Lord Kelvin's famous pronouncement, "Heavier than air flying machines are impossible," made in 1895 while he was president of Britain's Royal Society, has become cliche for advocates of new technologies. We sometimes use it ourselves when answering those who are skeptical about molecular manufacturing.
Of course, many -- if not most -- new technologies touted as "revolutionary" fail to live up to the hype. It's understandable why someone today would doubt CRN's claims that advanced nanotechnology will bring transformative and disruptive impacts to society within the next decade or two.
It's equally understandable that many 19th century scientists and engineers were doubtful about the possibility of flight. And yet, less than ten years after Lord Kelvin's unfortunate statement, the Wright brothers took to the air. The rest, as they say, is history...
But that's not the whole story. Take yourself back to the 1920's, when biplanes were "state of the art" and jet engines had not yet been conceived. Looking at the future of flight from that point, no one could have expected that before long humans would fly faster than the speed of sound, and soon after, giant airliners would carry hundreds of passengers nonstop across continents and oceans in just a few hours.
Today you can read plenty of "gee whiz" stories about personal fabbing, plastic electronics, rapid 3D prototyping, stereolithography, and other precursors of molecular manufacturing (MM). It's much like people raving about biplane technology in the 1920's -- great stuff, but nothing compared to what's coming soon.
Between microscale fabbing and MM, there are at least three huge (OK, nanosize) differences: scaling, precision, and exponential production.
Scaling means that reduction in size of operating features by orders of magnitude (from micro to nano) results in both substantially decreased mass and significantly higher relative throughput -- basically, more bang for the buck.
Precision means machines that operate with no "wear and tear" in the ordinary sense. More important, it also means that useful features, including information processing (i.e., supercomputing), can be reduced to remarkably small sizes -- basically, the proverbial Library of Congress inside a sugar cube.
Exponential production refers to a manufacturing system that can produce more manufacturing systems: factories building factories. MM could enable anyone with a desktop-size nanofactory, for example, to build another one like it in less than a day. If you do the math, you can see that many millions of nanofactories could be produced in just a few months -- basically, all bets are off. The societal, environmental, economic, military, security, and geopolitical implications are immense.
That's why we need to pay attention. Progress in flight did not end with the biplane, and current trends toward increased miniaturization, precision, production throughput, and information processing power will not stop before molecular manufacturing is achieved -- which is coming sooner than almost everyone expects.