Will development of advanced nanotechnology arrive as an incremental advance, perhaps in 20 or 30 years? Or will it arrive sooner, as a sudden unexpected breakthrough, perhaps in 15 years, 10 years, or even less?
This is an extremely important question to answer. In the latter scenario, we would have much less time to prepare, and if molecular manufacturing (MM) arrives suddenly, it might trigger panicked policy or some other drastic response. If development is slow in coming, on the other hand, that will provide many more years in which to create effective policy. Moreover, if MM does not arrive until, say, 2030 or 2040, then by that time other technologies almost certainly will have produced substantial effects on society and the environment, making MM's impact less disruptive.
Let's take a closer look at some of the factors that make determining a reliable timeline for MM development so urgent.
The power of nanotechnology will greatly augment not only the products made, but also the manufacturing process itself. A nanofactory could build its own mass of product, including another factory, in a few hours. Materials are calculated to be at least one hundred times as strong, with machinery a million times as compact as in today's products. With all this power, as well as rapid prototyping and fast inexpensive general-purpose manufacturing, the technology will create unprecedented new challenges.
As noted above, a key factor in the disruptiveness of molecular manufacturing is the speed with which it potentially could be developed. Some development programs may plan to follow an incremental roadmap. However, a program based on recognition of the potential for rapid design could result in a sudden breakthrough. Product designs could be based on hierarchical modules, re-using and re-combining a few basic functional units so that a new product would not need any additional low-level design. Massively parallel factories, building from the molecules up, would be able to build finished products from new designs in hours. This would allow rapid testing and tweaking of designs. When finalized, products could almost instantly be built by the millions using exponentially manufactured nanofactories.
Powerful, compact products designed rapidly and produced almost instantly: that's a recipe for both opportunity and trouble. Two hostile countries with this technology could find themselves in a breakneck arms race. Law enforcement would have serious trouble keeping up with new tools of crime, including networked spy systems. Rapid replacement of other forms of manufacturing (as digital computers have taken over almost all tasks from analog electronics) could cause massive economic disruption. The ease and speed with which planet-scale engineering could be carried out implies a need for environmental policy to avoid bad choices and overuse of easy but environmentally expensive luxuries. These are only a few of the problems, but they raise the specter of another ominous problem: control-freak solutions. An early-achiever nation might want to take over the world in order to prevent subsequent threats — and the power of the technology could make such an attempt appear feasible. Likewise, police might opt for universal surveillance.
Convinced yet? Tomorrow, we'll examine additional compelling reasons for seeking answers to the speed of development question.