From our friend Christine Peterson and the venerable Nanodot blog comes this story...
The June 2005 Technology Quarterly report in the The Economist includes an update on the work of MIT’s Neil Gershenfeld. There’s a summary of his fab lab project and some projections:
He admits that his far-flung fab labs are not the advanced molecular machines he foresees in the next 20 years on a desktop near you, but just clunky precursors. (The Economist writes)
Yeah, well, his "clunky precursors" are still mighty impressive to us.
Dr. Gershenfeld believes that the march he foresees towards personal fabrication will be a social revolution as much as a technological one — a democratisation of the ability to manipulate matter, just as personal computers have democratised the ability to manipulate information. Fabricators will, he says begin migrating from factory floors into every home, just as computers evolved from room-sized mainframes to the laptops and mobile phones that billions of people now use to run their lives. . . In time, he says, the separate, clunky machines of today’s fabs will morph into a single, universal fabricator that can make almost anything.
That is a remarkable statement. It sounds almost as if Dr. Gershenfeld is talking about one of CRN's nanofactories. And this is all the more intriguing because last year there was some question about whether he thought it was possible "to build large complex nanosystems using traditional engineering."
Whether you believe that such a machine is just around the corner, or many decades away, its implications are truly mind-boggling. Fabricators would give people the power to make whatever comes into their heads and then share the plans over the internet — leading perhaps to a sort of Napster for real-world objects, or a new world of 'open-source' manufacturing.
A single, universal fabricator that can make "almost anything" is not just around the corner. But an integrated, general-purpose, exponential molecular manufacturing system could be only a decade away, or even less. It won't allow people to "make whatever comes into their heads," at least not at first. But we do agree that online sharing of product designs will become an important factor.
Yes, the implications are truly mind-boggling. The introduction of nanofactory technology (or personal fabrication, as Dr. Gershenfeld calls it) will indeed be "a social revolution as much as a technological one." But whether it leads to increased democratization or increased despotism is still unknown. CRN believes that the answer to that question may depend on decisions that are made -- or not made -- during the next several years.