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There used to be arguments about what constituted "true" nanotechnology and/or "mature" nanotechnology. The current consensus is that anything made with features on a >100 nanometer scale is made with nanotechnology. True nanotechnology is where the properties of the material or object depend on atomically precise positioning of atoms. IBM Zurich famously created a copy of the IBM logo by moving Xenon atoms around on an atomically flat surface using the tip an AFM (atomic force microscope). This is considered the first true nanotech product, even though AFMs depend on having a single atom at the tip. Mature nanotechnology involves the use of assemblers, which are nanoscale machines that build things one atom at a time. How do you build the first assembler? Very tough question. But if you have a design for a working assembler, you will make a huge profit even if you spend a trillion dollars building the first one. (Use the first one to create a copy. Repeat as necessary. If it takes a day to build a copy, after a month you have a billion of them. Another few weeks, and you can start manufacturing whatever you want, and/or sell licenses or a few assemblers for billion dollar prices. Yes, in a year or three, it will be dirt cheap to make another trillion copies or so, but the law should allow you to more than recover your investment. (And there will be a market for patterns, programs, and even better assemblers.)

There is also a distinction made between bottom up and top down nanotechnology. Top down is where you start at the macro scale, and use the products (and knowledge learned) in one generation to make smaller devices in the next generation. Semiconductor electronics has successfully used this model to get to 22 nm (half-pitch*) commercial products, and should reach < 10 nm within a few years. Beyond that will take new technology, but electronics which operates on one or a few electrons (or holes) should be possible a decade from now. Read up on spintronics for details. (It is difficult to work with the presence or absence of an electron as a binary signal. The error rate is just too high. But if you use spin-up or spin-down to carry the information, error correction hardware can repeat the data transmission if no electron shows up.)

Bottom up nanotech can be done two ways. The MIT work on alloys: is called self-assembly. You put the pieces together in a solution or melt them, and they form the material without further effort. One of the problems with atomically precise manufacturing with assemblers is that to get useful macro scale products you need to have an army of atomic level assemblers, with additional work at larger and larger dimensions. Don't need to do this? You can buy 3-d printers today which work with a broad range of materials. In the future assemblers or self-assembly can be used to make components which are assembled by 3-d printers. (When building large objects you may have several levels of assembly, with the final level even being done by hand.**)

Yes, a lot of work has been done on designing (and simulating) components of assemblers, but very little has been done on designing a complete assembler capable of reproducing itself, and changing programs. Why? Nature solved that problem a long time ago. The feeling in the industry is that the first assemblers will use biological cells as assemblers, and change the programming. Why not? This is how viruses reproduce. (Of course, certain protections are needed to prevent creating new viruses that can infect us! The easiest way to do that is to make sure programs include a need for molecules or atoms not found in people or other living things.)

Once you have the design for a DNA (or RNA) based assembler, it is (today at least) fairly easy to do surgery on a cell and test your new software. Today, sensible governments should be passing legislation on how to do this safely, but expecting governments to be ahead of the curve is an idle dream. We just have to hope that the industry regulates itself. Once biological assemblers arrive, eventually designs for assemblers that can work better with metals or exotic chemicals will show up.

The old threat of gray goo is pretty much gone. Biology has been trying for billions of years to create green goo (plants) or pink goo (animals and humans) that can take over the world. Nature may have succeeded with humans. Notice that not only can humans take up a huge chunk of the available biosphere on Earth, but we can spread to other planets, outer space, and even to planets around other stars. (And the panspermia theory says that life didn't originate on Earth, but in microbes spread by meteorites. Interesting if true, but we have to get to other stars to find out, and then there is a new panspermia fact. ;-) Anyway, the speed of reproduction of any sort of goo is limited by the need to dissipate heat. Some bacteria and algae get pretty close to the thermal limit under favorable conditions.

So have we achieved true mature nanotechnology yet? If not, the world is very close. Genetic engineering is (mostly) used to fix genetic problems today, but it is also used in genetic engineered plants (frankenfoods). Are these harmful? Not if grown according to directions, but people in Europe think that banning them is better than educating farmers. The county (agricultural) agent system in the United States does the education part pretty well. Not only can the agent teach farmers the correct way to use genetically modified foods, but they can also tell neighbors when farmers aren't doing it right. What is right? For most pesticide resistant crops, you have to both follow instructions on when and how much pesticide to use, but you must also grow some "sacrificial" crops to prevent diseases from becoming resistant to the pesticides. As an economist, this creates a moral dilemma. If you plant genetically modified crops, and your neighbor doesn't, you can "get away" with planting 100% genetically modified crops, and reducing your neighbor's crop production. This is why the county agent system or something like it is necessary.

* Half-pitch is the distance between two adjacent lines as close as possible together, divided by two. Why divide by two? In the simplest case this means that a 22 nm process can create 22 nm wide lines and/or 22 nm wide spaces between devices. So a 22 nm process can create 22 nm islands or 22 nm holes. You can bias the photolithographic exposures, development and etching to get finer lines or bigger gaps, but not both.

** For example, if you needed a box, the three-d printer could create a folded box with a separate lid. Pull here and here to unfold the box.
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