Based on our research, CRN believes that general-purpose molecular manufacturing (MM) could be (not will be, but could be) developed successfully within the next ten years, and almost certainly will be developed within twenty years at most.
Why is our timeline more aggressive than most? In part, because the incentive for development is so great.
Let's look at what's required: Maybe a hundred or so mechanochemical reactions to build the parts; some basic robotics and structural design for the fabricators and the nanofactory; a really advanced CAD program and training to design nanoscale machinery; and a nano-lithography or nano-assembly system that can build the first crude fabricator. All of this is engineering, with no need for unpredictable scientific breakthroughs.
Many of these capabilities are being developed rapidly in other nanotechnologies. Some costs are decreasing exponentially every year or two, like computers to do simulations. We don't know whether it would take a billion, ten billion, or a hundred billion dollars to do it by 2010, but almost certainly by 2020 it will be less than a billion dollars. And general-purpose molecular manufacturing, even in 2020, would be worth hundreds of billions of dollars, maybe trillions. Someone somewhere will find a way to fund it.
It appears quite possible that MM will arrive suddenly, perhaps within the next ten years, and almost certainly within the next twenty. If it takes the world by surprise, we will not have systems in place that can deal with it effectively. No single organization or mindset can create a full and appropriate policy -- and inappropriate policy will only make things worse. A combination of separate policy efforts will get in each other's way, and the risks will slip through the cracks.
By the time this technological capability arrives, we must have accomplished several things that each will take significant time. First, we must understand the risks. Second, make policy. Third, design institutions. Fourth, create the institutions -- at all levels including international levels, where things move slowly. This could easily take twenty years. If advanced nanotechnology could arrive in ten or fifteen years, then we'd better get to work.