The answers of 151 thinkers and visionaries to the Edge Annual question for 2009 have been posted. The question: “WHAT WILL CHANGE EVERYTHING?” As phrased by John Brockman, Editor and Publisher, “What game-changing scientific ideas and developments do you expect to live to see?” In his answer, nanotechnology pioneer Eric Drexler points to a role for the imperative of sequestering carbon to ameliorate climate change in pushing the development of molecular manufacturing. In “Knowledge Spreading” he argues that everything will be changed by spreading knowledge of two scientific facts—first, that carbon stays in the atmosphere a long time, and second, that physics says we can develop new methods of manufacturing with which “we could make the products that would replace the infrastructure that is causing the accelerating and seemingly irreversible problem of climate change.”
What sorts of products? Returning to power generation, transportation, and manufacturing, picture roads resurfaced with solar cells (a tough, black film), cars that run on recyclable fuel (sleek, light, and efficient), and car-factories that fit in a garage. We could make these easily, in quantity, if we were good at making things.
Developing the required molecular manufacturing capabilities will require hard but rewarding work on a global scale, converting scientific knowledge into engineering practice to make tools that we can use to make better tools. The aim that physics suggests is a factory technology with machines that assemble large products from parts made of smaller parts (made of smaller parts, and so on) with molecules as the smallest parts, and the smallest machines only a hundred times their size.
…The U.S. National Academies has issued a report on molecular manufacturing, and it calls for funding experimental research. A roadmap [Technology Roadmap for Productive Nanosystems] prepared by Battelle with several U.S. National Laboratories has studied paths forward, and suggests research directions. This knowledge will spread, and will change the game.
I should add one more fact about molecular manufacturing and the climate change problem: If we were good at making things, we could make efficient devices able to collect, compress, and store carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, and we could make solar arrays large enough to generate enough power to do this on a scale that matters. A solar array area, that if aggregated, would fit in a corner of Texas, could generate 3 terawatts. In the course of 10 years, 3 terawatts would provide enough energy remove all the excess carbon the human race has added to the atmosphere since the Industrial Revolution began. So far as carbon emissions are concerned, this would fix the problem.
I might add that a mature molecular manufacturing technology would also decentralize the infrastructure upon which civilization depends, making civilization much more robust against the disruptions caused by climate change. A quick glance at a few dozen other responses shows that, among a wide variety of fascinating and informative responses, increased longevity and the emergence of super intelligence by various means were each mentioned several times.