A year ago, when CRN was starting out, we said that we expected full-blown (atomically precise, exponentially proliferating, general-purpose) molecular manufacturing to become a reality in less than twenty years—possibly less than ten. Now, however, after taking a closer look at the rapid progress taking place in enabling technologies, we're concerned that a major "Nanhattan Project" could succeed in as little as five years. And if such a project already began somewhere in secret a few years ago, then...
But even if molecular manufacturing is at least a decade away, that's still not much time to prepare, given the tremendous amount of work to be done. How much work? Let's examine it:
First, the risks have to be fully understood. Then we need to work out a series of plans for dealing with each risk—a task made much harder by the fact that measures to reduce one risk may increase another. Then all this information has to be delivered, convincingly, to the people who make the policy. There are a lot of them, in many different governing bodies, all over the world. Then organizational structures have to be designed to administer the agreed-upon policy. Then the organizations actually have to be set up.
Each of the steps above will take time. And clearly this isn't a complete list. Technological security measures will have to be painstakingly invented and developed. Public opinion, and then public support, will be necessary at several stages. Nations must learn to cooperate in ways that have never been tried. Ten years, or even twenty years, is not a long time in which to accomplish everything.
But, you may ask, is all of this really necessary? As explained on CRN's No Simple Solutions web page, we don't see any way that a simplistic form of regulation can work, because a single regulation may make a dent in one risk but will increase other risks, doing more harm than good overall. And the idea that no regulation at all is necessary seems hopelessly—and dangerously—naive. Comprehensive, carefully thought-out, and delicately balanced plans must be made, well in advance.
If solutions are not developed until the problems are staring us in the face, we will not have time to make good decisions. Some of the risks are severe enough, or scary enough, to cause people and governments to panic. Panic and time pressure will tend to produce a patchwork of simple, knee-jerk solutions. It is extremely unlikely that a good set of solutions will evolve under these circumstances, and it is also unlikely that bad solutions will be able to prevent bad consequences.
The time to begin discussing, evaluating, and preparing effective policy solutions for molecular manufacturing is now.