This is an excerpt from an excellent article recently posted at the new Wise-Nano collaborative research site:
One of the premises in the current MNT (molecular nanotechnology) debate is that there may be "rapid development from a basic fabricator to a flood of advanced products", taking a world with no noticeable MNT presence by storm. This assumes the basic fabricator will be created in its mature state, capable of replicating itself at high speed. Given a mature fabricator with no lower-performance ancestors the world economy would be transformed in a matter of months as MNT products displace many existing ones, and social chaos would ensue as millions lose their jobs in the face of MNT competition.
But history has few examples of new technologies bursting out like Athena from the forehead of Zeus. Most have false starts, unrelated applications of partial successes, and then low-performing complete examples that are improved over years and decades. Molecular manufacturing probably will follow this pattern. Over the coming decades we will see gradual improvements in the complexity of products that can be built and the speed of production.
A different argument can be made: that although there will probably be a continuous improvement from low-performing to high-performing manufacturing, a very small (quick) region of that curve will have a lot of impact.
The graphic below shows five stages of product complexity:
• shaped crystal – diamondoid shapes made for use in other products
• simple product – devices such as a op-amp chip or diamondoid block and tackle
• complex product – a central processing unit, electronic or using mechanical rods
• reprogrammable – rather than having molecular manufacturing devices designed to make a specific product, we now have general purpose ones that can make a variety of complex products
• autoproductive (self-replicating) – nanofactories that can build duplicates of themselves
The production rate for each type of technology will improve over time, from a rough prototype producing only one gram of material per day to single-product-optimized factories producing one gram per second. A new level of MNT complexity will have to concentrate on niche markets until its production rate is improved to where it can compete against the high production rates of its simpler predecessors. For self-replicating technology the early generations will serve more as proof of concept than as transformative devices. By the time they can replicate themselves enough times to have an impact a descendent with ten times the production rate will have been developed that will zoom past them.
What do you think? The article goes on for several more paragraphs, so take a look at it -- and then you can add comments or even edit the existing article at Wise-Nano.