In CRN’s early writings, during the first half of 2003, we made frequent use of the term ‘molecular nanotechnology’, and the abbreviation ‘MNT’. This was intended to distinguish our longer-term expectations for the field from the broader application of ‘nanotechnology’ that had become current as government funding was made available and applicants started labeling even mundane types of research as nanotechnology.
But around the middle of 2003, it became apparent to us that ‘MNT’ and ‘molecular nanotechnology’ possessed a negative connotation with many serious researchers. The terms were associated almost invariably with fantastic notions like bloodstream nanobots, true universal assemblers (“meat machines”), and theoretically ubiquitous “utility fog.” Such concepts admittedly are fascinating to consider and someday may become reality, but they seem to be further in the future than are the middle-period developments that concern CRN.
In response to the negative associations of ‘molecular nanotechnology’ and ‘MNT’ with visionary universal assemblers, we made an attempt in the latter half of 2003 to distinguish this middle period as dealing with a limited version of molecular nanotechnology, or LMNT. This was characterized as implementing just a tiny fraction of possible chemistry, aimed at achieving a limited molecular manufacturing capability based only on carbon lattice configurations—diamond, graphite, and fullerenes—known collectively as "diamondoid". We found, however, that although this is a useful and important distinction for technical writing, the meaning is too arcane and derivative for general usage.
Near the end of 2003, CRN decided to replace most usages of ‘molecular nanotechnology’ in our writing with ‘molecular manufacturing’. This was thought wise not only to avoid the baggage associated with MNT but also to more specifically identify the period when large-scale manufacturing of products at the molecular level has become possible. To be more precise and descriptive, we sometimes will use the fuller phrase ‘exponential general-purpose molecular manufacturing’. Exponential refers to the capability of the technology to reproduce its own means of manufacturing (self-copying). General-purpose suggests that the technology has application across a broad spectrum of industries and hence will affect many segments of society.
Much of the connotative difficulty described above can be traced to the order in which Eric Drexler (who properly can be called the father of nanotechnology) introduced his concepts to the scientific community and the world at large. His first published book was Engines of Creation, in which he laid out the spectacular possibilities of this anticipated future technology, including “universal assemblers” that would “let us build almost anything that the laws of nature allow to exist.” This promised the end of hunger, fine control of nature, mastery over space, and even glimpses of human immortality. Engines was a popular success and can be credited with inspiring many nanoscale scientists, including the late Richard Smalley, to enter the field.
It wasn’t until six years later that Drexler published Nanosystems: Molecular Machinery, Manufacturing, and Computation, a far more rigorous and detailed analysis of the science and technology that would be required to turn some of these far-out concepts into near-term reality. In Nanosystems, the focus was on the early stages of nanotechnology manufacturing and the tone was more sober and scholarly. Nevertheless, the die had already been cast, and Drexler thereafter was labeled by many in the scientific establishment as a visionary dreamer, and not someone to be taken seriously.
There are numerous critics of Drexler’s ideas who only have read (or read about) Engines of Creation and never have studied Nanosystems. One wonders how things might be different today if the books had been published in the opposite order.