March 1, 2002 —
Scientists believe that nanotechnology will soon give humans the ability to move and combine individual atoms and molecules into microscopically tiny mechanical, electrical, and biological “machines” that will replace many of today’s production processes and tools. Although current work is focused on materials, optics, and electronics, nanotechnology eventually will find applications throughout society. Advances in nanotechnology will feed back into conventional industry, which in turn will demand and promote further advances in nanotechnology in a cycle that is familiar from the silicon revolution of recent decades. This time, however, the cycle will operate more rapidly and produce even more far-reaching change. Computers based on nanotechnology will be smaller and more powerful and will accelerate advances in nanotechnology itself. Even without computers, nanotechnology will allow incorporation of a kind of intelligence into materials that will react to and influence their environment in complex and predictable ways, much as biological organisms do. Taken a step further, nanoscale robots, or nanobots, will be able to operate autonomously to inspect, mend, or destroy targeted substances. Biological nanobots will do the same operating on DNA instructions. Both types of nanobots will be able to replicate themselves.
Such revolutionary capabilities will produce change that can be predicted only in its magnitude, not its details. The Internet already assures the nearly instantaneous and universal dispersion of information; nanotechnology will extend and ramify the Web until it becomes an encompassing fog of interconnection that will take globalization to its extreme. Today, information and pollution have no national boundaries. Before many years, the same will be true of another of humanity’s constructs, nanotechnology.
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