Three reasons why advanced nanotechnology will be so transformative -- and quite possibly disruptive.
1. Scaling laws: A nanometer is a billionth of a meter. An "Intro to Nanotech" site says...
To give a sense of that scale, a nanometer is to a meter what an inch is to 15,783 miles (a billion inches), well over half the distance around the Equator (12,451 miles).
Or think of a person that’s 6 feet tall (1,830,000,000 nanometers). A hair from that person’s head is around 50,000 nanometers wide: if you could split that hair into 50,000 separate strands, each would be a nanometer wide.
At such a tiny scale, things move much faster. Why? Because the distance traveled is so much shorter. Actions that take a few seconds at normal size -- say, a robot arm picking up a part on an assembly line -- will occur millions of times quicker inside a nanofactory. This super small size means not only speed, but also far greater functionality. Products made this way will be smaller, stronger, more durable, and smarter too, because tiny supercomputers will be packed into almost everything that's made.
2. Factories that make factories: A key factor in nanotechnology's explosive potential is that it will provide not just new products, but a new means of production. Imagine taking a factory the size of several city blocks and shrinking it down to a countertop version. Now imagine that you can instruct that nanofactory to make another identical factory. All you have to provide is external power and inexpensive raw materials. Wait a few hours and instead of one nanofactory, now you have two. Those two can make four, four can make eight, and so on. After several sets of doublings, you could conceivably have many millions of factories. That's exponential proliferation.
3. Cheap, rapid prototyping: Today, when a manufacturer plans to develop a new product (or significantly modify an existing one), they must allow for months -- if not years -- of designing, building, testing, and refining protoypes. It's an arduous, expensive, and time-consuming procedure. But with molecular manufacturing, vastly accelerated product improvement will be possible. New prototypes could be manufactured within hours -- at almost zero cost -- then tested, refined, and made ready for mass production as soon as the next day. Clearly, this has serious implications for weapons development, among other things.
Combine these three factors and you get what economists call creative destruction. How soon will it occur? Well, that's the problem. Nobody knows. It might be 20 years from now, 15 years, 10 years, or possibly less. What we urgently need is well-funded and wisely managed studies to better understand the technology and its power.