ince the primitive dawn of human industry over a million years ago, when our earliest upright ancestors first used their free hands to fashion tools from rocks and sticks—and up to this present age of precision machinery, composite materials, and integrated circuits with engineered structure at the submicroscopic scale—our technologies have always shared one constant factor: they have all dealt with matter in bulk quantities, manipulating clumps of trillions, then billions, and now perhaps merely millions of atoms at a time. Only very recently, with the advent of scanning tunneling probes and atomic force microscopes, have singular objects been deliberately fabricated that possess only a few dozen discrete atoms, individually nudged, maneuvered or cajoled into position per preconceived design. So far these have been primarily objets d'art – nanoscale masterpieces produced for their own sake, as well as to demonstrate the evolving state of the art. Very soon, however, the power of "molecular nanotechnology" shall be unleashed, enabling the near-complete mastery of matter on all scales from the molecular up, while bestowing upon humankind quasi-magical powers on par with those previously attributed only to our mythological gods! [Drexler, 1986].
As of this writing, this author knows of no instance in which the bonds of individual atoms have been thusly manipulated to produce a precise molecular structure. Nevertheless, it is not unreasonable to anticipate this threshold being crossed in the very near future, allowing the circumvention of those chemical and biological processes by which aimless nature has operated exclusively heretofore. The universe shall become humanity's toybox, its constituent elements snapping apart and back together like tinkertoys®, to suit our every need, whim or desire! Most if not all of our current manufacturing processes shall be rendered obsolete – abandoned in favor of nano-precise (molecularly fine-detailed) replication. We might see a few hold-outs at first, mainly for the purpose of prototyping, but eventually even these should prove non-essential as more products come to be synthesized from abstract specifications, or from pseudo-prototypes simulated in software.
At first blush this scenario might seem absurd. Even the smallest of practical devices are composed of billions of atoms, and we might thus suspect that their fabrication by molecular assembly would take years. This is not true. The nanotechnology revolution will kick into high gear as soon as the first universal molecular assembler is built, programmed, and deployed. Additional assemblers will then be built as that machine replicates itself. Also, it will be a short step to the design and construction of ever smaller assemblers, each more effecient than its predecessor. Robust demi-robotic constructions of "machine-phase matter," possessing no more mass and volume than a bacteriophage, these "nanorobots," of which a trillion or so might fit into a teaspoon, will be able to work together in concert as they permeate whatever substance or object is undergoing transmogrification. Furthermore, as miniscule as these devices may be, they shall operate on a likewise diminished time-scale – zipping back and forth in hops measured in angstroms, breaking down and building up perhaps millions of molecular bonds per second.
Consequently, once the basic technology is established, costs will plummet – much more dramatically than that of micro electronics. Keep in mind that with general-purpose replication, such cost reductions will apply to all manufactured goods. 11,025 carats of cut and polished, high-grade diamonds (one pound) should cost about the same as a 16 ounce Pepsi ™! Larger outlays of nanoresources should provide exponentially increased returns.
The most notable restraint upon the fruition of our desires will probably be the limited supplies of certain rare elements, and not necessarily the ones you might suspect! (Ultimately, Phosphorus is likely to be the most valuable of all.) At first we might also be plagued by harsh thermodynamic realities. Not that we will have much trouble tapping into new energy sources, nor of making more effecient use those we currently employ, but how we go about channeling this energy shall certainly present our engineers with many challenges.
Besides having the wherewithal to construct virtually anything within the realm of physical possibility, these "Engines of Creation" should also be able to maintain, repair and improve upon all manners of things with amazing effeciency. The grandest example is the human body, including the brain. Consequently, the potential for unlimited wealth may be augmented by unlimited health and longevity. Genetic diseases could be cured by the straightforward expedient of correcting erroneous nucleotide sequences within all copies of the patients DNA. Collateral damage to the phenotype—tissue that has been misconstructed due to genetic defects or transcription errors, may prove to be a more formidable problem, but certainly not intractable. An in vivo fleet of personal nanobots, several trillion of them standing by, on-call within ones tissues and bloodstream, might well be capable of patching up even the most extreme injuries--i.e. a hail of gunfire, schrapnel, or micrometeorites riddling ones vital organs--effecting such repairs almost as swiftly as the damage is done, and certainly before it becomes any major inconvenience. Curing common illnesses, healing tivial injuries, and keeping slower degenerative processes such as aging forever in check should prove to be relatively simple.
In more desperate situations—such as when a person presumably "dies"— recovery and reanimation might often be instantaneous. Otherwise, a more laborious reconstruction could be implemented on a patient who has been cryonically preserved—vitrified within a tank of liquid nitrogen to prevent further degradation of the pattern. As a last resort, a database which contains the patients molecular blueprint could be accessed. From this, an otherwise unrecoverable individual could be restored to such status was enjoyed at whatever time the most recent back-up file was saved, or if one has "teleported" recently, it may be possible to "reboot" from a cached copy of oneself on the transit authority's server.
Likewise, the power of molecular nanotechnology could be employed to heal the Earth of the the wounds which our species has inflicted upon it. Then we might well apply this same power, augmented with new knowledge and wisdom, toward the terraformation of other worlds!
How we choose to pursue the development of this technology is sure to provide for a lively debate, as will how we ultimately apply it, and how we prepare ourselves, our society, and posterity for the radical changes on the nano-horizon. In any case, the Age of Molecular Nanotechnology and a dawning Era of Global Abundance is nigh. Whoever pulls off the fait accompli of constructing a universal molecular assembler will hold the keys to tomorrow.