Last night I attended a meeting of the Las Vegas Futurists, which is a discussion group that gathers monthly to discuss… the future. Being a first-time attendee, I wasn’t sure what to expect, hoping it wouldn’t be a bunch of local teens asking when we’ll have our own holodecks.

Fortunately I was pleasantly surprised. The guest speaker was Chris Phoenix, Director of Research for the Center for Responsible Nanotechnology. Involved in nanotech research since 1988, Chris led us through a fascinating exploration of the possibilities for molecular manufacturing using table-top nanofactories. Imagine 144 quadrillion tiny robotic arms, each constructing physical objects one atom at a time, with a combined output of about one kilogram per hour. And because these would be operating in a vacuum and due to their tiny size and the negligible effect of gravity at that scale, they could move extremely rapidly, each one performing millions of movements per second.

Ultimately Chris predicted that the first working nanofactory could probably be produced within 10-15 years, but as little as 5 years if an organization like the U.S. government were to fast-track such a goal as was done with the Manhattan Project.

After the official meeting, eight of us went out to dinner together, and since I ended up sitting next to Chris, I took advantage of the opportunity to subject him to a nano-brain-picking. Hearing about the possible benefits of this technology is interesting to be sure, but I wanted to know how such a nanofactory could actually be built and how it might physically work. I wasn’t disappointed, as Chris took me through many of the details of how he envisioned a rudimentary nanofactory might work, something about which he’d previously written an 80-page paper. We discussed the power requirements, how the robotic arms would be controlled, fault-tolerance, electrostatics and covalent bonds, heat output and cooling options, and the potential for portability. By the end of the evening, I was becoming convinced that this technology is on the verge of becoming real, not merely the domain of science fiction.

If this technology ultimately succeeds, it means not only that we could produce virtually any physical goods in a completely automated fashion, but also that objects could be engineered with atomic-level precision. Chris said that we could potentially create a computer chip the size of a grain of rice that would be more powerful than today’s fastest supercomputer (which I believe presently does around 36 teraflops), and it would cost less than a penny and could be manufactured in seconds.

Of course, I probably don’t even need to point out that there is a potential dark side to this technology as well, so it’s questionable as to whether human beings will be ready for it if/when it does appear. A part of CRN’s work is to encourage policy makers to start thinking about these questions now and to take steps to prepare ourselves socially and structurally, so that we aren’t caught unprepared to handle the consequences.

I didn’t get home until about midnight. Hmmm…. spending a Friday night in Vegas discussing nanotechnology with a group of futurists, while my wife stays home playing City of Heroes with her level 36 defender…. Don’t even say it!

On another subject, I still haven’t even officially announced the existence of this site yet, but due to the power of word of mouth (and the spy network that has me under constant surveillance), it has now spread to more blogs. According to my traffic logs, during the past four days there have been 28, 192, 253, and 313 visitors to this site — certainly not huge, but a lot for a site that doesn’t officially exist yet.