This section looks into some of the research being done in nanotechnology. It focuses on Zyvex, which is a molecular nanotechnology company. They explain what they do on this page. This site happens to be an excellent resource as well, with many useful links, like the one to Engines Of Creation, an online book by K. Eric Drexler (1986), and MIT's Technology Review, a magazine that discusses nanotechnology. That magazine includes this article on the implications and dangers of nanotechnology.
To summarize what you will find on that fairly technical site: with the ability to manipulate individual atoms, you can manufacture just about anything. As the site says, by manipulating water, air, and dirt atoms, you can make potatoes.
Figuring out how to do this, of course, is not trivial. It requires new technologies. One of these, self-replication, which allows the manufactured object to multiply - creating more of itself. For macro-scale manufacturing, this is not so critical - manufacturing a thousand widgets is not more difficult than manufacturing ten. But nanotechnology, which requires precise manufacturing of millions and millions of microscopic devices, relies on self-replication to work. Each device would make a copy of itself, with the same function.
Self-replication is not a new idea. Consider this quote from the Zyvex site:
Fortunately, we are surrounded and inspired by products that are marvelously complex and yet very inexpensive. Potatoes, for example, are made by intricate molecular machines involving tens of thousands of genes, proteins, and other molecular components; yet the result costs so little that we think nothing of mashing this biological wonder and eating it.
It's easy to see why potatoes and other agricultural products are so cheap: put a potato in a little moist dirt, provide it with some air and sunlight, and we get more potatoes. In short, potatoes are self replicating.In biology, self-replication is simply reproduction in lower life forms, such as bacteria. Therefore, researchers are looking to biology for examples of practical self-replication. Software self-replication also exists - in the form of a computer virus, or worm. Many of these programs affect a specific computer, and then use the information in that computer (like a database of e-mail addresses) to spread to other computers. The high level of interconnectivity of the Internet makes this a real problem. Nevertheless, this technology as well may be used by nanotech researchers for inspiration.
In conclusion, nanotechnology is a developing field that is rapidly moving forward. The implications can be scary, but they can also be tremendously beneficial. Whatever the case may be, nanotechnology will certainly change the way we look at the world forever.