What would be the best way to measure, and predict, technological progress? One good observation has been The Impact of Computing, but why has computing occurred now, rather than a few decades earlier or later? Why is nanotechnology being talked about now, rather than much earlier or later?
Engineering has two dimensions of progress - the ability to engineer and manufacture designs at exponentially smaller scales, and the ability to engineer projects of exponentially larger complexity. In other words, progress occurs as we design in increasingly intricate detail, while simultaneously scaling this intricacy to larger sizes, and can mass produce these designs.
For thousands of years, the grandest projects involved huge bricks of stone (the Pyramids, medieval castles). The most intricate carvings by hand were on the scale of millimeters, but scaled only to the size of hand-carried artifacts. Eventually, devices such as wristwatches were invented, that had moving parts on a millimeter scale.
At the same time, engineering on a molecular level first started with the creation of simple compounds like Hydrochloric Acid, and over time graduated to complex chemicals, organic molecules, and advanced compounds used in industry and pharmaceuticals. We are currently able to engineer molecules that have tens of thousands of atoms within them, and this capability continues to get more advanced.
The chart below is a rough plot of the exponentially shrinking detail of designs which we can mass-produce (the pink line), and the increasingly larger atom-by-atom constructs that we can create (the green line). Integrated circuits became possible as the pink line got low enough in the 1970s and 80s, and life-saving new pharmaceuticals have emerged as the green line got to where it was in the 1990s and today. The two converge right about now, which is not some magical inflection point, but rather the true context in which to view the birth of nanotechnology.
As we move through the next decade, molecular engineering will be capable of producing compounds tens of times more complex than today, creating amazing new drugs, materials, and biotechnologies. Increasingly finer design and manufacturing capabilities will allow computer chips to accomodate 10 billion transistors in less than one square inch, and for billions of these to be produced. Nanotechnology will be the domain of all this and more, and while the beginnings may appear too small to notice to the untrained observer, the dual engineering trends of the past century and earlier converge to the conception of this era now.
Further into the future, molecule-sized intelligent robots will be able to gather and assemble into solid objects almost instantly, and move inside our body to monitor our health and fight pathogens without our noticing. Such nanobots will change our perception of physical form as we know it. Even later, picotechnology, or engineering on the scale of trillionths of a meter - that of subatomic particles - will be the frontier of mainstream consumer technology, in ways we cannot begin to imagine today. This may coincide with a Technological Singularity around the middle of the 21st century.
For now, though, we can sit back and watch the faint trickle of nanotechnology headlines, products, and wealth thicken and grow into a stream, then a river, and finally a massive ocean that deeply submerges our world in its influence.