The barriers to a successful molecular manufacturing development project may already be surprisingly low. The challenge is mainly engineering, not unpredictable scientific breakthroughs. The primary technical barriers are the lack of a detailed design and the need for a better understanding of the required laboratory techniques. Both of these problems should be solvable with sufficient resources, and significant progress is steadily being made.
Large-scale nanotech manufacturing depends on programmable chemical fabrication of structures, followed by assembly of these structures to make larger systems. This has been studied intensively on a theoretical level. Assuming the theory works -- and no one has discovered a problem with it yet -- exponential general-purpose molecular manufacturing appears to be inevitable. It might be become a reality by 2010, likely will by 2015, and almost certainly will by 2020.
Recent research has found that the design of a self-fabricating system might be simpler than a desktop computer's CPU. An automated, self-contained factory could build lifesaving medical robots -- or untraceable weapons of mass destruction. For less than a million dollars, it could build networked computers for everyone in the world -- and for another million, networked cameras so governments can watch our every move. These factories will create trillions of dollars of abundance -- and a vicious scramble to own it. Cheap rapid prototyping will enable rapid invention of wondrous products -- and weapons development fast enough to destabilize any arms race.
Along with sizable benefits, the technology brings serious challenges. Analysis by CRN shows that numerous severe problems could spiral out of control before today's existing institutions would have time to react. Reactive development and application of molecular manufacturing policy almost certainly will be insufficient.
Attempts to control these problems may lead to abusive restrictions, or create a black market that would be very risky and almost impossible to stop; small nanofactories will be very easy to smuggle, and fully dangerous. Efforts to preempt malicious or unauthorized use of the technology could result in threats to civil liberties from constant intrusive surveillance.
Without advance planning -- without wise and well-informed policy -- we will walk blindly off a cliff. Bad policy will lead to mushrooming problems, which will inspire more bad policy. In the struggle between anarchy and oppression, the one sure loser will be "we the people."
Never before has humanity faced such a tremendous opportunity -- and never before have the risks been so great. We must begin now to build those bridges that will take us beyond the cliffs and safely into the nano era.