In the world of "Star Trek," machines called replicators can produce practically any physical object, from weapons to a steaming cup of Earl Grey tea. Long considered to be exclusively the product of science fiction, today some people believe replicators are a very real possibility. They call it molecular manufacturing, and if it ever does become a reality, it could drastically change the world.
Atoms and molecules stick together because they have complementary shapes that lock together, or charges that attract. Just like with magnets, a positively charged atom will stick to a negatively charged atom. As millions of these atoms are pieced together by nanomachines, a specific product will begin to take shape. The goal of molecular manufacturing is to manipulate atoms individually and place them in a pattern to produce a desired structure.
The first step would be to develop nanoscopic machines, called assemblers, that scientists can program to manipulate atoms and molecules at will. Rice University Professor Richard Smalley points out that it would take a single nanoscopic machine millions of years to assemble a meaningful amount of material. In order for molecular manufacturing to be practical, you would need trillions of assemblers working together simultaneously. Eric Drexler believes that assemblers could first replicate themselves, building other assemblers. Each generation would build another, resulting in exponential growth until there are enough assemblers to produce objects [source: Ray Kurzweil].
Assemblers might have moving parts like the nanogears in this concept drawing.
Trillions of assemblers and replicators could fill an area smaller than a cubic millimeter, and could still be too small for us to see with the naked eye. Assemblers and replicators could work together to automatically construct products, and could eventually replace all traditional labor methods. This could vastly decrease manufacturing costs, thereby making consumer goods plentiful, cheaper and stronger. Eventually, we could be able to replicate anything, including diamonds, water and food. Famine could be eradicated by machines that fabricate foods to feed the hungry.
Nanotechnology may have its biggest impact on the medical industry. Patients will drink fluids containing nanorobots programmed to attack and reconstruct the molecular structure of cancer cells and viruses. There's even speculation that nanorobots could slow or reverse the aging process, and life expectancy could increase significantly. Nanorobots could also be programmed to perform delicate surgeries -- such nanosurgeons could work at a level a thousand times more precise than the sharpest scalpel [source: International Journal of Surgery]. By working on such a small scale, a nanorobot could operate without leaving the scars that conventional surgery does. Additionally, nanorobots could change your physical appearance. They could be programmed to perform cosmetic surgery, rearranging your atoms to change your ears, nose, eye color or any other physical feature you wish to alter.
Nanotechnology has the potential to have a positive effect on the environment. For instance, scientists could program airborne nanorobots to rebuild the thinning ozone layer. Nanorobots could remove contaminants from water sources and clean up oil spills. Manufacturing materials using the bottom-up method of nanotechnology also creates less pollution than conventional manufacturing processes. Our dependence on non-renewable resources would diminish with nanotechnology. Cutting down trees, mining coal or drilling for oil may no longer be necessary -- nanomachines could produce those resources.
Many nanotechnology experts feel that these applications are well outside the realm of possibility, at least for the foreseeable future. They caution that the more exotic applications are only theoretical. Some worry that nanotechnology will end up like virtual reality -- in other words, the hype surrounding nanotechnology will continue to build until the limitations of the field become public knowledge, and then interest (and funding) will quickly dissipate.
In the next section, we'll look at some of the challenges and risks of nanotechnology.
HOW NEW IS NANOTECHNOLOGY?
In 1959, physicist and future Nobel prize winner Richard Feynman gave a lecture to the American Physical Society called "There's Plenty of Room at the Bottom." The focus of his speech was about the field of miniaturization and how he believed man would create increasingly smaller, powerful devices.
In 1986, K. Eric Drexler wrote "Engines of Creation" and introduced the term nanotechnology. Scientific research really expanded over the last decade. Inventors and corporations aren't far behind -- today, more than 13,000 patents registered with the U.S. Patent Office have the word "nano" in them [source: U.S. Patent and Trademark Office].
Nanotechnology Challenges, Risks and Ethics
The most immediate challenge in nanotechnology is that we need to learn more about materials and their properties at the nanoscale. Universities and corporations across the world are rigorously studying how atoms fit together to form larger structures. We're still learning about how quantum mechanics impact substances at the nanoscale.
Because elements at the nanoscale behave differently than they do in their bulk form, there's a concern that some nanoparticles could be toxic. Some doctors worry that the nanoparticles are so small, that they could easily cross the blood-brain barrier, a membrane that protects the brain from harmful chemicals in the bloodstream. If we plan on using nanoparticles to coat everything from our clothing to our highways, we need to be sure that they won't poison us.
Closely related to the knowledge barrier is the technical barrier. In order for the incredible predictions regarding nanotechnology to come true, we have to find ways to mass produce nano-size products like transistors and nanowires. While we can use nanoparticles to build things like tennis rackets and make wrinkle-free fabrics, we can't make really complexmicroprocessor chips with nanowires yet.
There are some hefty social concerns about nanotechnology too. Nanotechnology may also allow us to create more powerful weapons, both lethal and non-lethal. Some organizations are concerned that we'll only get around to examining the ethical implications of nanotechnology in weaponry after these devices are built. They urge scientists and politicians to examine carefully all the possibilities of nanotechnology before designing increasingly powerful weapons.
If nanotechnology in medicine makes it possible for us to enhance ourselves physically, is that ethical? In theory, medical nanotechnology could make us smarter, stronger and give us other abilities ranging from rapid healing to night vision. Should we pursue such goals? Could we continue to call ourselves human, or would we become transhuman -- the next step on man's evolutionary path? Since almost every technology starts off as very expensive, would this mean we'd create two races of people -- a wealthy race of modified humans and a poorer population of unaltered people? We don't have answers to these questions, but several organizations are urging nanoscientists to consider these implications now, before it becomes too late.
Not all questions involve altering the human body -- some deal with the world of finance and economics. If molecular manufacturing becomes a reality, how will that impact the world's economy? Assuming we can build anything we need with the click of a button, what happens to all the manufacturing jobs? If you can create anything using a replicator, what happens to currency? Would we move to a completely electronic economy? Would we even need money?
Whether we'll actually need to answer all of these questions is a matter of debate. Many experts think that concerns like grey goo and transhumans are at best premature, and probably unnecessary. Even so, nanotechnology will definitely continue to impact us as we learn more about the enormous potential of the nanoscale.