``...thorough control of the structure of matter at the molecular level. It entails the ability to build molecular systems with atom-by-atom precision, yielding a variety of nanomachines. These capabilities are sometimes referred to as molecular manufacturing.
--K. Eric Drexler, 1989
A capability never before available to technology. Previously, the exclusive domain of biological systems.
So what we're talking about is making the next big jump to building systems a thousand times smaller than the ones we're making today; to go all the way to the bottom and start working with individual atoms.
This is called molecular engineering, or nanotechnology. Eric Drexler defines this as control of the structure of matter at the molecular level, however achieved.
Technology has never had this kind of precise control; all of our technologies today are bulk technologies. We take a big chunk of stuff and hack away at it until we're left with the object we want, or we assemble parts from components without regard to structure at the molecular level. Precise atomic level fabrication has previously been done only by living biological organisms. We are entering an era when some of the barriers between engineered and living systems will begin to fall.
In fact, we're already building components on the scale of biological systems. The picture on the left shows a neuron net from a human brain with an integrated circuit component inset at the same scale. The picture on the right is a synapse--the interconnection of the wiring in the human brain, with a one micrometre scale. Remember that this is just about the feature size of the wires in our integrated circuits.
The huge difference in capability between engineered and biological systems is not just the materials from which they're made, it's that the fine structure of the integrated circuit stops with what you can see: there's nothing down below. Since we're forced to fabricate our circuits from bulk material, from the top down, they must be essentially two-dimensional. Biology builds its structures from the bottom up, at the molecular level, and in three dimensions.
Engineers are beginning to learn how to do this.
Editor: John Walker