The Meaning of Nanotechnology

What is the definition of Nanotechnology?

Nanotechnology is the engineering of tiny machines—the projected ability to build things from the bottom up, using techniques and tools being developed today to make complete, highly advanced products. Shortly after this envisioned molecular machinery is created, it will result in a manufacturing revolution, probably causing severe disruption. It also has serious economic, social, environmental, and military implications.

The principles of physics, as far as I can see, do not speak against the possibility of maneuvering things atom by atom. It is not an attempt to violate any laws; it is something, in principle, that can be done; but in practice, it has not been done because we are too big. — Richard Feynman, Nobel Prize winner in physics

When Eric Drexler (right) popularized the word ‘nanotechnology’ in the 1980’s, he was talking about building machines on the scale of molecules, a few nanometers wide—motors, robot arms, and even whole computers, far smaller than a cell. Drexler spent the next ten years describing and analyzing these incredible devices, and responding to accusations of science fiction. Meanwhile, mundane technology was developing the ability to build simple structures on a molecular scale. As nanotechnology became an accepted concept, the meaning of the word shifted to encompass the simpler kinds of nanometer-scale technology. The U.S. National Nanotechnology Initiative was created to fund this kind of nanotech: their definition includes anything smaller than 100 nanometers with novel properties.Nanotechnology is often referred to as a general-purpose technology. That’s because in its mature form it will have significant impact on almost all industries and all areas of society. It offers better built, longer lasting, cleaner, safer, and smarter products for the home, for communications, for medicine, for transportation, for agriculture, and for industry in general.

Imagine a medical device that travels through the human body to seek out and destroy small clusters of cancerous cells before they can spread. Or a box no larger than a sugar cube that contains the entire contents of the Library of Congress. Or materials much lighter than steel that possess ten times as much strength. — U.S. National Science Foundation

Why does nanotechnology have to be used responsibly?

Like electricity or computers before it, nanotech will offer greatly improved efficiency in almost every facet of life. But as a general-purpose technology, it will be dual-use, meaning it will have many commercial uses and it also will have many military uses—making far more powerful weapons and tools of surveillance. Thus it represents not only wonderful benefits for humanity, but also grave risks. A key understanding of nanotechnology is that it offers not just better products, but a vastly improved means of production. A computer can make copies of data files—essentially as many copies as you want at little or no cost. It may be only a matter of time until the manufacture of products becomes as cheap as the copying of files. That’s the real meaning of nanotechnology, and why it is sometimes seen as “the next industrial revolution”.

My own judgment is that the nanotechnology revolution has the potential to change America on a scale equal to, if not greater than, the computer revolution. — U.S. Senator Ron Wyden (D-Ore.)

The power of nanotechnology can be encapsulated in an apparently simple device called a nanofactory that may sit on your countertop or desktop. Packed with miniature chemical processors, computing, and robotics, it will produce a wide-range of items quickly, cleanly, and inexpensively, building products directly from blueprints.

Nanotechnology not only will allow making many high-quality products at very low cost, but it will allow making new nanofactories at the same low cost and at the same rapid speed. This unique (outside of biology, that is) ability to reproduce its own means of production is why nanotech is said to be an exponential technology. It represents a manufacturing system that will be able to make more manufacturing systems—factories that can build factories—rapidly, cheaply, and cleanly. The means of production will be able to reproduce exponentially, so in just a few weeks a few nanofactories conceivably could become billions. It is a revolutionary, transformative, powerful, and potentially very dangerous—or beneficial—technology. How soon will all this come about? Conservative estimates usually say 20 to 30 years from now, or even later. However, CRN is concerned that it may occur much sooner, quite possibly within the next decade. This is because of the rapid progress being made in enabling technologies, such as optics, nanolithography, mechanochemistry and 3D prototyping. If it does arrive that soon, we may not be adequately prepared, and the consequences could be severe. We believe it’s not too early to begin asking some tough questions and facing the issues:

– Who will own the technology?
– Will it be heavily restricted, or widely available?
– What will it do to the gap between rich and poor?
– How can dangerous weapons be controlled, and perilous arms races be prevented?

Many of these questions were first raised over a decade ago, and have not yet been answered. If the questions are not answered with deliberation, answers will evolve independently and will take us by surprise; the surprise is likely to be unpleasant. It is difficult to say for sure how soon this technology will mature, partly because it’s possible (especially in countries that do not have open societies) that clandestine military or industrial development programs have been going on for years without our knowledge. We cannot say with certainty that full-scale nanotechnology will not be developed with the next ten years, or even five years. It may take longer than that, but prudence—and possibly our survival—demands that we prepare now for the earliest plausible development scenario.

More Background on Nanotechnology:
Managing Magic – A brief overview of the challenges posed by advanced nanotechnology
Nanotechnology on an Upward Slope – An online PowerPoint presentation
The Next Industrial Revolution – An online PowerPoint presentation
Creating Policy for Advanced Nanotechnology – An online PowerPoint presentation
Turn on the Nanotech High Beams – An essay published by Future Brief
Nano Simulation – A way to visualize what is meant by molecular manufacturing
Debating the Future of Nanotechnology – Perspective from the Foresight Institute
Safe Utilization of Advanced Nanotechnology – One of the founding papers of CRN
5-Minute Nanosystems – A quick summary of Eric Drexler’s foundational work on nanotechnology
Nanotechnology Press Kit – Compiled and published by Nanotechnology Now

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