In this month's CRN science essay, Chris Phoenix writes:
When the word "nanotechnology" was introduced to the public by Eric Drexler's 1986 book Engines of Creation, it meant something very specific: small precise machines built out of molecules, which could build more molecular machines and products — large, high-performance products. This goal or aspect of nanotechnology now goes by several names, including molecular nanotechnology, molecular manufacturing, and productive nanosystems. . .
Molecular manufacturing (MM) is a fairly mundane branch of nanotech, or it would be if not for the political controversy that has swirled around it. The idea is simple: Use nanoscale machines as construction tools, joining molecular fragments into more machines. Every biological cell contains molecular machines that do exactly that. There are, however, a few reasons why molecular manufacturing has been highly controversial.
To those who study MM, its projected high performance indicates that researchers should work toward this goal with a focused intensity not seen since the Manhattan Project. To those who have not studied MM, talk of motors a million times more powerful than today's merely seems fanciful, a reason (or an excuse) to discount the entire field.
At least as problematic as the extreme technical claims are the concerns about the extreme implications of molecular manufacturing. It is rare that a technology comes along which revolutionizes society in a decade or so, and even more rare that such things are correctly predicted in advance. It is very tempting to dismiss claims of unstable arms races, wholesale destruction of existing jobs, and widespread personal capacity for mass destruction, as improbable. . .
However, all the skepticism in the world won't change the laws of physics. In more than two decades (almost five, if you count from Richard Feynman's visionary speech), no one has found a reason why MM — even diamond-based MM — shouldn't work. In fact, the more work that's done, the less complex it appears.