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K. Eric Drexler - Why you should care about molecular nanotechnology

Why care about nanotechnology?

K. Eric Drexler, PhD

Because technology is reshaping human life, and nanotechnology is where technology is going. Today's nanoscale science and technology includes research and development on the cutting edge of a broad range of fields. The term "nanotechnology" has been applied wherever scientists and technologists are grappling with the fundamental building blocks of matter, atoms and molecules.

Nanoscale science and technology includes the frontiers of chemistry, materials, medicine, and computer hardware — the research that enables the continuing technology revolution.

Tomorrow's nanotechnology will be much more.

As nanoscale technologies advance, they will enable the development of molecular manufacturing, a more systematic and powerful nanotechnology using nanoscale machines to build large-scale, atomically precise products cleanly, at low cost. This sort of nanotechnology — the vision that inspired the field as a whole — will transform our physical technology from the bottom up, enabling digital control of the structure of matter.

How important will this be?

Its products will cure cancer and replace fossil fuels, yet those advances will, in retrospect, seem a minor part of the whole.

Any technology this powerful will bring both dangers and opportunities. Much has been made of a concern I raised in 1986, under the name "gray goo" — a hypothetical scenario involving runaway replicators. Building fully self-replicating machines would be difficult, however, and building machines that could replicate without external help would be more difficult still. Current work in the field shows that it will be easier and more efficient to develop molecular manufacturing without building any self-replicating machines at all.

Advanced molecular manufacturing systems will be desktop-scale factories making large, useful products. The danger isn't that the factories will do something uncontrolled, but that hostile forces will use them to produce new, decisively powerful weapons. Only vigorous research can produce a stable defense. Thus, advanced nanotechnologies are as crucial to security as they are to medicine, economic productivity, and the future of Earth's environment.

Why do something about nanotechnology, if you're not working in the field?

Because it matters whether we go down the right path in developing and applying these powerful capabilities. Remarkably, in the U.S. today, the senior national leadership in nanoscale science and technology is in denial about the future of the field. Research is accordingly misdirected, and discussion of legitimate concerns has been distorted by official disinformation and politically motivated attacks. Fresh voices, not tied to the politics of the federal grant process, can help to redirect the field and open an honest dialog about its future.

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