In the future, the transition I have previously proposed (link) can be expected to proceed from electromechanically-based nanotechnology to biologically-based nanotechnology (though there may be considerable parallel development). During the prevalence of electromechanical nanotechnology, which I expect will last at least a few decades, the manufacturing of the devices will probably need to be implemented on a massive and extremely cost effective scale. If a thimble full of nanobots is needed to protect a person from cancer, clean your basement, or disinfect a restaurant kitchen, for example, there will be a need for thousands of tons of nanobots and larger microbots.
The manufacturing facilities currently most capable of working at such small scales, and handling large volumes of sensitive materials in cleanrooms, are semiconductor manufacturing plants. I can foresee a significant increase in the numbers, size, and sophistication of such plants.
Related electronics plants will be needed to provide nanobot programmers and controllers, the human interfaces to the nanomachines. Huge investments in human capital – recruitment, training, education, tools, and facilities – will be needed to staff the effort. Massive amounts of well-funded research will be needed for development of both nano-applications and the basic science behind them. Because the products are so small, and the value will be so high (especially at first), such an effort may even justify costly practices such as zero-G manufacturing in orbit. At some point, probably early on, military applications will join medical applications to dominate research and development, as each can provide the funding required. That brings thoughts of the possibility (probability) of nanowars.
It is reasonable to expect that nano-weapons will be used at some point. Wars fought with nanotechnology could be horrible and highly destructive, but could also be short. It is likely that nanobots will have short life spans, but be so extremely destructive and difficult to defend against that a war fought with such weapons would be over in days. Hopefully there would not be a nuclear component to such weapons, so that long term contamination problems would be avoided. Protecting the nanofactories would be a major military priority, needless to say, so at least the defense-oriented facilities might be located far underground (or in orbit, or on the moon?).
I’ve written about nanotechnology war here before (link), but didn’t reflect on how such a period would end. I expect that, as in the past, a period of war would end with a whimper rather than a bang. The peacetime technologies would still exist, though in reduced form, but would be able to recover and thrive, using many of the technological advances developed for the wars, similar to the way major advances in electronics and electronics manufacturing were introduced after World War II. Post war, nanotechnology could again focus on improving human and environmental health, and establishing and maintaining a sustainable world.
I realize that this all sounds like science fiction, but don’t tomorrow’s practical ideas always seem pretty impractical, and even crazy, today? If they sounded sensible today, wouldn’t we already be using them? In any case, I hope to stimulate some thought, and I welcome your comments.