There's a news report on the television which helpfully explains some of the backstory.
"Speaking to us now is Germe Mulia, deputy leader of the United Nations International Children's Emergency Fund. Mr. Mulia, eight point five is a very impressive-sounding statistic, but what can you tell us about what this means in real terms?"
"The CAII [pronounced "kai"] is a quantitative measurement of the quality of life of the children living in a region, that is to say the under-eighteens. It takes into account factors such as the degree of literacy, the level of education and the level of medical care available, mortality rates, vaccination rates, levels of crime, levels of contentment, access to clean water and food, vulnerability to abuse, predicted per-capita earning potential and so on. These are measured and recorded by inspectors in the countries in question, tabulated and interpreted by statisticians and refined to the CAI Index. The rising International CAII indicates an increase in the mean quality of life among children in the world."
"We were speaking earlier and you said that this wasn't necessarily a useful figure."
"That's not the case at all. What I said was that there are more useful figures. It's more instructive to look at the graphs of CAIIs over history and the distribution. Here we see that between 2010 and today there are thirteen countries which used to have a CAII of under three point five and five countries with CAIIs between zero and two. This is not the case anymore. The graph is gradually shifting to the right. The highest CAIIs in the world are getting higher and there are more of them. The lowest CAIIs are disappearing. By any statistical metric, the quality of life among the world's children is increasing. We calculate that in ten years' time the ICAII will be close to nine point oh. Whichever way you look at it, it's really tremendously good news."
"We've spoken to other international organizations such as UN Famine Relief and Oxfam and the Red Cross who are reporting similar increases."
"We're truly moving towards a perfect world."
"And to what do you attribute these gains?"
"I would say, improved education, fostered by the spread of the internet, and of course the invention of Free Light Stations."
Free Light Stations are magic.
They're just magic.
You put carbon in one end. It pulls oxygen and nitrogen and trace elements out of the sky, water from wherever it can, energy from the Sun. It produces anything.
In theory it could produce anything. But "anything" is a dangerous and frightening range of possibilities. That's why the sole machine in the world (the most complicated piece of machinery in the world) which can take a real object and turn it into a meaningful, manufacturable quantum pattern is kept in a Swiss nuclear fallout bunker, under heavier guard than the US President, why only two people in the world have the physical access required to use it and only two others have full access to the blueprints of the thing. That's why there are only two dozen patterns, chosen specifically so that a given Free Light Station manufactures nothing that could be used as a weapon.
You could drown someone in the water it produces, but not easily. You could brain someone with a clay brick or a heavy wood beam, but you'd be better off printing a bunch of them and building houses. You could shock someone with the electrical current it supplies. In fact, all of these things have happened. But you can't get a gun or a knife or an axe or a bullet or gunpowder or morphine or a tank. It's a fine balance and every decision to scan and distribute another pattern has repercussions on the international level.
There is no single person who created the Free Light Station or the Gruentolle Mountain Atomic Descriptor, it was a combined effort by thousands of people. Even the core concepts were developed in groups. But the project has a public face, and that public face is sixty-year-old Ekaterina Vorslova, one of the most controversial people on the planet.
"Nothing in the world cannot be used for evil, but many things can be used for nothing but evil."
Prominent on the list: Rice. Wheat. Fruits. Paper. Condoms. Notable omissions: All other plastic products. Gasoline. Meat products. Metals. Computers. Glass. Syringes. Alcohol. Money.
"The world is getting better. It is not perfect. People with what they want are less likely to attack other people for that. FLSes are a net gain for humanity. I will not apologise for the actions of the foundation. Yes, the world has problems. FLSes cannot solve all of these."
They introduce new problems. Colossal ones.
Sell an FLS for a billion dollars apiece, and only the most powerful people in the world will ever be able to buy them. By definition, only the people in the world with the least need for free rice and bricks will be the ones able to afford a Universal Constructor which can make them. They'll buy them and install them in their palaces and the gap between the haves and the have-nots gets better.
Sell them for a million dollars and still the poorest areas of the world, especially the areas with no economic structure to speak of, will be locked out.
Sell them for a dollar and everybody in the world will be able to afford one. Where would you put them all? How could you meet that kind of demand? And still there are people in the world who don't even have a dollar, who were born into debt and who will die in unimaginably bigger debt through no fault of their own.
Give them away for free and you have an unsustainable model. Not even a business model, since distributing a device of unlimited manufacturing capability for less than infinity dollars is charity by definition. An unsustainable charity.
So you have to pick clients and negotiate prices. Some of those clients have to be regions and settlements with no capability to even contact the foundation directly and ask for what they desperately need. You have the power of life and death over those people, you have the capability to introduce a completely unstable singularity in the political layout of that region of the world. You could save a town. But which one is most in need of saving? You can only manufacture one FLS every two hours, let's say. Or two weeks. Or two days.
Provide them as is, and they become the most sought-after objects in the world. Install one in a village -- they're intentionally huge and heavily armoured, close to impossible to uproot once installed -- and the village will become a target for the more powerful to take over and steal the goods. Install one in a village and send people to defend the FLS as well and then you have to stay there for eternity because a time will quite likely never come when the village can defend itself. Install one for one year and then take it home again or remotely deactivate it, and what kind of response will that yield?
Is it an unfair head start for one city to have an FLS and not the other? Is it fair to sell goods from the FLS to get money? To stockpile? Is it fair to sell FLSes only to Less Developed Countries? Is it good to become dependent on something which will never go away until the human race itself ends entirely?
What is the way forward? What is the philosophy, to balance the world out? To give everybody everything they need? To switch out the current crop of world problems and replace them with different problems.
Different problems. Here are your different problems:
It's ten years later and the process has been reverse-engineered by a military-industrial consortium. Oh, such wonderful pushbutton words. Their version of the machine has two patterns. One is an AK-47. The other is a bullet. Their machines need ore (or just plain rock) to process (there is no transmutation) and much more power. Their machines are not for sale, but a shipment of them gets stolen. They are shut down remotely, but almost as quickly after that someone has figured out how to hotwire them and they are up and running again. Guess where these metaweapons get sold to? Sell them for a billion dollars apiece. It's charity.
No, they can't manufacture plutonium: there is no transmutation. How about this: unlimited pure anything. Do not sell the means of manufacture, just The Product.
This all sounds so familiar.
At least there's somewhere productive to chuck all our trash, now.
Here's your problem: you just put a million rice-growers and lumberjacks out of business forever. Now what? Are you accountable? Nanotechnology is tantamount to tampering with the basic genetic code of global economy. It introduces a vast and unpredictable variable into the equations, it flattens complexity and introduces chaos of its own.
But the graphs keep shifting to the right, the hump in the curve moves past the 8.5 mark and keeps on moving up.
When you have heat, light, shelter, water, food and oxygen, you're ninety percent of the way to stopping caring.
Do you remember a time when mahogany wood used to be expensive?
There is, after a while, a solitary apple in the world. Of course there are plenty of trees and people still sell their home-grown fruit. That's fine. But there's a single iconic Platonic Ideal apple, a delicious flawless well-chosen apple (the original was planted on the Mountain), one which everybody has seen and everybody knows. There's a solitary plank of wood whose specific density and nature and internal structure and flaws (of which there are almost none) are the subject of books and books. The one plank, that everybody has seen, that made up most of your house, with that same three knots halfway up the left-hand edge. You feel like you live in a texture-mapped world. You could use real-world wood if you liked, to build your house, but it would cost a fortune more.
The real expense is in the skill of the builders. The clever bit is the creativity of the chef who works on what goes alongside the rice.