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In 2016 a young man made himself infamous by buying a company that makes a lifesaving drug and then raising the price on that drug by nearly five thousand percent. The same year another executive at a different company displayed the same malicious greed when she boosted the price of a diabetes-fighting device by hundreds of percent. Those people had presented the old robber’s demand "Your money or your life!" in a very real form. It is unconscionable that people are allowed to do such things, but the Omnifex technology may make such extortions impossible: the Omnifex may be able to make drugs for free.
The most useful drugs are proteins, assemblages of amino acids that are folded up in certain ways. They are complicated molecules, certainly, and they are often difficult to produce. Could an Omnifex make one and make in large quantities?
Based on the concept behind the atomic-force microscope, an Omnifex consists of a porous plate densely covered with atomic-scale towers whose tips can be moved in all three dimensions. The towers look more like needles and they’re hollow, thereby allowing atoms and molecules to pass through them to their tips, where the needles add those atoms and molecules to whatever the Omnifex is producing. The porous plate is a three-dimensional digital computer, necessary to the task of creating goods atom-by-atom at a reasonable speed.
Proteins consist of chains, some of them branching, whose links are amino acids drawn from a set of 22 basic types (though chemists know of some 500 amino acids). Those proteinogenic amino acids are relatively simple arrays of hydrogen, carbon, nitrogen, and oxygen atoms with one of the acids including selenium. In animal bodies enzymes, controlled by messenger RNA, assemble amino acids into proteins, adding the units and then folding the resulting polymer in the right way. We need an Omnifex that will mimic that process.
Because the basic components of proteins form a small set, we can build our Omnifex as a two-stage device. It will be smaller than the standard Omnifex, with a production plate less than a centimeter wide. The entire device might be smaller than a coffee cup.
In the first stage the production plate will draw on the chemical soup that provides almost all of the naturally occurring chemical elements to the Omnifices and it will produce the required twenty-two amino acids and perhaps certain other substances (such as sugars) to encapsulate the proteins into pills. It will then put those substances into tiny reservoirs, where they will be held available for the construction of proteins.
In the second stage, built atop the first stage, the production plate will assemble the amino acids into proteins and encapsulate them as required. While some of the towers bring amino acids to the growing chain, others will hold the chain and apply forces that will fold it into the proper shape as it grows. At the same time towers in the surrounding area will assemble the encapsulating material, so that what emerges from the plate is a finished pill or capsule. With a production plate measuring one centimeter on a side, the device will be able to make several different medications at once.
But there must be more to the device than the ability to make medicine. If misused, drugs can be dangerous. Ingesting the wrong amount of any drug can cause internal injury or death. That fact has led advanced societies to require that people only obtain such drugs through prescriptions made by doctors well trained in the healing arts and getting them from properly licensed pharmacies. When we have an Omnifex that can make drugs, we must devise some means of preserving the safeguards against drug abuse. Certainly, people will still need to get prescriptions from doctors of medicine, be those doctors human or electromechanical. The prescription can be encoded into a card similar to the bank-issued debit cards that we use today.
We may still have pharmacies, using large Omnifices to produce drugs en masse. But, more likely, we will have small Omnifices, dedicated to making medications, in our homes, along with the big Omnifices that we use to produce larger goods, such as clothing. Each small medical Omnifex will have a card slot and a keypad. At the appropriate time each day a person will insert their prescription card into the slot and enter a PIN on the keypad. The machine will then produce the medications that have been prescribed for that person at that time. In that case, all the person pays is the fee for the electricity and the chemical soup that the Omnifex uses. There’s no opportunity for price gouging. And that’s a blessing on Humanity.
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