A Sketch of Trends

The text below is quoted, with permission, from Chapter 1 of the book Unbounding the Future, by K. Eric Drexler and Christine Peterson, with Gayle Pergamit. The book was published in 1991 by the William Morrow and Company, Inc. Copyright © 1991 by K. Eric Drexler, Chris Peterson, and Gayle Pergamit. All rights reserved.

A Sketch of Trends

Technology has been moving toward greater control of the structure of matter for millennia. For decades, microtechnology has been building ever-smaller devices, working toward the molecular size scale from the top down. For a century or more, chemistry has been building ever-larger molecules, working up toward molecules large enough to serve as machines. The research is global, and the competition is heating up.

Since the concept of molecular nanotechnology was first laid out, scientists have developed more powerful capabilities in chemistry and molecular manipulation (see Chapter 4). There is now a better picture of how those capabilities can come together in the next steps (see Chapter 5), and of how advanced molecular manufacturing can work (see Chapter 6). Nanotechnology has arrived as an idea and as a research direction, though not yet as a reality.

Naturally occurring molecular machines exist already. Researchers are learning to design new ones. The trend is clear, and it will accelerate because better molecular machines can help build even better molecular machines. By the standards of daily life, the development of molecular nanotechnology will be gradual, spanning years or decades, yet by the ponderous standards of human history it will happen in an eyeblink. In retrospect, the wholesale replacement of twentieth-century technologies will surely be seen as a technological revolution, as a process encompassing a great breakthrough. Today, we live in the end of the pre-breakthrough era, with pre-breakthrough technologies, hopes, fears, and preoccupations that often seem permanent, as did the Cold War. Yet it seems that the breakthrough era is not a matter for some future generation, but for our own. These developments are taking shape right now, and it would be rash to assume that their consequences will be many years delayed.

In later chapters, we'll say more about what researchers are doing today, about where their work is leading, and about the problems and choices ahead. To get a sense of the consequences, though, requires a picture of what nanotechnology can do. This can be hard to grasp because past advanced technologies–microwave tubes, lasers, superconductors, satellites, robots, and the like–have come trickling out of factories, at first with high price tags and narrow applications. Molecular manufacturing, though, will be more like computers: a flexible technology with a huge range of applications. And molecular manufacturing won't come trickling out of conventional factories as computers did: it will replace factories and replace or upgrade their products. This is something new and basic, not just another twentieth-century gadget. It will arise out of twentieth-century trends in science, but it will break the trend-lines in technology, economics, and environmental affairs.

Calculators were once thousand-dollar desktop clunkers, but microelectronics made them fast and efficient, sized to a child's pocket and priced to a child's budget. Now imagine a revolution of similar magnitude, but applied to everything else.