Electronics have always been fueled by miniaturization. Working smaller has led to tools capable of manipulating individual atoms, like the proteins in a potato manipulate the atoms of soil, air, and water to make copies of the potato. Many worldwide research initiatives are underway to invent and construct devices that can be manufactured at almost no cost by treating atoms discretely, just as computers treat bits of data. This tiny technology would allow automatic construction of consumer goods without traditional laborin the same way that a copy machine produces unlimited copies without a human retyping the original information. This approach has some profound implications for manufacturing and economic impact for all nations; for example, it could eliminate some manufactured goods. Why go out and buy, when you can replicate what you want at home?
Today's manufacturing methods are very crude at the molecular level. Casting, grinding, milling, and even lithography move atoms in an unsophisticated way. It's like trying to make things out of LEGO blocks with boxing gloves on your hands. Yes, you can push the LEGO blocks into great heaps and pile them up, but you can't really snap them together the way you'd like.
Nanotechnology consists of molecular manufacturing or, more simply, building things one atom or molecule at a time with programmed nanoscopic robot arms (see Figure 1). A nanometer is one billionth of a meter (34 atoms wide). That's a thousand million times smaller than a meter. (How big is an atom? If you blew up a baseball to the size of the earth, the atoms would become visible, about the size of grapes.) Now that the principles of nanocomputing have been demonstrated in the lab, vendors, university researchers, and scientists are tackling the formidable task of building machines that work.
Figure 1 In a demonstration, IBM researchers spelled the company name by manipulating individual atoms.