These early years of the 21st century are a time of rapid advances in science and technology. Every day brings news of startling developments in fields such as genetic engineering, neuroscience, and nanotechnology.
So what will the near future actually bring us? Human beings that glow in the dark, like our bioengineered pets? Robot servants? Flying cars? Genuine artificial intelligence? Or something even more exotic?
There is good reason to believe that within the next 10 to 20 years, the most significant changes to society will go far beyond glowing people or flying cars. Many of them may result from exponential general-purpose molecular manufacturing, made possible by advanced nanotechnology.
Exponential general-purpose molecular manufacturing -- that’s a mouthful, but what does it mean? Let’s take the phrase apart to see why it is so important.
MANUFACTURING: The ability to make products, in this case ranging from clothing, to electronics, to medical devices, to books, to building materials, and much more.
MOLECULAR manufacturing: The automated building of products from the bottom up, molecule by molecule, with atomic precision. This will make products that are extremely lightweight, flexible, durable, and potentially very ‘smart’.
GENERAL-PURPOSE molecular manufacturing: A manufacturing technology that will find many applications across many segments of society. Its extreme flexibility, precision, high capacity, and low cost will cause rapid adoption almost everywhere, and therefore will have disruptive effects in many industries.
EXPONENTIAL general-purpose molecular manufacturing: The word exponential refers to the rapid pace -- probably unprecedented -- at which this technology may be deployed. A compact automated molecular manufacturing system will be able to make more manufacturing systems. We’re talking about factories that can build duplicate factories -- and probably do it in less than a single day. The math is simple: if one factory makes two, and two factories make four, then within ten days you could have one thousand factories, in ten more days a million factories, and ten days after that a billion factories. Within the span of just a few weeks, in theory, every household in the world could have one of their own, to make most of the products they need, at just the cost of raw materials.
Exponential general-purpose molecular manufacturing means a manufacturing system capable of making a wide range of technologically advanced products, far superior to what we have today, much cheaper, much faster, and able to multiply its own source of production exponentially.
The consequences of this are mind-boggling, to say the least. It could mean the drastic restructuring of whole industries, including mining, refining, transportation, storage, and wholesale and retail distribution. It could mean millions of jobs lost, or shifted. It could represent a radical transformation of traditional power structures, which may not come about easily, or peacefully. It could also mean opportunities like we’ve never had before to relieve poverty, prevent illness, and offer education to millions of people in developing nations.
We urgently need to answer four questions:
· When will this happen?
· Where will molecular manufacturing be developed first?
· Who will own or control the technology?
· What are the economic, environmental, military, and societal implications?
Tomorrow we'll look for answers to these important questions.