Our thanks to Adrian Tymes for an informative report on the recent NNI conference in Washington DC. You can read the whole thing and draw your own conclusions, but here are some of our thoughts on his writeup:
Their public timetable for when things are likely to come up.... Generation 4 (start ~2015): heterogeneous molecular nanosystems. They take great pains to avoid using the "D-word" (Drexler), but the detailed description certainly seems to cover structures with similar capabilities. (And isn't it a coincidence that this is about 10 years away, the length of time some people have been predicting a 'focused on molecular nanosystems only' approach would take to reach this level?) Of course, this is far from the only thing that would be researched.
So, the NNI thinks we could have Drexler-like machines in eleven years? That seems to be sufficient reason to worry about being caught unprepared. And if it turns out to take only five years, we're really in trouble. But even if it’s a decade away, there’s no guarantee we’ll be ready by then unless we get moving quickly.
In the opinion of many of the other industry types I talked to, "wet" nanotech (like protein growth) has most of the hype while "dry" nanotech (like lithography) has most of the working products.
Interesting...what's driving the hype machine? Could be simple Luddism, and maybe some vitalism: we don't want to believe that machines can be better than biology. So the design of super-powerful machines generates energetic hype to promote biology instead.
There was, of course, some talk about "responsible" development of nanotech - but when you get down to it, it's currently mainly a call for further study and no prevention of research in the mean time.
CRN agrees that further study is needed -- the more the better -- but not just of technical matters. We’ll continue pushing hard for studies of larger societal implications and policy issues.
One more observation: there seems to be a new idea going around within the nano establishment, which is that we don't need molecular manufacturing because we can probably do exponential manufacturing at larger scales. That may be true, but molecular manufacturing can build things that larger-scale manufacturing can't. Its products will be orders of magnitude more powerful. However, if other exponential manufacturing technologies are developed first, that might cushion the future shock a bit -- if you're willing to be optimistic, and we’re not sure that’s a prudent position to take.