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In Development

Nanotechnology And The Distant Future

Many writers have indulged themselves in speculation about the ultimate future of nanotechnology. Most agree that nanotechnology will eventually lead to a revolution in medicine, although they paint different hypothetical scenarios. “Smart” chips implanted in our bodies will detect medical conditions and synthesize treatments. Nanoscale implants will reverse loss of sight and hearing. Molecular medicines will treat Alzheimer's and other diseases. Cars will be piloted by computers. Television and computer screens will be rendered obsolete as more people have images transmitted directly to implants on the retinas of their eyes. People will be able to choose between DNA computers that store and manipulate information with DNA molecules, or powerful quantum computers that use the principles of quantum mechanics. The list goes on.

Some of these innovations may arrive sooner than one might expect, while others may never materialize. But futuristic speculation about the applications of nanotechnology is a long tradition in the field. In 1986, K. Eric Drexler published Engines of Creation: The Coming Era of Nanotechnology. In this book, he describes a hypothetical future of the world that inspired most nanotech scenarios in science fiction books such as Michael Crichton's Prey. Drexler imagined an “assembler” that could construct any object, atom by atom, through bottom-up fabrication. He also described a possible doomsday in which the world is taken over by “gray goo” made up of self-replicating nanoscale robots gone out of control.

Despite the sensationalistic aspects, the concepts introduced in Engines of Creation captured the imagination of many scientists. Molecular engineering became a top goal of some researchers. Among Drexler's early fans was Richard Smalley. But over the years, Smalley and others began to doubt the possibility of molecular assembly as outlined in Drexler's book. In 2003, there was no mention of molecular manufacturing in the 21st Century Nanotechnology Research and Development Act.

A small group of nanotechnology proponents still subscribes to Drexler's vision. They consider the contemporary usage of the term “nanotechnology” a diluted version of the field's original ambitions. Instead, they advocate an alternative term, molecular nanotechnology (MNT), and hold faith in the feasibility of molecular manufacturing, complete with molecular machines and assembly lines for the construction of molecular structures.

Most nanotechnology experts doubt that such molecular manufacturing will ever come to pass. Still, MNT supporters illustrate the broad potential of nanotechnology. There is room for visionaries, as well as scientists, engineers, computer scientists, and medical researchers. Nanotechnology will bring about everyday improvements in our clothes and vehicles, and the major transformations of entire industries. Some nanotech start-ups will become household names, and some large corporations will find a new focus in the field. Nanotechnology professionals will pursue a variety of promising career paths across the many related fields. Nanotechnology holds an exciting range of potential.

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