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It's the near future, and mankind has used FTL technology to build a burgeoning interstellar empire of a few hundred worlds. Capitalism still dominates, and the "Commonwealth of the Stars" is a nominally democratic union of nations, largely controlled by bickering corporations. So far, so normal.

Several of these corporations have been fighting a technological arms race to develop the holy grail - a machine that can create anything. 3D printing on steroids. Simply provide sufficient raw matter, load in the correct blueprints and voila: anything you can dream you can build.

The early prototypes are huge space-based machines the size of skyscrapers, and can only produce small quantities of pure element. With time, the technology will get better and smaller, until there a machines the size of toasters than can build food, household items, even brand new replicating machines.

My question is, how would such a technology affect society in the short and long term? For instance, the ability to create pure gold or diamonds on demand will make such materials worthless. Easy access to weapons grade uranium could be potentially devastating in the wrong hands. Would it solve world hunger, or throw civilisation into anarchy? Post-scarcity utopia or grey-goo apocalypse?

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    $\begingroup$ Sounds like the average Star Trek replicator. Can this machine make a copy of itself, or at least all the parts required to assemble a copy of itself? Can it make a machine that can assemble those parts? (Think von Neumann machine.) $\endgroup$ – a CVn Oct 17 '16 at 20:52
  • $\begingroup$ Not at first, but eventually yes, von Neumann indeed (and hence a potential grey-goo situation...) $\endgroup$ – Drgabble Oct 17 '16 at 20:55
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    $\begingroup$ What do you need the viola for? :-) $\endgroup$ – celtschk Oct 17 '16 at 20:56
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    $\begingroup$ More seriously: What are the energy requirements of that machine? Because energy may be the remaining scarce resource. For example, if it takes more money to buy the energy for creating gold than you can get for selling the gold, the gold prize will not be affected at all. $\endgroup$ – celtschk Oct 17 '16 at 20:58
  • $\begingroup$ Good question, interesting point. Perhaps if you used something like hydrogen as raw fuel then there would be ample energy released during fusion to make the higher elements etc $\endgroup$ – Drgabble Oct 17 '16 at 21:08
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Short Term and Wide Spread

It would depend a lot on the people who get it. But, if nothing too bad happens at first, things may get pretty good. Why would anyone go out and steal? They can get anything they want from the machine. Risking getting into a gun fight with someone who might've created some major death weapon would be terribly risky. Why blow up the city if there is no poverty? Poverty is the root of most strife, including racism and political upheaval.

Heck, if you can have anything, who needs cities, or other people, or politics or government? It could be an anarchists paradise, so long as people can get the machines. The only reason anyone would have for attacking other humans, would be for personable reasons. Say, rapists, or messy breakups, or whatever. Of course, with so many needs being met, a lot of people would be an amount more positive.

Oh, this also depends if there are neighbours who also have these machines. If there are neighbours who want them, you could have some wars. But, long term, either those neighbours are suppressed utterly, or they get the machines end up in the same state where nationalities have little importance.

Government Only

More plausibly, the government will consider unlimited resources, including dangerous ones, are safer in their hands. What's more... give up the need for government, all social position? No way! The machines will be a highly sought after target for thieves, enemy nations and terrorists, but will likely be in maximum security locations (though the amount of outbound shipping will add a few holes to that).

Now, under a good government, things could improve a lot, food could become cheap and plentiful and everyone could have plenty. It might become more like a Greek or Roman state without the (or with less) slaves. This would include people getting bored and having riots if unhappy about something going wrong.

Long Term

This is assuming these were given out to the general public, for some reason.

After a few generations get used to these machines, you may start to see more problems coming up. The need for work will just about disappear, assuming you can make yourself houses and big items with these machines. If there is work, there will be some disputes over who should do it, as there are few resource incentives you can use for trade. Being able to create robots to do this for you is a possibility (fit with AI rebellion potentiality).

Now, as people get used to it, and start to get bored and entitled of this high lifestyle, you may start seeing problems. These incidents would likely be isolated, but murders, rapes, and the occasional mentally unstable person getting upset and threatening people with nukes are possibilities. Indeed, with no monetary incentives, some people may not be able to get necessary therapeutic help, and while parents will have more time and less stress to spend on their kids, that won't automatically eliminate bad parents. Children killing their parents with weapons of mass destruction, or accidentally blowing themselves and others up may be some early results of these machines that lead to safety functions being added.

Government Returns

Now, as for the result of this increasing tension and increasing incidents, people will start to want a government again to prevent some of these issues. The government wouldn't really collect taxes, but would be an elected body of officials given the power to judge criminals and use lethal force for the sake of society.

This will go... reasonably well. If people have spread out a lot as population density is no longer necessary for production, then terrorists won't be a huge problem. The government might be able to set up millions of missile defence sites and satellites and the like to prevent any warheads liable to create massive damage (and all the better if most people live in space stations). If someone is non compliant and violent, one of the possible reactions will be to blast their house to cinders, in case they're thinking of using their machine to create a nuke or the like. Of course, if they are stockpiling uranium, you won't want to hit their house with explosives.

Generally, the police will have an advantage in that people will put a lot of thought into giving them the best armour, the weapons, and will attempt to develop good tactics, price being no limitation. Attempts to take away the machines by the government would not go well, however, unless the people became soft enough that they won't resist, so it can be expected that criminals will always be well armed.

People on the streets can be spotted if they're carrying around obviously military grade gear, and may be required to not do so. You can have stuff like facial recognition software and automatic ID cards that show whether you are cleared to own certain weaponry.

Oh yeah, and with such an abundance of resources, anything that is technically possible would start to become a reality, so long as people are committed to spend the time to build it (ripping up the roads to replace phone-lines will still be some work, presumably).

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And that's a basic rundown of the effects. Hope this was helpful for you.

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  • $\begingroup$ While I agree with a large part of your prevision, society could change enought so that the incentive is social, instead of material. Also, OP talked about bluprint, thoses will still be heavily guarded, especially for nukes, so I don't think "everybody have a nuke" will be the end result. You also mention rape and murder. If thoses are present, it's because there is a incentive. That incentive can be used to motivate too. $\endgroup$ – DrakaSAN Oct 18 '16 at 9:51
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    $\begingroup$ Oh, I misunderstood that. If you need blueprints, it changes a lot. That will change the rate of anarchism. A lot of people will become interested in publishing the dangerous information, and a lot of people will be interested in stopping them. Though this still falls under the general government suppression vs. everyone having it categories. If everyone has it, blueprints would at first at least become commonplace. Later, it could become like a valuable commodity and currency, and a reason for society to exist to support engineers and inventors. $\endgroup$ – J. Doe Oct 18 '16 at 10:06
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    $\begingroup$ Exactly, there is still valuable in that scenario, blueprint are the obvious one, leading to a lot of people inventing new things to build. Art is also not dependent of reproduction (books...) and so there could be a incentive in it too. Basically, the society would be pushed to be a lot more creative. Pride, sex... can not be provided by acquiring blueprint either, and can also be used as incentive. The society will probably not be anything like what we know, and have a huge downside in the anarchy that will still occur, but it is on the right way to a utopia. $\endgroup$ – DrakaSAN Oct 18 '16 at 10:12

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