i09 says that researchers have demonstrated true nanobot-scale manufacturing. This isn’t just building something really small: this is building something small that builds something. It’s a nanofactory. As we’re now learning, things that work at really small scales are subject to different laws–those of quantum physics–that may give them access to other sources of energy.
This research may one day give us efficient ways of building anything (an idea touched on Neal Stephenson’s book The Diamond Age.) This all sounds promising. Except…
A frequent concern with nano-scale machines is that, if not properly designed, they can replicate out of control (popularly known as the gray goo scenario.) Traditionally, the way you control such machines is by starving them of raw materials or energy to control their growth. But recent research suggests that photosynthesis relies on quantum effects like entanglement, suggesting that such nano-factories may also have access to massively efficient sources of energy in the same way plants do.
Out-of-control nanomachine replication is just one of the many horsemen of the singularity, along with artificial intelligence and the ability to edit our own genetics. In all cases, the world after the invention looks so vastly different from the world we know that it’s unrecognizable to us — think Skynet or the Matrix.
As a species we have a hard enough time doing large-scale engineering properly. Given that we don’t even properly understand how energy is created at this scale, maybe we need some rules about how these nano-factories are designed?