years, less so than it used to. Burke, who hosted the BBC show Tomorrow’s World, which introduced bemused and excited audiences to all kinds of technologies, has a decades-long track record of technological predictions. He isn’t alone in envisioning the nanofactory as the technology that will change the world forever. Eric Drexler, thought by many to be the father of nanotechnology, wrote in the 1990s about molecular assemblers, hypothetical machines capable of manipulating matter and constructing molecules on the nano level, with scales of a billionth of a meter.