First off, I’m not going to get too much into the explanation of the story this post is about, so you may want to go read this article at The Verge.
To sum the article up, two scientists recently announced a new method for turning photons (massless light particles) into matter using a “photon-photon collider.” According to their research, this process is not only possible but should actually be relatively easy with technology that exists today. In short, we may very well be turning light particles into matter in the near future.
This is very exciting to me, as I see enormous potential for this in technology that may help to change the world for the better in the future. What I am thinking of could still be many, many years off, but it is still exciting: a molecular assembler–that is, a machine capable of manipulating matter on the atomic level and producing anything you can imagine (like a replicator on Star Trek or a cornucopia machine in Stross’ Singularity Sky).
The molecular assembler itself is easily conceivable without needing the ability to turn light into matter, but this ability completely changes what the technology could be. Without it, the assembler needs some type of matter it can then change into whatever matter you want it to produce. Because of this, there would always be some kind of cost to supply the machine.
When you can convert light into matter, though, there is virtually no cost (other than the power supply, of course). This opens the door to the possibility of a post-economic society, or a world where money has become irrelevant. You only need one assembler because theoretically the machine can produce a copy of itself, so through exponential growth it wouldn’t take long for everyone in the world to have access to one. If the machine could have the ability to turn light into matter, then anyone anywhere in the world could have anything anytime they want since we have no shortage of photons coming to us constantly from the sun. Food, water, clothing, the latest tech gadget would all be a button-press away; there would no longer be any need–or at least a significantly lower need–for money. Of course, there are limits; you can’t exactly produce a house with a molecular assembler, but there may be solutions to these issues that don’t require money.
Personally, I don’t think this will happen in the immediate future. I do think a post-economic Earth is one possible part of a future where our species is not in imminent danger of self-destruction. But then I also think this is something that will come about so gradually no one will realize it happened. So there’s no reason to be afraid, money-lovers.
I’ll definitely be waiting to hear whether this actually happens or not, because regardless of what technology this leads to in the future, it’s still really cool.