Change -- revolutionary change -- is a consistent theme in the first decade of the 21st century. Ray Kurzweil, Joel Garreau, the Accelerating Change Conference, the World Future Society, and many others are promoting this powerful meme.
In 2001, the RAND Corporation published a booklet titled "The Global Technology Revolution: Bio/Nano/Materials Trends and Their Synergies with Information Technology by 2015."
Beyond the agricultural and industrial revolutions of the past, a broad, multidisciplinary technology revolution is changing the world. Information technology is already revolutionizing our lives and will continue to be aided by breakthroughs in materials and nanotechnology. Biotechnology will revolutionize living organisms. Materials and nanotechnology are developing new devices with unforeseen capabilities. These technologies are affecting our lives. They are heavily intertwined, making the technology revolution highly multidisciplinary and accelerating progress in each area. . .
Technology's promise is here today and will march forward. It will have widespread effects across the globe. Yet, the effects of the technology revolution will not be uniform, playing out differently on the global stage depending on acceptance, investment, and a variety of other decisions. There will be no turning back, however, since some societies will avail themselves of the revolution, and globalization will thus change the environment in which each society lives. The world is in for significant change as these advances play out on the global stage.
That's how the RAND booklet concludes. Earlier, they review the prospects for a number of important technologies. Included among these is nanotechnology, and several paragraphs are devoted specifically to molecular manufacturing.
To realize molecular manufacturing, a number of technical accomplishments are necessary. First, suitable molecular building blocks must be found. These building blocks must be physically durable, chemically stable, easily manipulated, and (to a certain extent) functionally versatile. . . The second major area for development is in the ability to assemble complex structures based on a particular design. . . A third major area for development within molecular manufacturing is systems design and engineering. Extremely complex molecular systems at the macro scale will require substantial subsystem design, overall system design, and systems integration, much like complex manufactured systems of the present day.
This description of technical challenges does not sound too different from the steps outlined by CRN's Chris Phoenix in his presentation on the "What, Why, and How" of molecular manufacturing. We seem to agree with RAND on what is basically necessary.
As for "Who" might lead in this field by 2015, the booklet says:
International competition for dominance or even capability in cutting-edge nanotechnology may still remain strong, but current investments and direction indicate that the United States and Europe may retain leadership in most of this field. Progress in nanotechnology will depend heavily on R&D investments; countries that continue to invest in nanotechnology today may lead the field in 2015. . .
This would not preclude other countries from acquiring capabilities in nanotechnology or in using these capabilities for narrow technological surprise or military means. Given the difficulty in foreseeing outcomes and estimating likelihoods, however, it is also difficult to extrapolate predictions of specific threats and risks from current trends.
We concur that it's not easy to forecast 10 or 15 years ahead, given the rapid pace of change and the sometimes unexpected directions it may take. But take note of their reference to "other countries" (besides the U.S. and Europe) that might use nanotechnology "for narrow technological surprise or military means." Unfortunately, this sentence is somewhat buried at the end of Chapter Two. Even if its likelihood is narrow, the implications are so broad and so unsettling that it should be treated as a major concern.
And, finally, on the subject of "When":
Although molecular manufacturing holds the promise of significant global changes (such as retraining large numbers of manufacturing workforces, opportunities for new regions to vie for dominance in a new manufacturing paradigm, or a shift to countries that do not have legacy manufacturing infrastructures), it remains the least concrete of the technologies discussed here. . .
A series of important breakthroughs could certainly cause progress in this area to develop much more rapidly, but it seems very unlikely that macro-scale objects could be constructed using molecular manufacturing within the 2015 timeframe.
It's true that no one can say for sure how soon this technology will mature, partly because it's possible (especially in countries that do not have open societies) that clandestine military or industrial development programs have been going on for years without our knowledge. But in any case, our research indicates that molecular manufacturing will arrive suddenly, perhaps within the next ten years, and almost certainly within the next twenty. If it takes the world by surprise, we will not have systems in place that can deal with it effectively.
It is for all of these reasons that we have organized the CRN Global Task Force.