The ability to manipulate matter at the atomic scale bears promise to produce devices of unprecedented speed and efficiency. The emerging area called nanoscience and nanotechnology has seen phenomenal growth in the past decade and is likely to be the frontal area of research for the next two decades. The outcome of this research is likely to revolutionize technology in ways that will enable humankind to manipulate even individual atoms so as to produce desired effects. The vision of nanotechnology is not new; it is now well over 40 years since Richard Feynman made his foresightful speech at the winter meeting of the American Physical Society at Caltech. Eric Drexler is the one many would call the "father of nanotechnology." His vision was first outlined in his book, Engines of Creation, The Coming Era of Nanotechnology, the first few paragraphs of which are deeply insightful and worth quoting verbatim:
Coal and diamonds, sand and computer chips, cancer and healthy tissue: throughout history, variations in the arrangement of atoms have distinguished the cheap from the cherished, the diseased from the healthy. Arranged one way, atoms make up soil, air and water; arranged another, they make up ripe strawberries. Arranged one way, they make up homes and fresh air; arranged another, they make up ash and smoke.
Our ability to arrange atoms lies at the foundation of technology. We have come far in our atom arranging, from chipping flint for arrowheads to machining aluminum for spaceships. We take pride in our technology, with our lifesaving drugs and desktop computers. Yet our spacecraft are still crude, our computers are still stupid and the molecules in our tissues still slide into disorder, first destroying health, then life itself. For all our advances in arranging atoms, we still use primitive methods. With our present technology, we are still forced to handle atoms in unruly herds.
But the laws of nature leave plenty of room for progress, and the pressures of the world competition are even now pushing us forward. For better or for worse, the greatest technological breakthrough in history is still to come.
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