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Antibiotics, aircraft, satellites, nuclear weapons, television, mass production, computers, a global petroleum economy—all the familiar revolutions of twentieth-century technology, with their growing consequences for human life and the Earth itself, have emerged within living memory. These revolutions have been enormous, yet the next few decades promise far more. The new prospects aren't as familiar, and can't be: they haven't happened yet. Our aim in this book, though, is to see what we can see, to try to understand not the events of the unknown and unknowable future but distinct, knowable possibilities that will shape what the future can become.
Twentieth-century technology is headed for the junk heap, or perhaps the recycling bins. It has changed life; its replacement will change life again, but differently. This book attempts to trace at least a few of the important consequences of the coming revolution in molecular nanotechnology, including consequences for the environment, medicine, warfare, industry, society, and life on Earth. We'll paint a picture of the technology itself—its parts, processes, and abilities—but the technology will be a detail in a larger whole.
A short summary of what molecular nanotechnology will mean is thorough and inexpensive control of the structure of matter. Pollution, physical disease, and material poverty all stem from poor control of the structure of matter. Strip mines, clear-cutting, refineries, paper mills, and oil wells are some of the crude, twentieth-century technologies that will be replaced. Dental drills and toxic chemotherapies are others.
As always, there is both promise of benefit and danger of abuse. As has become routine, the United States is slipping behind by not looking ahead. As never before, foresight is both vital and possible.
I've made the technical case for the feasibility of molecular nanotechnology elsewhere, and this case has been chewed over by scientists and engineers since the mid-1980s. (The technical bibliography outlines some of the relevant literature.) The idea of molecular nanotechnology is now about as well accepted as was the idea of flying to the Moon in the pre-space age year of 1950, nineteen years before the Apollo 11 landing and seven years before the shock of Sputnik. Those who understand it expect it to happen, but without the cost and uncertainty of a grand national commitment.
Our goal in this book is to describe what molecular nanotechnology will mean in practical terms, so that more people can think more realistically about the future. Decisions on how to develop and control powerful new technologies are too important to be left by default to a handful of specialized researchers, or to a hasty political process that flares into action at the last minute when the Sputnik goes up. With more widespread understanding and longer deliberation, political decisions are more likely to serve the common good.
I would never have written a book like this on my own; I lean in a more abstract direction. Combined blame and thanks belong to my coauthors, Chris Peterson and Gayle Pergamit, for making this book happen and for clothing the bones of technology in the flesh of human possibilities.
—K. Eric Drexler