Chris Phoenix is co-founder of the nonprofit Center for Responsible Nanotechnology, which publishes technical and policy information about molecular manufacturing at www.CRNano.org.
THE BASICS: Nanotechnology will change the world slowly at first, then very rapidly. Slow change will come from nanoscale technologies already under development, which will give us better computers, medicine, sensors, and materials. Rapid, transformative, disruptive change will come from molecular manufacturing.
Nanoscale technologies use extensions of today's industrial techniques to fabricate very small structures with new and valuable properties. Basically, big machines are making small, powerful stuff. This is useful for producing relatively simple substances, or very small amounts of more intricately structured objects.
Molecular manufacturing, by contrast, will use small machines to create big, powerful stuff. As the name implies, it deals with individual molecules, fastening them together in computer-controlled patterns and structures. The ultimate goal of molecular manufacturing is to make tiny machines that can build equivalent machines out of molecules, like a robot arm that assembles another robot arm from parts. For several reasons, this should be a less complex project at the molecular scale than at the human scale, and the products should be far more powerful than today's versions.
Molecular manufacturing could produce tabletop manufacturing systems (personal nanofactories) that can build duplicate factories in an hour or so, when properly supplied with feedstock, blueprints, and power. In theory, within a few days after this is achieved, anyone could have as many factories as they needed to build as much as they wanted of anything they could design or download: humanitarian supplies, weapons, solar panels, medical devices, spacecraft...
The implications of molecular manufacturing are staggering. Automated programmable factories that can build more factories on demand imply near-zero cost of manufacture, accompanied by sharp drops in the value of both labor and capital. Precise nanoscale machines will be thousands or millions of times more powerful than today's products. The ability to rapidly design and build almost unlimited quantities of futuristic weapons will disrupt geopolitics and global security. Planet-scale engineering could save or destroy the Earth's environment. Global sensor networks could become tools of freedom or oppression.
Molecular manufacturing certainly will create interesting times as it changes the world.
LEARNING MORE: Two websites that focus on social and ethical issues of nanotechnology are The Nanoethics Group and the International Nanotechnology and Society Network. A technical website devoted to molecular manufacturing is Eric Drexler's e-drexler.com. An excellent news portal for both nanoscale technologies and molecular manufacturing is Nanotechnology Now. Some of the legal issues associated with both kinds of nanotech are discussed at the Nanotechnology Law blog.
I think it's good that WC periodically reminds its readers about this emerging technology. It has been speculated about for many years now but may within the next few decades become manifest. It's good that we start thinking about it now, even if only half the stuff about it actually comes to pass it will have profound affects on world.
Just be careful someone doesn't invent Kurt Vonnegut's 'Ice9'.
MM is the most World Changing tech out there. It needs to get on the public radar know, so it will be more accepted as it begins to emerge.
Molecular Manufacturing as envisaged by Drexler will be extremely expensive and inefficient. Biomemetics holds more promise IMO. Soft Molecular Manufacturing is much more feasible then Hard MM. The difference between the two is that Hard MM is basically taking Electronic Engineering principals and applying them to the Nanoscale. Soft MM is basically copying what Nature has already done and refine it to suit our purposes. Which do you think is easier to accomplish?