I was asked to provide an answer to a new question in the "Brain Parade" series posted at the Meme Therapy blog. Here is the question, and my answer follows:
Do you think the global economy and already existing regulatory structures will be able to adapt to the impact of nanotechnology without large-scale negative disruptions?
Probably not, or at least not without far greater anticipation and preparation than we’re seeing today. It’s not clear yet whether new administrative or regulatory structures will be needed, but in any case the existing structures will need to be highly flexible and forward-thinking if severe disruptions are to be avoided.
It’s not hyperbole to say that molecular manufacturing (which is part of nanotechnology’s fourth generation of development, due in 10 years or so) represents the next Industrial Revolution. We’re talking about a manufacturing technology that could turn out low-cost, highly advanced products from a desktop appliance: a personal nanofactory. And one product of that nanofactory could be another nanofactory, and another and another.
We'll have the possibility for exponential proliferation of the manufacturing capacity. Think about all the transformative change of earlier tech-based revolutions — from steam power, electricity, the automobile, plastics, and computers — packed into the span of just a few years. It’s that rapidly accelerating pace of change that makes nanotechnology potentially so disruptive.
Patrick Lin, a member of the CRN Global Task Force, also gave an answer, which included this point:
Now, some people believe that when nanotechnology advances, molecular manufacturing techniques will enable us to create virtually anything we want: we just need to program these little black boxes with the right blueprints, and they will crank out the desired product, one molecule at a time. If this happens, then there may be severe disruptions on many levels. The Center for Responsible Nanotechnology (CRN) is the only organization looking into this, as far as I know.