| 12 Jun 2004 @ 18:36, by ming|
From Future Hi: The Center for Responsible Nanotechnology has an easily readable overview of the likely path of the development of nanotech, the timeline, the issues, the dangers.
Molecular nanotechnology (MNT) manufacturing means the ability to build devices, machines, and eventually whole products with every atom in its specified place. MNT is coming soon—almost certainly within 20 years, and perhaps in less than a decade. When it arrives, it will come quickly. Molecular manufacturing can be built into a self-contained, tabletop factory that makes cheap products efficiently at molecular scale. The time from the first assembler to a flood of powerful and complex products may be less than a year. The potential benefits of such a technology are immense. Unfortunately, the risks are also immense.
In Neal Stephenson's science fiction "The Diamond Age" (which is a fabulous book), a typical apartment had a Matter Compiler in the kitchen. It was plugged into a feed of basic atomic components. And then you could basically ask it to manufacture on the spot pretty much anything you'd know how to ask for. Which would be built atom by atom. It is called the Diamond Age, because diamond would become one of the easiest and all-around most useful materials to build stuff of. You just need carbon atoms, which are in plentyful supply, and diamond is a very strong material, and transparent. Your windows would quite naturally be made of solid diamond.
Even a primitive diamond-building nanofactory can create products vastly more powerful than today's versions. Electrical power can be converted to motion, and vice-versa, with one-tenth the power loss and about 108 (100,000,000) times more compactly. Computers can be a billion times smaller and use a million times less power. Materials can be about 100 times stronger than steel. This means that most human-scale products would consist almost entirely of empty space, reducing material requirements and cost. Most of the rest of the product would be structural, easy to design. Even the simplest products could be software-controlled at no extra hardware cost. Manufacturing of prototypes would be quite rapid—a few minutes to a few hours. Because manufacturing and prototyping are the same process, a successful prototype design could immediately be distributed for widespread use. A designer working with a few basic predesigned blocks could design, build, and test a simple product in less than a day. Products with complex interfaces to humans or to their surroundings—information appliances, automobiles, aerospace hardware, medical devices—would be limited by the time required to develop their software and test their functionality. However, in some fields the high time and money cost of manufacture slows other parts of the development cycle; this effect would disappear. An explosion of new, useful products could rapidly follow the widespread availability of a nanofactory.
Anyway... in twenty years or less!!?! This is serious, folks. Yes, obviously, if somebody makes workable nano-assemblers and figures out how to power them, then one thing will take another, very quickly. Then they can build duplicates of themselves. And then hardware suddenly is just a matter of software. I.e. you need just some raw atoms and a blueprint. It is going to cost nothing. The world will never be the same. And, no, it won't just be a nice appliance to have in the kitchen. Everything will change pervasively.
So, there's a big hurry to solve the moral and organizational and security issues around this. If anybody can download the plans for a nuclear bomb or the ebola virus, and press a button to build them any time they want - then what? So the race is on, to either build some kind of sofar uninvented safeguard into such a system, or for humanity to figure out how to organize itself so as to survive such capabilities.