The nonprofit Center for Responsible Nanotechnology (CRN) today released a series of scenarios depicting various versions of a near-future world into which transformative manufacturing concepts may emerge. Across eight separate storylines, an international team of policy, technology, and economic specialists organized by CRN imagined in detail a range of plausible, challenging events — from pandemics to climate crises to international conflicts — to see how they might affect the development of advanced nanotechnology over the next 15 years.
Future generations of nanotechnology will use sophisticated nanoscale machinery to construct powerful products with molecular precision. Such ‘molecular manufacturing’ could lead to revolutionary capacities, including tabletop fully automated factories capable of constructing duplicate factories in less than a day. Some experts think this may be achieved as early as 2020.
“While a 15-year time frame for the development of desktop nanofactories is arguably optimistic,” said Mike Treder, Executive Director of CRN, “it is by no means outrageous, as recent events indicate [see Notes below]. That’s why we think this scenario series is timely and important.”
All eight scenarios, plus an introduction putting them into context, were posted online today at Nanowerk.com, as well on CRN’s main website, www.CRNano.org. The scenarios also will be published in the peer-reviewed print journal, Nanotechnology Perceptions, beginning early next year.
“Although the basic concepts of molecular manufacturing go back as far as 1959,” said Jessica Margolin, CRN’s Director of Research Communities, “it is only in the last few years that technology has advanced to the point where we can begin to see the practical steps that might bring it to fruition. What is still uncertain, however, is precisely how it will emerge.”
It is for that reason that CRN initiated a project early in 2007 to create a series of professional-quality scenarios of a near-future world in which exponential general-purpose molecular manufacturing might be developed and deployed. In pursuing this project, CRN pulled together more than 50 people from six continents, with a range of backgrounds and points of view, as collaborators. Over the course of several months, a unique series of “virtual workshops” — using a combination of teleconferencing, Internet chat, and online shared documents — produced eight intriguing scenarios.
“The scenarios we’ve created examine possible outcomes of different nanotechnology developmental pathways across a variety of nations,” said Jamais Cascio, CRN’s Director of Impacts Analysis. “These scenarios are not predictions, and do not represent outcomes desired by CRN. We intend them to provide a springboard for discussions of molecular manufacturing policies and societal responses.”
The scenario approach offers a tool for the examination of internally consistent possibilities regarding a particular topic as a way to test and reconsider strategies. While each scenario can be understood individually, the real value of the process comes from the comparison of multiple scenarios. A strategic response that appears robust in one scenario may be dangerous in another; an organization, community, or polity using these scenarios to consider how to handle the emergence of molecular manufacturing should strive for responses that are viable across multiple scenarios.
“We’re proud of what we and all our collaborators have accomplished here,” said Treder, “but it’s only a beginning. We hope this project will help to stimulate a thorough investigation of the benefits and risks of nanofactory technology to find what might be done now and in the next few years to mitigate the dangers and increase the likelihood of beneficial outcomes.”
Recent events increasing the potential for rapid development of nanofactory technology include:
1. A study released by the U.S. National Research Council in December 2006 reviewing the theoretical basis of molecular manufacturing and calling for funding of experimental research (http://crnano.org/PR-NMAB.htm)
2. A request for proposals issued by DARPA in July 2007 for developing tip-based nanofabrication at the threshold of atomic precision (http://www.darpa.mil/mto/solicitations/baa07-59/index.html)
3. An announcement of U.K. government grants in October 2007 to research teams developing nanomachines that can build materials molecule by molecule (http://rsc.org/chemistryworld/News/2007/October/19100701.asp)
4. The December 2007 publication of a Technology Roadmap for Productive Nanosystems, marking the completion of a broad, years-long, multidisciplinary effort to explore how current laboratory techniques for atomically precise fabrication can be extended, step by step, toward increasingly advanced products and capabilities (http://e-drexler.com/p/07/00/1204TechnologyRoadmap.html)