When will the technology for exponential general-purpose molecular manufacturing be developed, and where will it be developed first? Who will own or control the technology, and what are the economic, environmental, military, and societal implications?
The question of when is still unanswered. This is because no one has dedicated the necessary time and money to establish a reliable timetable. The United States Congress came very close to doing this in 2003. The final House of Representatives version of the recently passed 21st Century Nanotechnology Research and Development Act included a requirement to "examine the current state of the technology for enabling molecular manufacturing," and to determine "the estimated timeframe in which molecular manufacturing may be possible."
If this had been carried through, we would be much closer to answering the question of when molecular manufacturing will be developed. Unfortunately, this provision was deliberately removed from the bill at the last minute.
So we still don’t know when, and we don't even know where. Preliminary results of a study by CRN indicate that China may be the most likely place for the technology to be developed. Based on a number of contributing factors, including politics, educational focus, and economic incentives, the results suggest that leadership in this technology might emerge first in China, Japan, Europe, India, or even Brazil, before the United States.
The study is still in progress, but it seems obvious that these findings could be significant, given what we know about the potential power offered by molecular manufacturing technology.
The next unanswered question is who will own or control it. The answer appears to be directly related to the where question. CRN believes that unilateral ownership of such a powerful capability -- whether by a corporation, a sovereign nation, or even a small bloc of nations -- presents grave risks. We support cooperative international management of molecular manufacturing for a variety of important reasons. However, until the question of where this technology will be developed can be answered, it’s hard to say who will control it.
Significant effort has been put into answering the what question -- understanding the economic, environmental, military, and societal implications of molecular manufacturing. Ongoing research by CRN and other entities has begun to illuminate these areas. But the answers at this point are all contingent, and they range considerably in the beneficial or deleterious expectations of these impacts, based on the unanswered questions of when, where, and who.
If made widely available at low cost (the raw materials should be very cheap), molecular manufacturing systems could solve many of the world's problems. Simple products like plumbing, water filters, and mosquito nets -- made on the spot -- would greatly reduce the spread of infectious diseases. The efficient, cheap construction of strong and lightweight structures, electrical equipment, and power storage devices would allow the use of solar power as a primary and abundant energy source. Computers will become stunningly inexpensive and could be made widely available, improving communication, education, and government accountability. Much social unrest can be traced directly to material poverty, ill health, and ignorance. Molecular manufacturing could greatly reduce these problems, but only if it is wisely administered.
If corporations or governments try too hard to restrict distribution and legitimate access is not provided, a black market will quickly develop. The risk here is that unauthorized manufacturing systems may not have the necessary safety measures built in. All sorts of dangerous products -- from weapons to poisons to microscopic surveillance devices -- could be made at low cost in mass quantities. To complicate matters, tiny manufacturing systems could be used to make bigger ones, and each large one could make thousands of duplicates. Smuggling of these systems would be impossible to prevent. Some solution will have to be found.
Another concern is so-called gray goo, a hypothesized nanodevice that would take in raw materials from the environment and make innumerable copies of itself. In theory, if such a contraption were not countered, it could severely damage the biosphere. Fortunately, to design something like this would be extremely difficult, and devices of this type would have no commercial or even military use, since more specialized non-replicating devices would be far more efficient. So it’s unlikely that anyone would build a device that could run amok and become gray goo by accident, and military or commercial organizations would have little interest in building such a thing on purpose. However, the prevalence of computer worms and viruses indicates that some people do build stuff like this for fun.
Finally, one more dark scenario. As noted above, the United States may not be the first to develop exponential general-purpose molecular manufacturing. If the world’s only superpower suddenly discovers that it has fallen far behind and that an enemy nation is on the brink of success, they may tempted to attack preemptively, or may enter into an arms race that probably will be unstable and thus may result in war with weapons of unprecedented power.
Based on all of these very real possibilities, it is vital that we make greater and more rapid progress in answering the four major questions:
· When will molecular manufacturing become a reality?It’s impossible to overestimate the effects these developments may have on society and on our individual lives. Informed preparation is essential. We urge governments, non-profit organizations, and industry associations to set a high priority on investigating these critical issues. Leaving huge questions about nanotechnology unanswered is a risk we can’t afford to take.
· Where will it be developed first?
· Who will own or control the technology?
· What will be the economic, environmental, military, and social impacts?