This generation will witness the greatest technological breakthrough in human history, the development of molecular manufacturing and personal nanofactories.
Molecular manufacturing (MM) refers to a process that builds complicated machines out of precisely designed molecules.
This emerging technology will allow us to guide the molecular assembly of objects by mechanically positioning reactive molecules.
This new manufacturing process, sometimes referred to as molecular nanotechnology (MNT), should not be confused with "structural nanotechnology" which refers to the present-day and near-future incorporation of nano-scale elements in modern industrial products. Nano-scale components are already present in many products, such as fabrics, electronics, and pharmaceuticals.
But molecular manufacturing harbors far greater abilities. Promising to deliver a monumental impact on human society, molecular manufacturing will provide us the means to manufacture products from the bottom up and enable us to rearrange matter with atomic precision.
Once molecular manufacturing is developed, it will provide us with a thorough and inexpensive system for controlling the structure of matter. In a relatively short time period following the development of the first nanofactory, mankind will appear to have complete dominion over the physical universe.
How Molecular Manufacturing Works
The central, but not the only, component necessary to achieve molecular manufacturing is a fabricator, or assembler.
A fabricator will be nano-scale device capable of precisely positioning molecules.
Using current computer technology, we could then direct fabricators to secure and position compounds at the precise locations where chemical reactions occur. Using this method, a network of fabricators working in tandem (such as a nanofactory) can construct atomically perfect objects of any size by initiating multiple sequences of controlled chemical reactions.
A simplified way to visualize this concept is to think of a fabricator as an atomic magnet able to attract and repel molecules.
How Molecular Manufacturing Might Be Developed
Molecular manufacturing will most likely be developed under the auspices of a massive governmental defense project for a major world power.
Likely candidates are the United States, the European Union, Japan, India, Israel, or China - although most nations in the world community have developed limited nanotechnology initiatives. In all likelihood, the events of September 11th provided the necessary incentive for the United States (and other world powers) to undertake organized and concerted efforts to accelerate the development of molecular manufacturing.
Given the enormous benefits, as well as the unacceptable national security consequences of losing this new arms race to an unfriendly power, it appears most capable nations have instituted such projects and are fervently racing toward the construction of the world's first self-contained molecular manufacturing system.
Just as December 7th ushered the world into the Nuclear Age, September 11th will catapult us into the Nanotech Age. This gives ample cause for concern, because this might well lead to the premature development of molecular manufacturing, unleashing enormous power on a world unprepared.
Why Molecular Manufacturing Will Be Developed
National security concerns will constitute the initial driving force to develop molecular manufacturing and reach the assembler breakthrough as soon as possible. As Eric Drexler states in Chapter 11 ("Engines of Destruction") of Engines of Creation:
"a state that makes the assembler breakthrough could rapidly create a decisive military force - if not literally overnight, then at least with unprecedented speed."
Able to replicate swiftly, assemblers can become abundant in a very short period (if the self-replication period for an assembler is 15 minutes, then a single assembler can replicate into two to the ninety-fifth power assemblers in the first 24 hour period).
Those assemblers can then be used to create weapons pre-designed in anticipation of the future development of molecular manufacturing, weapons capable of enormous destructive power - weapons that most people would find difficult to imagine. The leading force will hold unprecedented power over the nations of the earth.
How it chooses to exercise that power should be humanity's greatest concern.
In addition to its national security implications, molecular manufacturing promises to change every aspect of human life. Molecular manufacturing will also yield the following:
1) A cleaner environment
These changes will not occur in a vacuum. Literally overnight, the world political, social, and economic order will be thrown into a transition period marked by great upheaval. Dealing with the unintended consequences of molecular manufacturing, creating an immune system to protect ourselves from perceived threats, and establishing an entirely new international order that protects the sovereignty of free states and the liberties of free people will culminate in humanity's greatest challenge. Many reasons exist to develop molecular manufacturing, but foremost among them is the idea that a totalitarian government could develop it first and decide these great questions for us. Winning this new arms race must be the number one priority of the Western Democracies, because to lose may well mean that free nations cease to exist.
The Dangers of Molecular Manufacturing
We must remain alert and vigilant to a number of potential dangers as we develop molecular manufacturing. One of the more commonly perpetuated concerns is the danger of a massive accident that may reduce the biosphere to "gray goo". Many within the field of nanotechnology have expressed concern that a lab may accidentally set loose a runaway replicator in the environment. Using the earth's biomass as a ready-made source of components, such a device could uncontrollably self-replicate across the globe like a mutant form of crabgrass, turning the planet into a sphere of "gray goo".
However, engineering such a replicator (if it's even possible) will be quite difficult, and it's highly unlikely to be the result of an accident. Such an accident is more likely to arise from the escape of a replicator consciously built for such a purpose. Such a replicator, in a controlled state, constitutes a new class of weapons of mass destruction. And the construction of such weapons raises speculation of a more serious concern than mere accidents and that is the threat of the deliberate abuse.
The most serious danger to arise from the development of molecular manufacturing will be deliberate abuse, abuse that could spring forth from many areas of society simultaneously. Our initial pressing concern will be the prospect of despotic governments or terrorist organizations possessing an unrestricted molecular manufacturing capability. This will remain a threat, but probably one with which we can deal. Despotic governments, such as communist China or the theocracy of Iran, can be quickly defeated (if we develop molecular manufacturing first) by the Western Democracies without loss of life on either side of the conflict and at little financial cost once molecular manufacturing comes to fruition. Advanced nanotechnologies will also provide us with new tools for tracking and capturing individual terrorists, and the defeat of state sponsors of terror will remove the effective safe havens terrorist groups rely upon for protection.
However, the diminished threat of nano-terrorism should not be confused with the death of terrorism. The conventional terrorist airliner hijackings of the 1970's and 1980's were effectively eradicated by the measures western governments adopted to combat them, but in its place, a new form of hijacking emerged - culminating in the attacks of September 11th. We can not afford to be asleep at the wheel when terrorists launch a nanotechnic September 11th. That is why development of an effective immune system to repel perceived threats must be a high priority.
The threat of terrorists and despotic governments wielding nanoweapons is formidable, but must not blind us to a more traditional danger. Our own democratic governments also pose an imminent threat to freedom and liberty. Two specific dangers seem to stand out - the danger of demagogues/mob rule and the danger of the ever-expanding power of federal government.
The development of molecular manufacturing will usher in a period of massive societal change and upheaval. Some people predict the ability of molecular manufacturing to create products absent of human labor will lead to initial unemployment of 40% or more. Such conditions make democracies ripe for the rise of demagogues, and the ability of molecular manufacturing to create a massive welfare state overnight without placing a considerable burden on that state's resources will aid in that demagoguery.
If the Western Democracies become the leading force, they must remain on guard against a modern day incarnation of Huey Long, or even a figure like Adolph Hitler, who may use class warfare to exploit weaknesses in our democratic institutions, chief among them a propensity for mob rule.
Today's nanotechnology advocates may be capable of creating a brilliant framework for an active shield and a new world order, but tomorrow's politicians will have to implement it. Today's nanotechnology advocates will most likely not wield this political power, and history does not favor our chances for electing benevolent rulers.
Assuming our leaders are just in their intentions and sincere in their motivations, we must develop a system that keeps in check the ever-expanding power of federal government. The past Century has experienced a trend toward decentralization via the spread of democratic institutions, free trade, outsourcing, the Internet, and any number of innovations. But for America, this Century has also witnessed an increase in federal power. Our tax burden is larger, and entitlement programs that didn't exist prior to the 1930's threaten to bankrupt the nation. Why has federal power bucked the trend toward decentralization? Is it the result of an increase in wealth? Is it the result of class warfare? Could it be an inherent trait of developing technological societies?
The survival of freedom will depend on our ability to curtail the power of the federal government. In the Nanotech Age, a single terrorist will, in theory, be capable of constructing an overwhelming force and conquering the earth. Such an unprecedented threat to world security will call for unprecedented measures.
With the power to regulate molecular manufacturing, a world government will have the ability to spy on every human on earth. The means to monitor every transaction will be available. Already "nano dust" has been created. Once it can be manufactured at low cost, billions of microscopic particles will be capable of listening to every conversation, recording every movement, and reading the correspondence of every human on earth. Once molecular manufacturing is developed, this "smart dust" will become cheap and plentiful. Citizens must then weigh the costs and benefits of instituting a society reminiscent of Orwell's dystopian 1984 and one that elects for greater privacy, not only for themselves but for terrorists as well. A dire consequence of molecular manufacturing may be that free societies slowly devolve into totalitarian police states in an effort to combat both real and imagined terrorist threats.
This is a serious threat. In the present day, America practices a policy of risk management in regard to terrorism. Although a nuclear attack on New York City would be devastating, it would not signal the end of human life or liberty.
However, a terrorist attack utilizing the full capabilities of molecular manufacturing is a different matter. Given its unacceptable consequences, America may see its policy transform from one of risk management to one of risk avoidance. And history illustrates that the only societies capable of combating terrorism with near 100% effectiveness are totalitarian in nature.
Precautions for the Safe Development of Molecular Manufacturing
A number of organizations and individuals are working diligently to insure the safe development of molecular nanotechnology. The Foresight Institute is the most prominent organization actively working toward this goal. Founded by K. Eric Drexler, author of Engines of Creation, the Foresight Institute has published an evolving set of guidelines titled Foresight Guidelines on Molecular Nanotechnology. These guidelines address specific design features as well as principles of development. However, much is left undone.
Nanotechnology advocates have yet to introduce a specific set of policy initiatives to be undertaken following the development of molecular manufacturing. Specific policies must be developed to deal with the implications of molecular manufacturing on the framework of international order and security, the world economic order, and safeguards must be put in place to protect our environment. In the end, no one will realize the benefits of molecular manufacturing if we fail to preserve human life and liberty. We need to start thinking in terms of the present, because I believe September 11th has greatly accelerated the timetable for molecular manufacturing development.
We must ask ourselves the following question: "If the United States were to develop a molecular manufacturing capability tomorrow, what measures should be taken to establish a new world order that preserves human life and liberty?" Should we allow other nations to develop a molecular manufacturing capability? If so, how do we guard against the possibility of an unstable arms race or destructive war? How do we build a meaningful immune system to guard humanity against existential risk? Dealing with the myriad number of questions raised by the ascendance of molecular manufacturing will constitute humanity's greatest challenge to date.
The Center for Responsible Nanotechnology is currently engaged in answering many of these policy questions. Distancing itself from many of the broader issues under the umbrella of The Foresight Institute, The Center for Responsible Nanotechnology focuses its efforts on studying, clarifying, and researching the policy issues involved in molecular nanotechnology's development - political, economic, humanitarian, and security issues. I encourage others to visit and contribute to their site.
In addition, Eric Drexler has provided two starting points for further research and debate. Chapter 12 of his book Engines of Creation, titled "Strategies and Survival," and part of a 1988 Foresight document titled "A Dialogue on Dangers." Ultimately, there are no guarantees that the transition from the industrial age to the information age will be safe and comfortable, nor are we guaranteed it's a transition we will survive. Only our present-day efforts and our efforts following development of molecular manufacturing can insure that this era of the human experience is one to be celebrated.
When This Will Occur
Projections range from 5 years to 100 years, but the most probable projections are 5 to 20 years.
Despite the evidence in our daily lives, most people remain unaware of the accelerating rate of technological development taking place in the world. Ray Kurzweil points out that this is due to the intuitive linear view, and that a more apt view of our world incorporates the exponential world view.
Due to the Law of Accelerating Returns, molecular manufacturing will be feasible a lot sooner than even most scientists and engineers believe. According to The Center for Responsible Nanotechnology, molecular manufacturing "might be a reality by 2010, likely will by 2015, and almost certainly will by 2020." Recent news from the UK seems to confirm this assessment.
Britt Gillette is the founder of End Times Bible Prophecy and the author of Coming To Jesus and Signs Of The Second Coming. Receive his book 7 Signs of the End Times for FREE when you sign up for his monthly newsletter.
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