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Unbounding the Future:

the Nanotechnology Revolution

Chapter 6

Working with Nanotechnology

The word manufacturing comes from the Latin manufactus, meaning "handmade." Today, the term brings to mind huge, noisy machines stamping out products and spewing waste. Giving up manufactured products isn't popular or practical—almost everything we use today is manufactured. If all machine-made products were to suddenly vanish, most people in the United States would find themselves naked and outdoors, with very little around them. Expanding manufacturing is an objective of nearly every nation on Earth.

We can't give up manufacturing, but we can replace today's technologies with something radically different. Molecular manufacturing can help us get what we seem to want: high-quality products made at low cost with little environmental impact. Chapter 12 will describe the grave problems raised by misapplication of this capability, but for now we discuss the positive side.

What follows is an exploration of the possible—a look at the devices that could be built once precise molecular control is achieved, and a look at how people might run a manufacturing business based on nanomachines. Try not to think of these sketches as hard-and-fast predictions of precisely how things will be done, but instead as descriptions of capabilities—the sorts of things that can be done once nanotechnology is well in hand. Doubtless there will be better ways to do things than the ways we describe. As usual, references to the 1980s and before are historically accurate; in the rest, the science isn't fiction..

Scenario: Desert Rose Industries

Desert Rose Industries is a diversified wholesale manufacturer of enough furniture, computers, toys, and recreation equipment to have made any twentieth-century captain of industry proud. But if you assembled all Desert Rose employees in front of corporate headquarters, you'd see Carl and Maria Santos standing beside a building the size of a four-bedroom house. This industrial giant is a typical mom-and-pop business, helped along by a network of telecommuters who handle sales and customer support from homes scattered across North America.

Their friends chide Carl and Maria as "old-fashioned traditionalists" and tease Maria about abandoning Carl in the factory while she travels to Europe, Asia, South America, and Africa for new business. In the molecular-manufacturing business, familiar personal skills and virtues—honesty, accuracy, good communication—are as important as before. Maria likes to work with the customers. Aided by her S.B. in molecular manufacturing from MIT and her MFA in design, she patiently helps nervous new designers through their first manufacturing experience, and with unflagging courtesy and good humor, handles rush orders, last-second changes, and special orders. Maria's good design ideas and caring personality won them a reputation for being responsive to customer needs. Carl, precise and careful, built their name for accurate manufacturing and delivery on schedule.

Except for Carl's habit of playing Gershwin at full volume with the windows open, the only sounds at the Desert Rose site are the birds along the banks of the stream that winds across the canyon floor; no clanking machinery here. Maria's parents built Desert Rose Industries out here on an old smelter many miles away from human neighbors. They regraded the land and cleaned up the wastes. Maria adapted a molecular processor to convert heavy-metal contaminants back into stable minerals, and shipped them off to help refill the hole they had originally come from, an old open-pit mine. The desert has mostly healed now, and a few tough trees are spreading along the stream again.

New customers coming up the road for a firsthand look at the manufacturing operations get the full tour: a lunch/meeting room, Maria's office, the manufacturing plant, and the warehouse space for parts and products out back. "The plant" is the largest room, and Carl's pride. Twelve manufacturing ponds and their cooling systems—vats ranging in size from a kitchen sink to a small swimming pool—are where Desert Rose uses nanocomputers and assemblers to do their building work. A plumbers' nightmare of piping runs between the ponds and a triple row of containers with labels like CARBON FEEDSTOCK, PREPARED PLATINUM, SIZE-4 STRUCTURAL FIBERS, and PREFAB MOTORS. Carl keeps a good stock of parts and raw materials on hand, with more in the underground warehouse. Sure, some rare things almost never get used, but having them ready to go is one of Carl's secrets for delivering on time and building precisely to specification. Over on a table are Carl's music system and the computers—descendants of the IBM PCs and Macintoshes of the 1980s—that are used to run the manufacturing process. In a space the size of a large living room, Carl and Maria have all the raw materials and all the production equipment—nanocomputers and assemblers—they need for building almost anything.

Occasionally, Carl and Maria need the services of specialized tools, such as disassemblers, that might exist only in labs. A disassembler works like an archeologist, painstakingly excavating the structure of a molecule, removing atom after atom, in order to record and analyze the molecular structure. Because they work so slowly, noting the position of each molecule, disassemblers aren't used for recycling operations—it would be expensive and pointless to record all this unwanted data. But as tools for analyzing the unknown, they're hard to beat..

Maria found this out when a customer sent her an order for tropically scented furniture and fixtures for his restaurant, but instead of including the software instructions for building the perfume, Maria found a plastic bag full of resinous brown gook with a note saying, "I got this stuff in the tropics. Please make the fabric smell like this." Maria (after sniffing the gook and deciding it smelled surprisingly tropically good) shipped the sample to the lab for chemical analysis by disassembler. The lab sent back software with the molecular description and instructions for building the same scent into the furniture.

Carl usually schedules production very tightly: in every tank, assemblers are building products; every computer is directing work. But this morning, listening to the tone of Maria's voice wafting in from the front office, Carl changes his plans: something important is about to happen. He postpones building orders for video wallpaper and commemorative diamond baseballs, and holds three pools and a computer ready. Minutes later, Maria hurries in, her voice tight and anxious. "Carl, that earthquake down south—they need help. Amanda from the Red Cross is sending the software right now."

To build a product, Desert Rose needs design instructions—computer software—for the assemblers. Carl and Maria have their own software library, but usually they buy or rent what they need, or the customers send their own designs.

The software that Amanda sends contains the specifications to manufacture the emergency equipment: a set of instructions to be run on a standard desktop computer. Within minutes, two copies of the Red Cross software arrive electronically. Before starting the build, Carl meticulously checks to make sure that the master copy and backup copy agree and weren't damaged in transit. If the instructions are complete and correct and properly signed with the Red Cross data stamp, then the desktop computer will communicate these building instructions directly to millions of small computers acting as on-the-job foremen directing the work: nanocomputers.


While the first, primitive assemblers were controlled by changing what molecules are in the solution around the device, getting the speed and accuracy wanted for large-scale manufacturing takes real computation. Carl's setup uses a combination of special-purpose molecule processors and general-purpose assemblers, all controlled and orchestrated by nanocomputers.

Computers back in the 1990s used microelectronics. They worked by moving electrical charge back and forth through conducting paths—wires, in effect—using it to block and unblock the flow of charge in other paths. With nanotechnology, computers are built from molecular electronics. Like the computers of the 1990s, they use electronic signals to weave the patterns of digital logic. Being made of molecular components, though, they are built on a much smaller scale than 1990s computers, and work much faster and more efficiently. On the scale of our simulated molecular world, 1990s computer chips are like landscapes, while nanocomputers are like individual buildings. Carl's desktop PC contains over a trillion nanocomputers, enough to out-compute all the microelectronic computers of the twentieth century put together.

Back in the dark ages of the 1980s, an exploratory engineer proposed that nanocomputers could be mechanical, using sliding rods instead of moving electrons as shown in Figure 8. These molecular mechanical computers were much easier to design than molecular electronic computers would have been. They were a big help in getting some idea of what nanotechnology could do.


An electronic transistor (above) lets current flow when a negative electric charge is applied and blocks current when a positive charge is applied. The mechanical "transistor" (below) lets the horizontal rod move when the vertical rod is down, and blocks the horizontal rod when the vertical rod is up. Either device can be used to build logic gates and computers.

Even back then, it was pretty obvious that mechanical computers would be slower than electronic computers. Carl's molecular electronic PC would have been no great surprise, though nobody knew just how to design one. When nanotechnology actually arrived and people started competing to build the best possible computers, molecular electronics won the technology race. Still, mechanical nanocomputers could have done all the nanocomputing jobs at Desert Rose: ordinary, everyday molecular manufacturing just doesn't demand the last word in computer performance.

For Carl, the millions of nanocomputers in the milky waters of his building ponds are just extensions of machines on his desk, machines there to help him run his business and deliver products to his customers—or, in the case of the Red Cross emergency, to help provide time-critical emergency supplies. By reserving those three separate ponds, Carl can either build three different kinds of equipment for the Red Cross or use all the ponds to mass-produce the first thing on the Red Cross list: emergency shelters for ten thousand people. The software is ready, the plumbing is fine, the drums of building materials are all topped up, the Special Mix for this job is loaded: the build is ready to start. "Okay," Carl tells the computer, "build Red Cross tents." Computer talks to nanocomputers. In all three pools, nanocomputers talk to assemblers. The build begins.

Assembling Products

Some of the building done at Desert Rose Industries uses assemblers much like the ones we saw in the first hall of the plant tour, back in the simulated molecular world of the Silicon Valley Faire. As seen in simulation, they are big, slow, computer-controlled things moving molecular tools. With the right instructions and machinery to keep them supplied with molecular tools, these general-purpose assemblers can build almost anything. They're slow, though, and take a lot of energy to run. Some of the building uses special-purpose assembly systems in the molecule-processing style, like the systems in the basement we saw in the tour of a simulated molecular factory. The special-purpose systems are all moving belts and rollers, but no arms. This is faster and more efficient, but for quantity orders, cooling requirements limit the speed.

It's faster to use larger, prefabricated building blocks. Desert Rose uses these for most of their work, and especially for rush orders like the one Carl just set up. Their underground warehouse has room-sized bins containing upward of a thousand tons of the most popular building blocks, things like structural fibers. They're made at plants on the West Coast and shipped here by subway for ready use. Other kinds are made on site using the special-purpose assemblers. Carl's main room has several cabinet-sized boxes hooked up to the plumbing, each taking in raw materials, running them through this sort of specialized molecular machinery, and pumping out a milky syrup of product. One syrup contains motors, another one contains computers, and another is full of microscopic plug-in light sources. All go into tanks for later use.

Now they're being used. The mix for the Red Cross tent job is mostly structural fiber stronger than the old bulletproof-vest materials. Other building blocks also go in, including motors, computers, and dozens of little struts, angle brackets, and doohickies. The mix would look like someone had stirred together the parts from a dozen toy sets, if the parts were big enough to see. In fact, though, the largest parts would be no more than blurry dots, if you saw one under a normal optical microscope.

The mix also contains block-assemblers, floating free like everything else. These machines are big, about like an office building in our simulation view with the standard settings. Each has several jointed arms, a computer, and several plugs and sockets. These do the actual construction work.

To begin the build, pumps pour the mix into a manufacturing pond. The constant tumbling motions of microscopic things in liquids would be too disorganized for building anything so large as a tent, so the block-assemblers start grabbing their neighbors. Within moments, they have linked up to form a framework spread through the liquid. Now that they are plugged together, they divide up jobs, and get to work. Instructions pour in from Carl's desktop computer.

The block-assemblers use sticky grippers to pull specific kinds of building blocks out of the liquid. They use their arms to plug them together. For a permanent job, they would be using blocks that bond together chemically and permanently. For these temporary tents, though, the Red Cross design uses a set of standard blocks that are put together with amazingly ordinary fasteners: these blocks have snaps, plugs, and screws, though of course the parts are atomically perfect and the threads on the screws are single helical rows of atoms. The resulting joints weaken the tent's structure somewhat, but who cares? The basic materials are almost a hundred times stronger than steel, so there is strength to waste if it makes manufacturing more convenient.

Fiber segments snap together to make fabrics. Some segments contain motors and computers, linked by fibers that contain power and data cables. Struts snap together with more motors and computers to make the tent's main structures. Special surfaces are made of special building blocks. From the human perspective, each tent is a lightweight structure that contains most of the conveniences and comforts of an apartment: cooking facilities, a bathroom, beds, windows, air conditioning, specially modified to meet the environmental demands of the quake-stricken country. From a builder's perspective, especially from a nanomachine's point of view, the tent is just structure slapped together from a few hundred kinds of prefab parts.

In a matter of seconds, each block-assembler has put together a few thousand parts, and its section of the tent is done. In fact, the whole thing is done: many trillions of hands make light work. A crane swings out over the pond and starts plucking out tent packages as fresh mix flows in.

Maria's concern has drawn her back to the plant to see how the build is going. "It's coming along," Carl reassures her. "Look, the first batch of tents is out." In the warehouse, the first pallet is already stacked with five layers of dove-gray "suitcases": tents dried and packed for transport. Carl grabs a tent by the handle and lugs it out the door. He pushes a tab on the corner labeled "Open," and it takes over a minute to unfold to a structure a half-dozen paces on a side. The tent is big, and light enough to blow away if it didn't cling to the ground so tightly. Maria and Carl tour the tent, testing the appliances, checking the construction of furniture: everything is extremely lightweight compared to the bulk-manufactured goods of the 1990s, tough but almost hollow.

Like the other structures, the walls and floors are full of tiny motors and struts controlled by simple computers like the ones used in twentieth-century cars, televisions, and pinball machines. They can unfold and refold. They can also flex to produce sound like a high-quality speaker, or to absorb sound to silence outdoors racket. The whole three-room setup is small and efficient, looking like a cross between a boat cabin and a Japanese business hotel room. Outside, though, it is little more than a box. Maria shakes her head, knowing full well what architects can do these days when they try to make a building really fit its site. Oh well, she thinks, These won't be used for long.

"Well, that looks pretty good to me," says Carl with satisfaction. "And I think we'll be finished in another hour."

Maria is relieved. "I'm glad you had those pools freed up so fast."

By three o'clock, they've shipped three thousand emergency shelters, sending them by subway. Within half an hour, tents are being set up at the disaster site.

Behind the Scenes and Afterward

Desert Rose Industries and other manufacturers can make almost anything quickly and at low cost. That includes the tunneling machines and other equipment that made the subway system they use for shipping. Digging a tunnel from coast to coast now costs less than digging a single block under New York City used to. It wasn't expensive to get a deep-transit terminal installed in their basement. Just as the tents aren't mere bundles of canvas, these subways aren't slow things full of screeching, jolting metal boxes. They're magnetically levitated to reach aircraft speeds—as experimental Japanese trains were in the late 1980s—making it easy for Carl and Maria to give their customers quick service. There's still a road leading to the plant, but nobody's driven a truck over it for years.

They only take in materials that they will eventually ship out in products, so there's nothing left over, and no wastes to dump. One corner of the plant is full of recycling equipment. There are always some obsolete parts to get rid of, or things that have been damaged and need to be reworked. These get broken down into simpler molecules and put back together again to make new parts.

The gunk in the manufacturing ponds is water mixed with particles much finer than silt. The particles—fasteners, computers, and the rest—stay in suspension because they are wrapped in molecular jackets that keep them there. This uses the same principle as detergent molecules, which coat particles of oily dirt to float them away.

Though it wouldn't be nutritious or appetizing, you could drink the tent mix and be no worse for it. To your body, the parts and their jackets, and even the nanomachines, would be like so many bits of grit and sawdust. (Grandma would have called it roughage.)

Carl and Maria get their power from solar cells in the road, which is the only reason they bothered having it paved. In back of their plant stands what looks like a fat smokestack. All it produces, though, is an updraft of clean, warm air. The darkly paved road, baking in the New Mexico sun, is cooler than you might expect: it soaks up solar energy and makes electricity, instead of just heat. Once the power is used, it turns back into heat, which has to go somewhere. So the heat rises from their cooling tower instead of the road, and the energy does useful work on the way.

Some products, like rocket engines, are made more slowly and in a single piece. This makes them stronger and more permanent. The tents, though, don't need to be superstrong and are just for temporary use. A few days after the tents go up, the earthquake victims start to move out into new housing (permanent, better-looking, and very earthquake resistant). The tents get folded and shipped off for recycling.

Recycling things built this way is simple and efficient: nanomachines just unscrew and unsnap the connectors and sort the parts into bins again. The shipments Desert Rose gets are mostly recycled to begin with. There's no special labeling for recycled materials, because the molecular parts are the same either way.

For convenience (and to keep the plant small), Carl and Maria get most of their parts prefabricated, even though they can make almost anything. They can even make more production equipment. In one of their manufacturing ponds, they can put together a new cabinet full of special-purpose assemblers. They do this when they want to make a new type of part in-house. Like parts, the part-assemblers are made by special-purpose assemblers. Carl can even make big vats in medium-size vats, unfolding them like tents.

If Desert Rose Industries needed to double capacity, Carl and Maria could do it in just a few days. They did this once for a special order of stadium sections. Maria got Carl to recycle the new building before its shadow hurt their cactus garden.

Factory Factories

In the Desert Rose Industries scenario, manufacturing has become cheap, fast, clean, and efficient. Using fast, precise machines to handle matter in molecular pieces makes it easy for nanotechnology to be fast, clean, and efficient. But for it to be cheap, the manufacturing equipment has to be cheap.

The Desert Rose scenario shows how this can work. Molecular-manufacturing equipment can be used to make all the parts needed to build more molecular manufacturing equipment. It can even build the machines needed to put the parts together. This resembles an idea developed by NASA for a self-expanding manufacturing complex on the Moon, but made faster and simpler using molecular machines and parts.


In the early days of nanotechnology, there won't be as many different kinds of machines as there are at Desert Rose. One way to build a lot of molecular manufacturing equipment in a reasonable time would be to make a machine that can be used to make a copy of itself, starting with special but simple chemicals. A machine able to do this is called a "replicator." With a replicator and a pot full of the right fuel and raw materials, you could start with one machine, then have two, four, eight, and so on.

This doubling process soon makes enough machines to be useful. The replicators—each including a computer to control it and a general-purpose assembler to build things—could then be used to make something else, like the tons of specialized machines needed to set up a Desert Rose manufacturing plant. At that point, the replicators could be discarded in favor of those more efficient machines.

Replicators are worth a closer look, though, because they show how quickly molecular manufacturing systems can be used to build more manufacturing equipment. Figure 9 shows a design described in Stanford University course CS 404 in the spring of 1988. If we were in one of our standard simulation views, the submicroscopic device at the top of the picture would be like a huge tank, three stories tall when lying on its side. Most of its interior is taken up by a tape memory system that tells how to move the arm to build all the parts of the replicator, except the tape itself. The tape gets made by a special tape-copying machine. At the right-hand end of the replicator are pores for bringing in fuel and raw-material molecules, and machinery for processing them. In the middle are computer-controlled arms, like the ones we saw on the plant trip. These do most of the actual construction.


A replicator would be able to build copies of itself when supplied with fuel and raw materials. In the diagram, (A) contains a nanocomputer, (B) a library of stored instructions, (C) contains machinery that takes in fuel and produces electric power, (D) is a motor, and (E) contains machinery that prepares raw materials for use. (All volumes follow calculations presented in a class at Stanford.) The lower diagrams illustrate steps in a replication cycle, showing how the working space is kept isolated from the external liquid, which provides the needed fuel and raw-material molecules. Replicators of this sort are useful as thought experiments to show how nanomachines can product more nanomachines, but specialized manufacturing equipment would be more efficient in practice.

The steps in the cycle—using a copy to block the tube, beginning a fresh copy, then releasing the old one—illustrate one way for a machine to build a copy of itself while floating in a liquid, yet doing all its construction work inside, in vacuum. (It's easier to design for vacuum, and this is exploratory-engineering work, so easier design is better design.) Calculations suggest that the whole construction cycle can be completed in less than a quarter hour, since the replicator contains about a billion atoms, and each arm can handle about a million atoms per second. At that rate, one device can double and double again to make trillions in about ten hours.

Each replicator just sits in a chemical bath, soaking up what it needs and making more replicators. Eventually, either the special chemicals run out or other chemicals are added to signal them to do something else. At that point, they can be reprogrammed to produce anything else you please, so long as it can be extruded from the front. The products can be long, and can unfold or be pieced together to make larger objects, so the size of these initial replicators—smaller than a bacterium—would be only a temporary limitation.

General Assemblers

From the molecular manipulators and primitive assemblers described in the last chapter, the most likely path to nanotechnology leads to assemblers with more and more general capabilities. Still, efficiency favors special-purpose machines, and the Desert Rose scenario didn't make much use of general assemblers. Why bother making general-purpose assemblers in the first place?

To see the answer, turn the question around and ask, Why not build such a tool? There is nothing outstandingly difficult about a general assembler, as molecular machinery goes. It will just be a device with good, flexible positional control and a system to feed it a variety of molecular tools. This is a useful, basic capability. General-purpose assemblers could always be replaced by a lot of specialized devices, but to build those specialized devices in the first place, it makes sense to come up with a more flexible, general-purpose system that can just be reprogrammed.

So, general purpose machines are likely to find use in making short production runs of more specialized devices. Ralph Merkle, a computers and security expert at Xerox Palo Alto Research Center, sees this as paralleling the way manufacturing works today: "General purpose devices could do many tasks, but they'll do them inefficiently. For any given task, there will be one or a few best ways of doing it, and one or a few special purpose devices that are finely tuned to do that one task. Nails aren't made by a general-purpose machine shop, they're made by nail-making machines. Making nails with a general-purpose machine shop would be more expensive, more difficult, and more time-consuming. Likewise, in the future we won't see a proliferation of general-purpose self-replicating systems, we'll see specialization for almost every task."

What Will These Capabilities Make Possible?

We've surveyed a lot of devices: assemblers of various flavors, nanocomputers, disassemblers, replicators, and others. What's important about these is not the exact distinctions between them, but the capabilities that they will give and the effects they will have on human lives. Again, we are suspending discussion of potential misapplications until later.

If we tease apart the implications of what we've seen in the Desert Rose scenario, we can analyze some of the key impacts of molecular manufacturing in industry, science, and medicine.

Technology and Industry

At its base, nanotechnology is about molecular manufacturing, and manufacturing is the basis of much of today's industry. This is why Desert Rose made a good starting point for describing the possibilities of a nanotechnological world. From an industrial perspective, it makes sense to think of nanotechnology in terms of products and production.

New Products: Today, we handle matter crudely, but nanotechnology will bring thorough control of the structure of matter, the ability to build objects to atom-by-atom specifications. This means being able to make almost anything. By comparison, even today's range of products will feel very limited. Nanotechnology will make possible a huge range of new products, a range we can't envision today. Still, to get a feel for what is possible, we can look at some easily imagined applications.

Reliable Products: Today, products often fail, but for failures to occur—for a wing to fall off an airplane, or a bearing to wear out—a lot of atoms have to be out of place. In the future, we can do better. There are two basic reasons for this: better materials and better quality control, both achieved by molecular manufacturing. By using materials tens of times stronger than steel, as Desert Rose did, it will be easy to make things that are very strong, with a huge safety margin. By building things with atom-by-atom control, flaws can be made very rare and extremely small—nonexistent, by present standards.

With nanotechnology, we can design in big safety margins and then manufacture the design with near-perfection. The result will be products that are tough and reliable. (There will still be room for bad designs, and for people who wish to take risks in machines that balance on the edge of disaster.)

Intelligent Products: Today, we make most things from big chunks of metal, wood, plastic, and the like, or from tangles of fibers. Objects made with molecular manufacturing can contain trillions of microscopic motors and computers, forming parts that work together to do something useful. A climber's rope can be made of fibers that slide around and reweave to eliminate frayed spots. Tents can be made of parts that slide and lock to turn a package into a building. Walls and furniture can be made to repair themselves, instead of passively deteriorating.

On a mundane level, this sort of flexibility will increase reliability and durability. Beyond this, it will make possible new products with abilities we never imagined we needed so badly. And beyond even this, it will open new possibilities for art.

Inexpensive Production: Today, production requires a lot of labor, either for making things or for building and maintaining machines that make things. Labor is expensive, and expensive machines make automation expensive, too. In the Desert Rose scenario, we got a glimpse of how molecular manufacturing can make production far less expensive than it is today. This is perhaps the most surprising conclusion about nanotechnology, so we'll take a closer look at it in the next chapter.

Clean Production: Today, our manufacturing processes handle matter sloppily, producing pollution. One step puts stuff where it shouldn't be; the next washes it off the product and into the water supply. Our transportation system worsens the problem as unreliable trucks and tankers spill noxious chemicals over the land and sea. Everything is expensive, so companies skimp on even the half-effective pollution controls that we know how to build.

Nanotechnology will mean greater control of matter, making it easy to avoid pollution. This means that a little public pressure will go a long way toward a cleaner environment. Likewise, it will make it easy to increase efficiency and reduce resource requirements. Products, like the Red Cross tents at Desert Rose, can be made of snap-together, easily recyclable parts. Sophisticated products could even be made from biodegradable materials. Nanotechnology will make it easy to attack the causes of pollution at their technological root.

Nanotechnology will have great applications in the field of industry, much as transistors had great applications in the field of vacuum tube electronics, and democracy had great applications in the field of monarchy. It will not so much advance twentieth-century industry as replace it—not all at once, but during a thin slice of historical time.


Chemistry: Today, chemists work with huge number of molecules and study them using clever, indirect techniques. Making a new molecule can be a major project, and studying it can be another. Molecular manufacturing will help chemists make what they want to study, and it will help them make the tools they need to study it. Nanoinstruments will be used to prod, measure, and modify molecules in a host of ways, studying their structures, behaviors, and interactions.

Materials: Today, materials scientists make new superconductors, semiconductors, and structural materials by mixing and crushing and baking and freezing, and so forth. They dream of far more structures than they can make, and they stumble across more things than they plan. With molecular manufacturing, materials science can be much more systematic and thorough. New ideas can be tested because new materials can be built according to plan (rather than playing around, groping for a recipe).

This need not rule out unexpected discoveries, since experiments—even blind searches—will go much faster. A few tons of raw materials would be enough to make a billion samples, each a cubic micron in size. In all of history so far, materials scientists have never tested so many materials. With nanoinstruments and nanocomputers, they could. One laboratory could then do more than all of today's materials scientists put together.

Biology: Today, biologists use a host of molecular devices borrowed from biology to study biology. Many of these can be viewed as molecular machines. Nanotechnology will greatly advance biology by providing better molecular devices, better nanoinstruments. Some cells have already been mapped in amazing molecular detail, but biology still has far to go. With nanoinstruments (including molecule-by-molecule disassemblers), biologists will at last be able to map cells completely and study their interactions in detail. It will become easy not only to find molecules in cells, but to learn what they do. This will help in understanding disease and the molecular requirements for health, enormously advancing medicine.

Computation: Today, computers range from a million to a billion times faster than an old desktop adding machine, and the results have been revolutionary for science. Every year, more questions can be answered by calculations based on known principles of physics. The advent of nanocomputers—even slow, miserable, mechanical nanocomputers—will give us practical machines with a trillion times the power of today's computers (essentially by letting us package a trillion computers in a small space, without gobbling too much money or energy.) The consequences will again be revolutionary.

Physics: The known principles of physics are adequate for understanding molecules, materials, and cells, but not for understanding phenomena on a scale that would still be submicroscopic if atoms were the size of marbles. Nanotechnology can't help here directly, but it can provide manufacturing facilities that will make huge particle accelerators economical, where today they strain national budgets.

More generally, nanotechnology will help science wherever precision and fine details are important. Science frequently proceeds by trying small variations in almost identical experiments, comparing the results. This will be easier when molecular manufacturing can make two objects that are identical, molecule by molecule. In some areas, today's techniques are not only crude, but destructive. Archaeological sites are unique records of the human past, but today's techniques throw away most information during the dig, by accident. Future archaeologists, able to sift soil not speck by speck but molecule by molecule, will be grateful indeed to those archaeologists who today leave some ground undisturbed.


Of all the areas where the ability to manufacture new tools is important, medicine is perhaps the greatest. The human body is intricate, and that intricacy extends beyond the range of human vision, beyond microscopic imaging, down to the molecular scale. "Molecular medicine" is an increasingly popular term today, but medicine today has only the simplest of molecular tools. As biology uses nanoinstruments to learn about disease and health, we will learn the physical requirements for restoring and maintaining health. And with this knowledge will come the tools needed to satisfy those requirements—tools ranging from improved pharmaceuticals to devices able to repair cells and tissues through molecular surgery.

Advanced medicine will be among the most complex and difficult applications of nanotechnology. It will require great knowledge, but nanoinstruments will help gather this knowledge. It will pose great engineering challenges, but computers of trillionfold greater power will help meet those challenges. It will solve medical problems on which we spend billions of dollars today, in hopes of modest improvements.

Today, modern medicine often means an expensive way to prolong misery. Will nanomedicine be more of the same? Any reader over the age of, say, thirty knows how things start to go wrong: an ache here, a wrinkle there, the loss of an ability. Over the decades, the physical quality of life declines faster and faster—the limits of what the body can do become stricter—until the limits are those of a hospital bed. The healing abilities we have when young seem to fade away. Modern medical practice expends the bulk of its effort on such things as intensive care units, dragging out the last few years of life without restoring health.

Truly advanced medicine will be able to restore and supplement the youthful ability to heal. Its cost will depend on the cost of producing things more intricate than any we have seen before, the cost of producing computers, sensors, and the like by the trillions. To understand the prospects for medicine, like those for science and industry, we need to take a closer look at the cost of molecular manufacturing.

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