Half an Eye on the Progression of Nanotechnology

We should all keep an eye on progress towards molecular nanotechnology. It is a field that will first blossom when biotechnology is mature and in full swing, and the merging of the two will most likely lead to impressive technologies for medicine and human enhancement. Artificial immune systems, blood cells far better than the real thing, and tools capable of repairing the biochemical damage of aging, cell by cell. Plausibly, this will all happen while most of us remain alive to see it, even without allowing for major advances in human longevity taking place over the next few decades.

If you have an eye for long term trends in medicine, you should be watching for progress towards molecular manufacturing and dry nanotechnology. Much of what currently goes on under the heading of nanotechnology in medical and manufacturing industries is simply progress in nanoscale fabrication and application of devices using nanoscale fabrication - good stuff, especially for medical diagnostics, but still a way away from precise molecule-by-molecule mass manufacture. The level of progress towards dry nanotechnology today determines whether we will see the nanotechnologies of radical life extension arrive in 20 years, 30 years or 50 years.

The part of the future progress curve that interests me is the point at which costs and difficulties become minor enough for a widespread amateur community to gather and start work. That is where things really take off and start to accelerate, development becoming highly competitive and very inventive. We've seen this happen in software engineering with the growth of the open source community, and the early stages of this process are underway in biotechnology. But for all the prognostication on the future of nanotechnology, what can we say about where that is heading and where it is now? How long will it be before programmable nanomachines and nanofoundries are a basement project, just like wide swathes of life science engineering can presently be a basement project? I notice some thoughts on the matter from the nanotechnology folk:

Over on Metamodern, there's a discussion of whether advanced molecular manufacturing systems could be developed by a small private effort.

Drexler thinks it's not possible today, and I agree with him that it doesn't look very likely; enabling technologies are not yet at the point where a small effort can succeed. But what if special-purpose nanotechnologies become increasingly sophisticated, continually out-competing the possibilities of general-purpose manufacturing for another 20 years?


I have thought for years that, even if no one did any work toward general-purpose nanomanufacturing, around about 2030 it would be a moot point - it would be something that a university lab could cook up in a few semesters, but many of the applications would have been achieved already. So, if no one tries to develop a nanofactory, then in two decades or so we may have one - and it won't be that big a deal - at least not at first...


I disagree with your emphasis on amateur efforts. Sure, amateurs may accomplish something, but how many computers today use amateur-fabricated chips? How many run amateur-built software? The answers are respectively 0% and maybe 1%; yet, we've had a major computer revolution all the same.

It's going to be corporations that drive these changes.

Posted by: William Nelson at December 22nd, 2009 8:57 AM

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