currently investigating two topics. One is how to make
the simplest possible nanoscale molecular manufacturing
system. I think I've devised a version that can be developed
with today's technology, but can be improved Development
of molecular manufacturing technology probably will not
be gradual, and will not allow time to react to incremental
often assumed that development must be gradual, but there are several points
at which minor improvements to the technology will cause massive advances
in capability. In other words, at some points, the capability of the
technology can advance substantially without breakthroughs or even
much R&D. These jumps in capability could happen
quite close together, given the pre-design that a well-planned
development program would certainly do. Advancing from
laboratory demos all the way to megatons of easily
designed, highly advanced products in a matter of months
appears possible. Any policy that will be needed to
deal with the implications of such products must be
in place before the advances start.
The first jump in capability is exponential manufacturing.
If a manufacturing system can build an identical copy,
then the number of systems, and their mass and productivity,
can grow quite rapidly.
However, the starting point is quite small; the first device
may be one million-billionth of a gram (100 nanometers).
It will take time for even exponential growth to produce
a gram of manufacturing systems. If a copy can be built
in a week, then it will take about a year to make the first
gram. A better strategy will be to spend the next ten months
in R&D to reduce the manufacturing time to one day,
at which point it will take less than two months to make
the first gram. And at that point, expanding from the first
gram to the first ton will take only another three weeks.
It's worth pointing out here that nanoscale machinery
is vastly more powerful than larger machinery. When a machine
shrinks, its power density and functional density improve.
Motors could be a million times more powerful than today's;
computers could be billions of times more compact. So a
ton of nano-built stuff is a lot more powerful than a ton
of conventional product. Even though the products of tiny
manufacturing systems will themselves be small, they will
include computers and medical devices. A single kilogram
of nanoscale computers would be far more powerful than
the sum of all computers in existence today.
second jump in capability is nanofactories—integrated
manufacturing systems that can make large products with
all the advantages of precise nanoscale machinery. It turns
out that nanofactory design can be quite simple and scalable,
meaning that it works the same regardless of the size.
Given a manufacturing system that can make sub-micron blocks
(“nanoblocks”), it doesn't take a lot of additional
work to fasten those blocks together into a product. In
fact, a product of any size can be assembled in a single
plane, directly from blocks small enough to be built by
single nanoscale manufacturing systems, because assembly
speed increases as block size decreases. Essentially, a
nanofactory is just a thin sheet of manufacturing systems
fastened side by side. That sheet can be as large as desired
without needing a re-design, and the low overhead means
that a nanofactory can build its own mass almost as fast
as a single manufacturing system. Once the smallest nanofactory
has been built, kilogram-scale and ton-scale nanofactories
can follow in a few weeks.
third jump in capability is product design. If it required
a triple Ph.D. in chemistry, physics, and engineering
to design a nanofactory product, then the effects of
nanofactories would be slow to develop. But if it required
a triple Ph.D. in semiconductor physics, digital logic,
and operating systems to write a computer program, the
software industry would not exist. Computer programming
is relatively easy because most of the complexity is
and abstracted within simple, elegant high-level commands.
A computer programmer can invoke billions of operations
with a single line of text. In the case of nanofactory
product design, a good place to hide complexity is within
the nanoblocks that are fastened together to make the product.
A nanoblock designer might indeed need a triple Ph.D. However,
a nanoblock can contain many millions of features—enough
for motors, a CPU, programmable networking and connections,
sensors, mechanical systems, and other high-level components.
a few types of nanoblocks together in various combinations
could make a huge range of products. The product designer
would not need to know how the nanoblocks worked—only
what they did. A nanoblock is quite a bit smaller than
a single human cell, and a planar-assembly nanofactory
would impose few limits on how they were fastened together.
Design of a product could be as simple as working with
a CAD program to specify volumes to be filled and areas
to be covered with different types of nanoblocks.
Because the internal design of nanoblocks would be hidden
from the product designer, nanoblock designs could be changed
or improved without requiring product designers to be retrained.
Nanoblocks could be designed at a functional level even
before the first nanofactory could be built, allowing product
designers to be trained in advance.
Similarly, a nanofactory could be designed in advance at
the nanoblock level. Although simple design strategies
will cost performance, [scaling laws] indicate that molecular-manufactured
machinery will have performance to burn. Products that
are revolutionary by today's standards, including the nanofactory
itself, could be significantly less complex than either
the software or the hardware that makes up a computer—even
a 1970's-era computer.
The design of an exponential molecular manufacturing system
will include many of the components of a nanofactory. The
design of a nanofactory likewise will include components
of a wide range of products. A project to achieve exponential
molecular manufacturing would not need much additional
effort to prepare for rapid creation of nanofactories and
their highly advanced products.
Sudden availability of advanced products of all sizes
in large quantity could be highly disruptive. It would
confer a large military advantage on whoever got it first,
even if only a few months ahead of the competition. This
implies that molecular manufacturing technology could be
the focus of a high-stakes arms race. Rapid design and
production of products would upset traditional manufacturing
Nanofactories would be simple enough to be completely automated—and
with components small enough that this would be necessary.
Complete automation implies that they will be self-contained
and easy to use.
Nanofactory-built products, including nanofactories themselves,
could be as hard to regulate as Internet file-sharing.
These and other problems imply that wise policy, likely
including some global-scale policy, will be needed to
deal with molecular manufacturing. But if it takes
only months to advance from 100-nanometer manufacturing
systems to self-contained nanofactories and easily-designed
revolutionary products, there will not be time to make
wise policy once exponential manufacturing is achieved.
We will have to start ahead of time.