Thomas L. McKendree

This paper was included in Systems Engineering in the Workplace, the Proceedings of the Third Annual International Symposium of the National Council on Systems Engineering [Now the International Council on Systems Engineering], held in 1993, and is placed on the web by the Molecular Manufacturing Shortcut Group for educational and individual use only. If "10-7" looks the same as "10-7", then your browser does not support superscripts, and some of the following numbers may be confusing.
Copyright 1993. All rights reserved.


This paper introduces the concept of metatechnologies--technologies which have substantial effects on and through other technologies. It then discusses molecular nanotechnology, a major impending metatechnology that systems engineers need to understand. What they need to know, including a survey of minimum performance characteristics, is reviewed. Finally, several educational strategies which systems engineers might use to educate themselves about molecular nanotechnology are discussed.

Table of Contents


A metatechnology is a technology which not only provides direct capabilities, but one that also affects other technologies to dramatically improve system performance. Digital electronics is the most obvious example of a metatechnology.

Molecular nanotechnology is an impending metatechnology which should launch equally vast transformations early in the next century. It thus is a subject that systems engineers should begin studying.


All technologies are in essence tricks that work to get things done in the real world. For example, a transistor can screen out the carrier wave from amplitude modulated to recover the original signal.

A metatechnology is also a trick, such as arranging feedback on transistors so they latch at high or low voltages, depending on the pattern of input signals, but a trick that is so flexible and powerful that it can be applied to a tremendous variety of products, substantially changing whole categories of systems. Digital electronics is the most evident example of a metatechnology, due to the tremendous changes it is currently causing. These changes have been continual because roughly every seven years computers become ten times more cost effective (figure 1), repeatedly changing what are the most cost effective arrangements of organizations, products and systems. Other meta-technologies have also been developed, however, such as writing, the steam engine, and the assembly line.

Metatechnologies Can Be the Basis of New Products

Writing was the basis for books. The steam engine was the basis for self-powered trains. Digital electronics was the basis for inexpensive computers and video games.

Metatechnologies Support Totally New Architectures

Writing supported standard written laws, and long-term, written contracts. The steam engine supported ships that needed no wind. Digital electronics supports inexpensive computers, video games, digital sound like compact discs, and digital communications like ISDN.

Metatechnologies Can Transform Product Life-Cycles

Writing transforms product support with user manuals and maintenance guides. The steam engine transformed production with powered machinery and transformed distribution with powered transportation. Digital electronics transforms the life- cycle of products in many ways. Computer Aided Manufacturing provides more flexible and responsive production with shorter cycle-times. Computer Aided Logistics Support (CALS) provides integrated product information between suppliers and the government. Built in Test (BIT) supports easier maintenance with fault detection and isolation.

Figure 1. Continuous tremendous growth in computing power has created a metatechnology. Historical data from (Moravec, 1988).

Process Metatechnologies

The manufacturing process is a key part of the product life cycle, so any technology that dramatically improves manufacturing is a metatechnology. The assembly line is such a process metatechnology. While not itself incorporated within products, it dramatically lowers the costs of producing products.

Even products which are not built by assembly lines, such as site-built homes, are affected by this metatechnology. Tools used are much less expensive, and thus much more available, because of assembly line production. Parts are cheaper (and thus a wider array of much better parts are broadly affordable) because they are made by assembly line. Such significant secondary and tertiary effects are the mark of a metatechnology.

Metatechnologies Can Transform "Systems Engineering"

Writing allowed scientific data to build up. The massive production of steam-driven factories required product/process integration. Digital electronics transformed systems engineering with new tools like automated requirements traceability, functional simulations, CAD, and linking CAD to simulations.

Molecular Nanotechnology

Molecular Nanotechnology: Thorough, inexpensive control of the structure of matter based on molecule-by-molecule control of the products and byproducts; the products and processes of molecular manufacturing.
                --(Drexler et. al., 1991a)

In other words, molecular nanotechnology is the general ability to design and build down to individual atoms. Its eventual development has already been foreseen (Feynman, 1961).

Not Smaller Scale Microtechnology

Molecular nanotechnology is a distinct concept from most current use of the word "nanotechnology." The term usually refers to existing and near-term capaiblities to etch mechanisms, such as transistors and gears, to sub-micron accuracies. A 0.5 u wide wire is also a 500 nm wide wire; it is flashier to call this "nanotechnology." While of vast current utility, it does not in any way represent the ability to place individual atoms exactly where desired, or to make and break specified atomic bonds. Molecular nanotechnology is more like scaling up chemistry to larger products than scaling down microtechnology.

Molecular Componentry

The essense of molecular nanotechnology is designing and building artifacts to molecular specification. The net result is that molecules can be designed to be components. A Buckytube could be a cable or pipe. An atom can be a gear tooth.

Systems of Molecular Components

Components become useful once they are combined into systems. While a number of molecular nanotechnology products have been suggested (Drexler et. al., 1991a), and it has been shown that an incredibly wide variety of systems should be feasible (Drexler, 1992a), only two system designs have thus far been presented in detail in the literature. The two system designs are for a mechanical molecular computer and for a molecular manufacturing system that both consists of, and can build systems of, molecular components.

Molecular Manufacturing

A key element of molecular nanotechnology must be such molecular manufacturing. This is the ordinary means by which objects specified to molecular precision would be made.

The argument that molecular nanotechnology is something that comes once one has molecular nanotechnology is circular, until one explains how a first molecular manufacturing system can be built. One approach is to use ribosomes reading DNA to fabricate proteins which self-assemble into the first molecular manufacturing system. Designing the necessary proteins, and determining the DNA sequence that yields them, are very hard design problems. This approach has the advantage that the required manufacturing capability is available today. Other approaches are easier in design, such as those which use scanning molecular manipulators, but require developing new intermediate manufacturing capabilities.

What Systems Engineers Need To Know About Molecular Nanotechnology

The systems engineering profession needs to address this subject. Molecular nanotechnology offers the prospect of performance significantly better than current capabilities. This will dramatically affect what systems we can design in the future, and how systems we are now designing will fare in that future.

Furthermore, the world is developing tremendous demand for some understanding of molecular nanotech-nology, and we systems engineers are particularly well-suited to acquire that understanding. The subject is technical, and very interdisciplinary; we are trained to address technical issues across many disciplines. The technology will require specifying and developing systems of unprecedented complexity and part counts; dealing with complexity is the focus of our job. The key policy issues are tangled by non-linear systems of powerful potential feed-back loops; we are among the worlds best at understanding such complex systems. Both duty and future profits call. To answer that call effectively, however, we first have to understand the subject.

A Barrier to Understanding

Virtually every claim this section will make about molecular nanotechnology appears to be preposterous and wrong. A crucial reason for studying this field is that it violates, badly, most people's intuition about feasible technology. The claims are both significant, and hard to evaluate. All the numbers cited, however, are the results of careful calculations using conservative assumptions.

Fundamentally, what systems engineers need to know is that molecular nanotechnology, by designing & building to atomic precision, will have as a minimum the following surprising capabilities:

Rapid and Accurate Manufacturing

(Drexler, 1992a) demonstrates that it will be possible to position reactive molecules in a programmable way with ~0.1 nm precision, allowing mechanosynthesis. Such mechanosynthesis could run at >106 operations/(device* second). Mechanosynthetic assembly of 1 kg objects will be possible in <104 seconds.

The implication is that it will be possible to build extremely rapidly and accurately. This dramatically reduces the manufacturing portion of cycle time (period from first order to delivery of a product). Building a 1 kg object that quickly with mechanosynthesis will require a system containing ~1017 assembly devices and the necessary support structures.

Dramatically Lower Manufacturing Costs

The primary costs in manufacturing with molecular nanotechnology are the costs of raw materials (which can be unpurified bulk chemicals) and energy (which can be electricity off a power grid, or the chemical energy of a feed stock). Thus, the best cost estimates for manufacturing are at most only a few dollars per kg (Drexler et. al, 1991). This cost estimate is widely applicable across many products, including those which require molecular nanotechnology to produce.

To a first order, manufacturing cost depends on the amount of mechanosynthesis performed, and does not increase when increasing the number of internal interfaces for a mass. Thus, manufacturing costs will vary almost directly with mass, and will be very insensitive to part counts.

$5 per kg is the high end of a very uncertain range. Once molecular nanotechnology is applied to reducing the costs of molecular nanotechnology, by providing durable and very low cost solar cells, for example, costs might fall as low as a few cents per kg of product (Drexler et. al, 1991).

Note, this does not guarantee that total product costs will be low. Other costs, such as taxes, liability, compliance with regulations, advertising, general and administrative overhead, etc., could easily swamp out manufacturing costs, if allowed. Design also has the potential be a large cost, but there are reasons to suspect that the computers which molecular nanotechnology makes possible will be able to automate a great deal of the design process.

A Process Systems Metatechnology

The manufacturing capabilities of molecular nanotechnology are enough to declare it a metatechnology. The dramatic decrease in manufacturing costs alone will be more significant, in percentage terms, than the invention of the assembly line and interchangeable parts. This manufacturing capability will be applicable to high-cost low-mass items, such as computer circuitry, advanced composite structures, pharmaceuticals, and fully integrated aerospace systems ready for use.

Manufacturing does not represent the limit of molecular manufacturing as a metatechnology, however, since molecular manufacturing will also include products with the following characteristics:

Massive Computational Capability

The following numbers are based on a design in (Drexler, 1992) for a mechanical computer using molecular components. The logic gates are ~10-8 u3 (~10-26m3). They switch in ~0.1 ns, and dissipate <10-21 J. The design was selected to be amenable to analysis. It is nearly certain that better designs are feasible, even though the performance of such designs has not been calculated. In particular, electronic computers designed and built to molecular precision should be significantly faster.

Power Limited Computation

Computational power should be available at 1010 MIPS per Watt, (MIPS means "Millions of Instructions Per Second," a computer operating rate). The availability of power and cooling would likely be the limit to most practical computation. (Drexler, 1992a) illustrates cooling a ~105 Watt, cubic cm system, at an equilibrium temperature of 300 K, and thus the capability to provide compact, 1015 MIPS parallel computing systems.

Inexpensive Computers

A very conservative investment cost for purchasing computers should be $2x10-17 per MIP. This estimate comes from applying the $5/kg cost to a cm3 of diamond, and calling the total 1015 MIPS. A 1000 MIPS unitary CPU should take up less than 0.1 u3 (Drexler, 1991b), and would thus cost less than $2x10-21 per MIP.

Tiny, Ubiquitous Computing

Since a 1000 MIPS CPU should fit within a cube less than half a micron on a side, and need less than ~10-7 Watts, such computers could be accommodated throughout a wide variety of objects. Their low cost should make this affordable. For examples, (Drexler et. al., 1991a) suggested embedding intelligence within structural materials, paint, clothing & furniture.

Massively Parallel Computer Architectures

For macroscopic products, the low cost of computers suggests using prodigious numbers. Furthermore, many products (e.g., intelligent paint) require distributed computers. Thus, macroscopic products of molecular nanotechnology would likely us massively parallel, massively distributed computing architectures.

For significant computer systems (roughly greater than ~104 MIPS), the mechanical computer design begins to require parallelism to accommodate the communication delays. Electronic computers built though molecular nanotechnology are not well characterized, but probably would allow faster computation before requiring parallel CPUs.

Small autonomous objects, such as cell repair devices (Drexler, 1986), might well have unitary computers.

Efficient, High-Density Power Conversion

Mechanochemical power conversion should be feasible at >109 W/m3. Electromechanical power conversion should be feasible at >1015 W/m3. Power conversion efficiencies could be > 99%. (Drexler, 1991a). Cooling difficulties prohibit such power conversion densities for anything as large a m3.

Strong Macroscopic Structures

Molecular nanotechnology can include large structural elements made of engineered, fibrous diamondoid material. Such structures should have >5 x 1010 N/M2 tensile strength, and a larger compressive strength. The result is a strength-to-density ratio 80 times better than high-strength aluminum.

Flexible Macroscopic Structures

Structural material could be suffused with actuators on nanoscale flexible joints. The material would lose strength, although it should still be possible to make structural components the strength of steel. The result would be powerful, flexible materials. This would allow, for example, variable geometry laminar flow wings.

A Powerful Tool for Environmental Remediation

Molecular nanotechnology should provide affordable and robust systems for sorting out of the environment previously dumped waste. It should also be able to easily neutralize toxic chemicals by reordering their molecular structures.

Molecular nanotechnology does not offer any direct means of eliminating the radioactivity of radioactive waste, although (Drexler, 1991a) suggests at least one approach for addressing radioactive waste that molecular nanotechnology could make cost-effective.

A Clean Technology

Perhaps as significant, molecular nanotechnology is inherently much less disruptive to the environment than making equivalent products with technologies. It is very resource efficient. It offers high performance products at low mass, thus reducing further needed resources. By controlling the molecular structure of its outputs it need not release chemical toxins. Finally, molecular nanotechnology could be powered entirely through solar energy.

Systems Engineering for Molecular Nanotechnology is Similar to Systems Engineering For Computers

Both computers and molecular nanotechnology involve huge numbers of tiny parts operating together ver rapidly as a complex system. Coordination and control are key issues in each field. These similarities suggest systems engineering will be similar between the two fields.

There are two important differences, however, between systems engineering for current computers and systems engineering for future molecular nanotech-nology. First, many molecular nanotechnology components will provide actuation functions very different from information processing. Second, future molecular nanotechnology systems will have as many as ten-billion times more parts than current computers have transistors.

Impending Metatechnology

Estimating when a technology will arrive is difficult, since the question is not subject to well-defined formulas. Nevertheless, one must try. (Drexler, 1992b) has a guess:

Analysis and simulation based on existing scientific knowledge is enough to show what molecular nanotechnology can do, but developing it will require the construction of better molecular tools. The pace of development will depend not on unpredictable breakthroughs, but on the magnitude and quality of a focused development effort. The total development time is hard to predict, but 15 years would not be surprising.

For a sense of the uncertainty surrounding Dr. Drexler's estimate, examing figure 2. The curve is based on a Markov model of transitions through required intermediate technologies. It is more precise than is actually known. Nevertheless, the curve's sweep appears reasonably accurate. There seems virtually no chance in reality of developing molecular nanotechnology before 2000. It is difficult to estimate when it will be developed, but it is hard to construct plausible scenarios which delays it much beyond 2020.

Figure 2. A probability distribution for when molecular nanotechnology may become available.

Obsolescence Before Planned System Lifetimes

While current estimates of when molecular manufacturing will be developed must carry significant uncertainties, it is clear that there is a very real and large probability of being developed within the lifetimes of products now. As new systems begin entering development, explicit consideration should be made of how the potential for molecular nanotech-nology might affect the life of each system.

Disruption of Current Trends

Molecular nanotechnology offers many capabilities, many of which do not correspond to current trends. It thus may violate many implicit assumptions.

Figure 3. Molecular Nanotechnology has potential for changing long-term trends in computing power. Historical data from (Moravec, 1988).

As one example, remember that computers have been growing rapidly in capability for decades. Figure 3 shows how the estimated performance of molecular nanotechnology should allow better computers at tremendously lower prices, decades sooner than would occur under the rate of growth the world has become accustomed to. This alone could greatly change many long-term plans.

Learning Strategies

There are several ways systems engineers can learn about molecular nanotechnology. The subject is of great significance, and will grow in importance as the technology comes closer to realization. Molecular nanotechnology deserves growing study. Therefore, it makes sense to start small.

Special Difficulties of the Subject

A prospective student must first recognize the two big difficulties in studying molecular nanotechnology. The first is that it is highly interdisciplinary. Of all people, however, system engineers are particularly skilled at integrating multiple technologies into a single perspective, and thus the interdisciplinary nature of molecular nanotechnology should be less of a problem for them. For systems engineers, initial exploration can initially ignore the guts of why molecular nanotechnology will work, and instead look at the implications on systems of already calculated performance parameters. This approach makes starting easier.

The second biggest difficulty in learning about the subject is accepting current understanding as potentially correct. Those first examining the field need to suspend disbelief long enough to openly consider the possibility of molecular nanotechnology. The current best understanding upsets most people's assumptions. On the other hand, if reality is going to upset those assumptions anyway, it is better to face the facts early, and adapt while there is still time.

Once one is really open to the possibility, and seriously consider molecular nanotechnology, it is time to be critical, and make sure that the possibilities stand up to evidence and criticism.

Read Relevant Literature

This is the classic strategy when learning about a new field. A problem is that there is not much literature yet on molecular nanotechnology, and what exists generally is not oriented towards a systems engineering audience. [Note: since publication of this paper, has emerged as an excellent place to look for molecular nanotechnology literature on the web.]

Drexler's Books

The canonical author in the field is Dr. Eric Drexler. Since the subject is very interdisciplinary, encompassing many parts, reading a book most helps keeping parts in context, and holding the key ideas together.

(Drexler, 1992a) supports the numbers surveyed in the previous section. This is the best source on the detailed guts of the technical arguments for why molecular nanotechnology will work. This book is the choice for people who want to see equations.

(Drexler et. al., 1991a), through the use of scenarios, is best current source for a sense of how molecular nanotechnology could affect people's everyday life. No one really knows, but this surveys some of the best guesses. The book includes a very good discussion of eventual costs. It is scheduled for rerelease as a paperback in the summer of 1993.

(Drexler, 1986) was the first major publication on molecular nanotechnology. Many ideas first expressed in this book have since been more precisely worked out.

Other Books

There have been two Foresight Conferences on Nanotechnology. Proceedings are available for each. (Crandall and Lewis, 1992) is the proceedings of the first conference, and (Institute of Physics, 1992) is the proceedings of the second conference. Any bookstore should be able to order the former. According to (Foresight, 1993), the latter is available by ordering Volume 2, numbers 3 & 4 (in the bound-together book, if still available), of the journal Nanotechnology, from IOP Publishing Ltd, Customer Service, Techno House, Redcliffe Way, Bristol BS1 6NX, England. The price is $134, or 69 Pounds, payable by visa, check, or bank transfer.

Papers and Articles

Not many papers for systems engineers. A great deal of work on the path towards developing molecular manufacturing in basic research journals, such as Science. Key topics to look for include molecular modeling, scanning probe manipulation, developing better models of proteins and how they fold, and macrochemistry.

Also, the Journal of the British Interplanetary Society, October 1992 issue is devoted to molecular nanotechnology & Space.

Courses on Molecular Nanotechnology

Taking a course is nearly an ideal strategy for learning a new subject. Unfortunately, only one course has been offered on the subject, at Stanford, in 1988. It would be very reasonable to launch a new courses, however, using (Drexler, 1992a) as the basic text.

At a university, such a course should be lower graduate-level and might be hosted by the chemistry department. It should be very interdisciplinary, taking students, and perhaps faculty, from chemistry, condensed-matter physics, molecular biology, materials science, mechanical engineering, computer science, industrial engineering, and systems engineering.

Such a course could also work at a community college, acting as a venue where non-academics could come together to jointly study (Drexler, 1992a) and molecular nanotechnology. This requires being able to draw a sufficient number of students to form the class.

Design Systems Using Molecular Nanotechnology Performance Parameters

This is a very viable learning strategy, because most people learn best by doing. Designing systems is what many systems engineers do. Making the attempt is sufficient to guide systems engineers to what is most important for them to learn.

Molecular nanotechnology is still in the early concept exploration phase. Some viable designs have been found, but they have been intended to be easily designed examples. Attempts should now be made to look more for optimal designs. Molecular nanotechnology will benefit because a growing body of designs will allows the idea to be more precisely criticized and refined. Furthermore, converging towards the optimal designs will provide an improving estimate of what molecular nanotechnology will be able to accomplish.

Those who wish to use this approach, but who are uncertain of the substantial performance numbers cited in (Drexler, 1992a), could apply substantial safety factors to those numbers, and still would be likely to discover surprising and interesting system designs.

Finally, those who follow this approach will help by providing needed papers and articles on the subject.

Begin Top-Level Systems Engineering of Molecular Manufacturing Systems

This is another way systems engineers could learn by doing. In systems engineering molecular manufacturing systems, one learns the key constraints on what is feasible, understands how molecular nanotechnology could work, and develops an understanding of the most important and difficult problems.

This also is an excellent approach to producing needed papers and articles on the subject. The intended readership should be experts in the chemistry or biotechnology fields that will eventually be creating a molecular manufacturing system.

Systems Engineering of Intermediate Molecular Manufacturing Systems

Most of the work on molecular nanotechnology presupposes advanced molecular manufacturing systems with nearly arbitrary ability to build to molecular precision. Intermediate manufacturing systems, more advanced than current capabilities, would be useful if developed. Chapter 16 of (Drexler, 1992a) provides examples of such intermediate systems. Systems engineers might develop alternate systems to trade against, or refine Drexler's designs.

An advantage of such research is that results would be for nearer-term systems. Thus, it would have earlier applicability, and be less susceptible to unreasoning disbelief.

Systems Engineering of the Development Path to Mature Molecular Manufacturing

This would be a major challenge, trying to develop synthesize Which intermediate architectures are viable. What is a path through viable architectures.


A fundamental purpose of professional organizations is to help members learn the knowledge and skills critical to their work. Thus, NCOSE should begin providing support for members interested in molecular nanotechnology. As a minimum, this could be a review of (Drexler, 1992a) in the NCOSE newsletter.

More substantial would be the creation of a special interest group within NCOSE. The group could studying how molecular nanotechnology will impact systems engineering. Such a focus would be of interest to systems engineers.

An alternate focus would be of more use to the customers of systems engineering. That is to begin the systems engineering of molecular nanotechnology. That is a proper job of our profession, and would put systems engineering in the lead of what seems destined to become the most important emerging field of technology. Molecular nanotechnology is still a wide-open field, and thus a golden opportunity for ourselves and our profession.

At the 4th annual NCOSE symposium, there should be more papers, and hopefully even a full session, on the subject of molecular nanotechnology and systems engineering.

Develop Contingency Plans Against Alternate Scenarios

Scenario development is an excellent tool to honestly consider fresh alternatives, particularly those that differ from one's current expectations. Good scenarios are stories which allow people to temporarily suspend disbelief (Schwartz, 1991.) While the following are only brief sketches, not fully worked out scenarios, they are worth considering. For each, ask "if this were going to happen, what should my organization do? What should the project I am working on do? What should I do?"

Ordinary Expectations Scenario

(Title from Drexler et. al., 1991a) Everything goes similar to how you probably always expected. A general ability to design and build to atomic precision is never developed.

Delayed Development Scenario

Many development problems might prove much harder than currently estimated. Perhaps development becomes caught in the quagmire of a giant bureaucracy that co-opts potential alternate developers. Perhaps last-minute technical or regulatory hang-ups delay full up test of the first full-up developmental system. In any case, it takesover two decades to develop molecular nanotechnology

For consistency, this scenario requires that little work succeeds in manipulating molecules with scanning probe tips, molecular biology progresses slowly and progress be slow in molecular modeling. As a result, pharmaceuticals would be developed less quickly than is now expected,.

A very long delay probably requires that within decade the growth in computer capability stop. Otherwise the "growing computer" scenario brings the world unstoppably close to molecular manufacturing.

Progressive Development Scenario

In this scenario, ever more powerful tools for designing and building to molecular precision are developed, such as better molecular modeling, even more chemistry techniques, superior protein CAD systems, hybrid atomic-scanning-probe/biomolecule-tip devices, and even inventions that haven't been thought of in 1993. Ways are found to make variants to some products which were originally conceived of assuming they would need mature molecular nanotechnology to produce. The world might spend years with these intermediate capabilities, producing growing amounts of increasingly broader products. This smoothes the transition by providing limited capabilities similar to mature molecular, but sooner. When capabilities that strictly meet the 1993 definition of "molecular nanotechnology" are finally built, perhaps in 12-20 years, there is a great deal of hype, but the world takes no single massive jump. The development is just another increase in competitive capabilities.

The Growing Computers Scenario

This variant of progressive development goes as follows: Growing computer power yields ever more powerful computational chemistry tools. Eventually this provides robust molecular and protein modeling able to solve the reverse protein folding problem (given an engineering specification for a protein, find a DNA sequence that codes for an amino acid sequence that will fold-up into a protein that meets the specification). After a few years of easily making designer proteins for increasingly divergent types of requirements, it becomes obvious that a determined development effort could produce molecular nanotechnology, and what capabilities that would offer.

Over the subsequent few of years, with massive funding of parallel paths, the right DNA sequences are developed. Combining that DNA with tools available even in 1990, limited molecular manufacturing systems built of self-assembling proteins are constructed. These in turn produce the more easily designed, robust molecular manufacturing systems, which do not require proteins. At this point mature molecular nanotechnology is real.

Early Scenario

In this scenario, most of the key development issues in molecular nanotechnology prove quite solvable, once directly confronted. There will be growing interest in the field, and being easy to do it is developed quickly (e.g., 2000-2005).

This scenario includes a potential for blind-siding that needs to be considered. It is consistent with what is known about molecular nanotechnology that if development proves easy, then development may only need dozens of researchers using fairly standard equipment. Thus, molecular nanotechnology might be created in commercial secrecy. What would happen if in a decade a competitor surprised you with capabilities near the performance numbers cited earlier for molecular nanotechnology? If you could not survive such a blind-siding, how are you insuring that you won't be thus surprised?

Blind-siding is almost the only scenario that leads to molecular nanotechnology without a period of massively funding before full development. This is not because developing molecular nanotechnology ever needs billions of dollars. It is because once an organization with money honestly believes that molecular nanotechnology is imminent, and thinks it know how to develop the technology, the situation makes a great deal of sense for the organization to trade money for time, even when a large amount of money provides only a small foreshortening of the schedule.


Metatechnologies are those technologies which exert tremendous leverage on many systems. The next metatechnology appears to be molecular nanotech-nology. The field is in early concept exploration, and system engineers belong in the forefront.

Before systems engineers can lead, we have to learn, so we understand where to go and how to get there. The biggest challenge is suspending disbelief long enough to fairly evaluate the possibilities, supplying the necessary critical rigor in such a interdisciplinary field.


British Interplanetary Society, Journal of the British Interplanetary Society, Vol. 45, No. 10, October, 1992.

Crandall, B.C. and Lewis, James, ed., Nanotechnology: Research and Perspectives. MIT Press, Cambridge, 1992.

Drexler, K. Eric, Nanosystems: Molecular Machinery, Manufacturing, and Computation. John Wiley & Sons, New York, 1992a.

Drexler, K. Eric, written testimony to the US Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation's Subcommittee on Science, Technology and Space, on "New Technologies for a Sustainable World," U.S. Government Printing Office, ISBN 0-16-039898-3, 1992b.

Drexler, K. Eric, Peterson, Chris and Pergamit, Gayle, Unbounding the Future: The Nanotechnology Revolution. William Morrow & Company, New York, 1991a.

Drexler, K. Eric, Personal Communications, 1991b.

Drexler, K. Eric, "Engineering Parameters for Materials and Subsystems of Aerospace Interest Produced by a Mature Molecular Manufacturing Technology." Paper prepared for the National Space Society Annual Conference, Houston, 1991c.

Drexler, K. Eric, Engines of Creation. Anchor Press/ Doubleday, New York, 1986.

Feynman, R.P., "There's Plenty of Room at the Bottom." Miniaturization, H.D. Gilbert, ed., Reinhold, New York, 1961.

Foresight Institute, "Two Foresight Nanotechnology Conference Proceedings." Foresight Update, No. 15, pp. 10-11, 1993.

Institute of Physics, ed., "Toward Molecular Control: Second Foresight Conference on Molecular Nanotechnology." Nanotechnology, Vol. 2, No. 3 & 4, IOP Publishing Ltd, Bristol, 1992.

Moravec, Hans, Mind Children. Harvard University Press, Cambridge Massachusetts, 1988.

Schwartz, Peter, The Art of the Long View. Doubleday, New York, 1991.

Author's Biography

Mr. McKendree is a Ph.D. candidate at USC, in the Industrial & Systems Engineering department. He is studying Systems Architecture under Professor Eberhardt Rechtin, and his dissertation subject addresses the systems architecture of a molecular manufacturing system nanotechnology.)

Since 1986, Mr. McKendree has been a full time employee of McDonnell-Douglas Aerospace. He earned a Masters in Systems from USC in 1989, and attended the International Space University in 1990. In 1986, he was awarded a bachelors degree in Aeronautics and Astronautics, and a second bachelors degree in Mathematics, from MIT.

[Since the publication of this paper, Mr. McKendree has become a full time employee of Hughes in Fullerton, California. He can be reached at]