That's a complicated question, because so many variables must be considered. Among them are: where it will be developed first; who will develop it; whether it will be done in secret or in public; and whether it will result from a rapid race or through slow steps.
The question of where is impossible to answer at this point. Most observers probably expect it to occur in the United States, although it could be in Japan, China, or elsewhere.
In terms of who, it's useful to consider four possible directions: Government, Corporate, Private, or Mixed. Will the first developer -- and potential monopoly owner -- be a single nation, a single company, perhaps a private consortium, or some combination?
That question is another that can't be answered yet. But we may have some clues to follow, starting with this story about manufacturing giant 3M...
In September 2003, the company underwent an overhaul of its laboratories that elevated...Larry Wendling, a 3M veteran of 28 years who heads a team of 700 research scientists... to vice-president of corporate research, and led to more resources being funnelled into long-term R&D.
"We had sort of lost a handle on technology development," admits Mr Wendling. "But we have now gone through an extensive period of figuring out what are the future technologies and high-growth markets. We are going to develop technology faster than before. We have aggressive growth targets. Quite simply, our business model is to create things that didn't exist before."
Mr Wendling and his team have come up with a list of 12 technologies on which 3M will focus its research dollars. Of these, Mr Wendling believes that nanotechnology offers the biggest potential to produce the next...blockbuster for 3M. [emphasis added]
This story comes on the heels of the announcement that Battelle -- an enterprise with "vast science and technology reach," and that runs many U.S. government research labs -- and the Foresight Nanotech Institute will work together with other partners to develop a "Technology Roadmap for Productive Nanosystems."
3M's current strategy of investing in areas such as nanotechnology was devised by its former chief executive, James McNerney. Last month he was named the new boss of Boeing, and 3M is searching for a new head. Mr Wendling claims this will not affect the research programme: "McNerney was a great leader - we have all the plans in place. But we can live without Jim."
"And anyway," he quips, "we expect that Boeing will be a great customer in the future."
Boeing? 3M? What other major companies, in the U.S. or somewhere else, might be turning an eye toward the "blockbuster" potential of nanotechnology? If Battelle and Foresight are able to attract the involvement of 3M -- or other corporations with huge R&D budgets -- we should expect to see the timetable for MM development significantly shortened.