If the nanotechnology revolution takes off, what will be the economic consequences? Brad DeLong proposes this analytical framework:

  • What commodities–what goods and services–become extraordinarily cheap as a result of the technological revolution?
  • What human activities–what jobs and skills–become key bottlenecks, and thus become remarkably valuable and well-paid?
  • What risks blindside the society as the technology spreads?
  • What risks do people guard against that turn out not to be risks at all?

I think that it is difficult to predict what could become cheap. The problem is that so much of our economy is a service economy, so that the interesting question is what services might become cheap because of better and cheaper materials. Brad says that people who service and maintain stuff could lose their jobs as products become self-maintaining. But I don’t think that’s a big component of the economy.

Maybe transportation service could become really cheap. Imagine if the cost of trans-Atlantic travel falls to the cost of a trans-Atlantic phone call today.

Brad proposes that a “choke point” could be technologists educated well enough to manipulate materials. That could be. However, it could turn out to be that we don’t all have to learn how to do nano to use nano, just as we don’t all have to learn how to build computers to use computers.

For Discussion. Will economic issues lose their importance if the nanotech revolution succeeds?