Sunday, 9 September 2012

It seems like magic. A small appliance, about the size of a washing machine, that is able to manufacture almost anything. It is called a nanofactory. Fed with simple chemical stocks, this amazing machine breaks down molecules, and then reassembles them into any product you ask for. Packed with nanotechnology and robotics, weighing 200 pounds and standing half as tall as a person, it can produce two tons per day of products. Control is simple: a touch screen selects the type and number of products to produce. It costs very little to operate, just the price of materials fed into it. In one hour, $20 worth of chemicals can be converted into 100 pairs of shoes, or 50 shovels, or 200 cell phones, or even a duplicate nanofactory! 
Impossible? Today, maybe, but not tomorrow. The technology to create such a machine is speedily being developed. A nanofactory will be the end result of a convergence between nanotechnology (molecular scale engineering), rapid prototyping, and automated assembly. These are all present-day technologies. None of them has yet reached its full potential, but each of them is advancing rapidly, driven by powerful economic, social, and military forces. The integration of the three technologies will be far more powerful than the sum of the parts.
Some experts claim that a crash program started today could complete the first working nanofactory within a decade at a cost of between five and ten billion dollars. And once the first one is built, it can start making copies of itself. Five to ten billion dollars is a lot of money, of course, and many people will question if it could not be better spent on something else. But imagine the economic, environmental and humanitarian benefits, when nearly any product can be manufactured on the spot for about $1 per pound. No more shipping costs or time spent waiting. No more wasted resources or hazardous byproducts. No more starvation, homelessness, or poverty.
Already scientists have made chemical reactions happen by directly manipulating the individual atoms. They can draw lines of chemicals only ten atoms wide. They can send electricity down molecular wires. They can attach propellers to molecular motors and analyze their performance. They can make functioning tweezers from DNA molecules. Within a few years, we will have the ability to build three-dimensional, active, molecular constructions. It's a small and predictable step to building robots and chemical plants at the nanometer scale.
It sounds too good to be true: a non-polluting, personal-size machine that within a few hours and for a few dollars can manufacture almost anything—clothing, books, tools, communication devices—but there is a catch. It can also manufacture weapons, poisons, tiny surveillance cameras, and other illicit products. How will this be controlled? 


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