Alex Steffen, in a World Changing article on "The Kind of Future Fabbing Suggests", says:
Doing fine machine-work by hand is a painstaking job, worthy of master craftsmen. But computers and robotic factories don't really care whether the material they're working is a meter or a micron thick. As a result, it's getting easier and easier to create materials of astonishing purity, manufacture parts of incredible precision, and assemble products to the very finest tolerances. Since greater precision often equals better performance, this means that engines can be made more powerful and less wasteful, consumer products, from furniture to household appliances, can be made with less stuff.
It's a long article, well worth reading in its entirety. But here I'll just excerpt some ideas regarding nanotechnology:
The ultimate expression of this drive towards the very fine is nanotechnology. . . Nanotech as it's actually emerging is prosaic, practical and profound. Waste is usually, as often remarked, the right stuff in the wrong place. Above all else, nanotech in the real world is about eliminating waste. As Vincent DiRodi writes, "Current macromanufacturing methods are crude and imprecise. . . We take millions of atoms, bond, grind and manipulate them into objects. The results of these processes are millions of other atoms labeled as waste. Nanotechnology would allow us to use only what is needed and place it precisely where it belongs."
With serious adoption of nanotechnology, we will be begin moving from a "heat, beat and treat" industrial era whose motto has been jokingly described as "if brute force doesn't work, you're not using enough of it," to an age where factory workers talk about "nudging molecules into place," and "enticing" carbon atoms to "bond cleanly." The mindsets are as similar as those of a piledriver and a watchmaker.
Earlier in the article, Steffen quotes science fiction writer and eco-activist Bruce Sterling:
I envision some kind of universal fabricator. A big, bad, cheap fabricator that makes stuff out of utterly worthless raw materials. Straw and mud, perhaps. Or chopped grass, cellulose, recycled plastic and newspaper, even sand. A big, rugged, dirty, emergency thing like an upended cement mixer. But smart. There’s a lot of code in there. Free, unpatented code.
Sterling's vision sounds remarkably similar to CRN's "Managing Magic" article, where we describe an appliance...
...about the size of a washing machine, that is able to manufacture almost anything. It is called a nanofactory. Fed with simple chemical stocks, this amazing machine breaks down molecules, and then reassembles them into any product you ask for. Packed with nanotechnology and robotics, weighing 200 pounds and standing half as tall as a person, it can produce two tons per day of products. Control is simple: a touch screen selects the type and number of products to produce. It costs very little to operate, just the price of materials fed into it. In one hour, $20 worth of chemicals can be converted into 100 pairs of shoes, or 50 shovels, or 200 cell phones, or even a duplicate nanofactory!
Our version is a bit more plausible, perhaps, than Sterling's, although whatever actually emerges in the next decade or two may not resemble either of them.
It's also interesting that Sterling dubs the products of his fabricator "mobjects" and goes on to muse about "the killer app for something, some object, made by an underpaid, intelligent mob." He says the killer app might be emergency fabricators to make cheap stuff for relief efforts in disasters, such as the recent tsunami.
Certainly we support valuable humanitarian use of molecular manufacturing, but we're also concerned that the mobs he speaks of may not all be altruistic. Some might try to use nanofactories to gain power -- economic, political, or military -- and it's also not hard to imagine mobs that might have truly malicious purposes. That's why we always couple talk of benefits with calls for legitimate technical restrictions on use of advanced nanotechnology.