A student recently emailed me some questions about nanotechnology. I decided to write a lengthy answer and make a blog post of it as well.
Even though this is quite long, it is more abbreviated than I wish it was. For more information, check out our published papers. You may also want to read this overview of nanotechnology and molecular manufacturing.
> 1)Please state your background and expertise in the field of nanotechnology.
I started learning about nanotechnology when I took a class from Eric Drexler at Stanford in 1988, and I have continued to study it for 21 years. My software engineering experience has helped me to understand the implications of large engineered systems, built of small reliable components, and capable of implementing the operations that created them.
I have published numerous papers on the science and implications of molecular manufacturing (see http://crnano.org/papers.htm) and have spoken on four continents, keynoting and organizing two conferences.
> 2)What is the science behind nanotechnology (in general)?
Building things at the atomic scale has many advantages. For example, there are some very cool physics tricks such as near-frictionless surfaces and a variety of effects (such as luminescence) from confined electrons. Smaller things work faster and with higher power. Atoms are perfect copies of each other, and molecular structures are inherently "digital," which can translate into extremely high reliability.
Not every branch of nanotechnology uses every advantage that's available at the nanoscale. As our ability to build more complicated nanostructures develops, nanotechnology will get even more exciting.
A major predictable advance is the increasing use of nanomachines (not just nanostructures) and eventually the use of nanomachines for fabricating other nanomachines. That will lead to a series of manufacturing breakthroughs that I expect to be rapid and revolutionary.
Molecular manufacturing is the end goal of nanomachine fabrication. Highly reliable manufacturing at the nanoscale, using flexible nanoscale tools, will allow tools to build more tools, as many as desired, and then use the tools for general-purpose product manufacture. In the end, the cost of highly advanced products may be determined mainly by the cost of raw materials and/or the R&D required to make the blueprints.
> 3)What are the inhibiting factors slowing down the research and development
> of products using nanotechnology?
Most of today's nanotech is done by indirect methods: for example, mix some chemicals together, let them react on their own, and you get nanoparticles or DNA structures. Each development requires a lot of research and experimentation. And it's hard to see what we're doing. With better microscopes and more general-purpose fabrication methods, nanotech research will be able to advance much more quickly.
Politics has hurt the development of advanced nanotechnology, including molecular manufacturing. A few decades ago, people thought that molecular manufacturing would lead directly to the creation of dangerous self-contained self-replicating robots, too small and too numerous to stop, that could do untold damage simply by eating stuff we care about. That worry was obsoleted in 1992, when Drexler published a technology development pathway that skipped the small self-contained robots entirely. But in 2000, Bill Joy invoked the worry in an article in Wired magazine, just as the National Nanotechnology Initiative was getting funded. Suddenly, researchers in other branches of nanotech saw billions of dollars of funding at risk, and it became fashionable to assert that molecular manufacturing was impossible.
There are also concerns about the health risks of some nanoparticles, which have probably slowed the development and productization of some kinds of nanotechnology.
> 4)How do you think advances in nanotechnology will affect the future of...
In the short term, nanotech will improve one product at a time, causing only incremental effects in all the areas you list below. Eventually, when a suite of general-purpose manufacturing and sensing tools are developed, things will change a lot faster. Product design will speed up, each designer will be able to build a wider range of products with less effort, and in the end, it will be possible to make as many copies as desired of a product with fully automated manufacturing.
> A) War-
There's a large class of weapons that gets more effective as they cram more complexity and power into a smaller volume. Basically, this applies to anything that flies through the air. Nanotechnology, and especially molecular manufacturing, promises products with far higher complexity and power density.
When nanoscale manufacturing becomes able to make whole products, weapons may become more numerous and cheaper to build. Combined with rapidly improving computers and software, automated weapons systems may become overwhelmingly important on the battlefield - regardless of whether the battlefield overlaps with civilian populations. Think of something like a mechanical housefly, but networked, and exploding on command. That's only one of a vast range of possible weapons.
As manufacturing and testing become faster, weapons may be developed and deployed so quickly that any arms race will become unstable: one side will develop a weapon the other side can't defend against, deploy it, and take out the other side before they can do the same.
> B) Medicine-
The human body is amazingly complex at many levels. I expect medicine to advance incrementally but rapidly as better computers, sensors, chemicals, and machinery are developed.
I used to think that molecular manufacturing would revolutionize medicine. I'm starting to moderate that opinion, because I'm seeing how medicine today is limited by factors other than the tools available. Molecular manufacturing will certainly accelerate medical research, but so will a lot of other things like computer data-mining and DNA sequencing.
> C) Entertainment-
I think that computers (which already use a form of nanotech, but require lots of other technologies as well) will be a major factor in entertainment advances for the next several decades.
Physical sports will be helped by material science advances. I enjoy several extreme sports, some of which couldn't exist without synthetic fibers. Nanomaterials will probably play an increasing role in sports of all kinds.
In the future, when molecular manufacturing can build motors and energy storage devices with immensely high power density, I expect personal aviation to finally (so to speak) take off.
Eventually, increased ability to design new medical technologies will merge medicine and entertainment. Anything further I said on this topic would go straight into science fiction.
> D) Everyday Life-
Westernized countries already have enough technology that our lives are determined more by our choices than by our technological limitations. The major exception to this is aging. Currently, everyone has to plan to get old and feeble and dependent. If and when medicine (presumably with the help of nanotech) advances to the point that the processes of aging can be largely stopped and/or reversed, there will be major social shifts.
A new and powerful means of manufacturing could have major impacts on environmental issues. I believe that planet-scale engineering will become possible. Instead of having an impact on the environment accidentally and on a timescale of decades, it will be possible to have a planet-scale impact in a matter of months. We will have to choose what impact we want to have. We will be able to fix most of today's problems. We will also be able to create new problems.
> E) Other (any other information you would like to add)-
I should say something about timelines. Computer chips using nanotech (by the National Nanotechnology Initiative's definition, which I actually don't find very useful) are already here. Medical diagnostics are being developed and will soon be very important; treatments may take a bit longer (maybe 10 years plus or minus five before we see major impacts).
Nanomaterials are already being used, and their use will increase, but we mostly won't notice.
Molecular manufacturing is kind of a wild card, since its development depends largely on perception and politics, and its use may depend largely on national-level policy and politics. It would surprise me a lot if someone, somewhere, had not developed it by 2020. But whether it will be available, or will be a closely guarded military technology, is anyone's guess.
> 5)How can nanotechnology be seen as a problem in the future?
Any technology can create problems by its indirect effects on society.
The main direct problem that nanotechnology could create in the short term is if some nanoparticle is widely used and then turns out to be a health or environmental hazard. Keep in mind that nanoparticles are as different from each other as rocks and soap bubbles - some nanoparticles will be perfectly safe, and some are known to be unhealthy (this is, of course, also true of a wide range of industrial chemicals - if the danger is known, it's not usually a serious problem). The potential for trouble arises if a nanoparticle is used before it's studied. This has happened several times already, without any major health consequences that I've heard of.
In the longer term, once molecular manufacturing is developed and nanotech becomes a general-purpose technology, there will be all sorts of potential problems. I already mentioned an unstable arms race, which could lead to war and/or domination. There will also be major impacts on society. Look how much difference electricity and automobiles and plastics and computers made in the previous century. Molecular manufacturing has the potential for comparable impacts, both good and bad.
> 6)Is nanotechnology ethical?
Ethics is about how humans use the technology, not the technology itself. Nanotechnology will present us with many choices, many chances to improve the world, and many opportunities to do unethical things.
> 7)How will nanotechnology be enforced?
Nanotech is too broad for any one set of policies to be meaningful. Many of its implications will have to be dealt with separately.
Once nanotech leads to general-purpose manufacturing, things will get even more complicated. A single manufacturing device may be able to make products with military, medical, commercial, environmental, and societal implications. It will be very difficult to regulate such a device sensibly. Frankly, I don't know the answer.