Nanotechnology is called a general-purpose technology, because it will have significant impact on almost all industries and all areas of society. It offers better built, longer lasting, cleaner, safer, and smarter products for the home, for communications, for medicine, for transportation, for agriculture, and for industry in general.
Imagine a medical device that travels through the human body to seek out and destroy small clusters of cancerous cells before they can spread. Or a box no larger than a sugar cube that contains the entire contents of the Library of Congress. Or materials much lighter than steel that possess ten times as much strength. - National Science Foundation
Enthusiasts envision using nanotechnology to build space elevators, mine the asteroids, clean up the environment, end hunger and poverty, and even go inside the human body to offer extreme health extension, memory and intelligence augmentation, or a direct mind-computer connection. Some of these capabilities may be exaggerated; the difficulties that will confront developers, both in achieving technical goals and in managing unwanted side effects, often are minimized or dismissed entirely. However, it’s almost impossible to overstate the beneficial potential of molecular manufacturing.
Almost overnight, advanced nanotechnology could solve many of the humanity’s chronic problems. Simple products like plumbing, water filters, and mosquito nets -- made cheaply on the spot -- could greatly reduce the spread of infectious diseases. The efficient, cheap construction of light, strong structures, electrical equipment, and power storage devices will allow the use of solar power as a primary and abundant energy source.
Many parts of the world could not sustainably support a 20th-century manufacturing infrastructure, with its attendant environmental and societal impacts, but nanofactory manufacturing would be self-contained, cheap, and clean. A single packing crate or suitcase could contain all the equipment required for a village-scale industrial revolution.
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. Nanofactories can greatly reduce these problems.
It sounds marvelous, and indeed it will be. However, everything comes at a cost. In the next few days we'll review some of the downsides of advanced nanotechnology, and some proposed strategies for containing the threats and expanding the opportunities.