Nothing has a greater potential for changing everything than the successful implementation of good old-fashioned nanotechnology.

I specify the old-fashioned version because nanotechnology is decidedly no longer what it used to be. Back in the mid-1980s when Eric Drexler first popularized the concept in his book Engines of Creation, the term referred to a radical and grandiose molecular manufacturing scheme. The idea was that scientists and engineers would construct vast fleets of "assemblers," molecular-scale, programmable devices that would build objects of practically any arbitrary size and complexity, from the molecules up. Program the assemblers to put together an SUV, a sailboat, or a spacecraft, and they'd do it—automatically, and without human aid or intervention. Further, they'd do it using cheap, readily-available feedstock molecules as raw materials.

The idea sounds fatuous in the extreme…until you remember that objects as big and complex as whales, dinosaurs, and sumo wrestlers got built in a moderately analogous fashion: they began as minute, nanoscale structures that duplicated themselves, and whose successors then differentiated off into specialized organs and other components. Those growing ranks of biological marvels did all this repeatedly until, eventually, they had automatically assembled themselves into complex and functional macroscale entities. And the initial seed structures, the gametes, were not even designed, built, or programmed by scientists: they were just out there in the world, products of natural selection. But if nature can do that all by itself, then why can't machines be intelligently engineered to accomplish relevantly similar feats?

Latter-day "nanotechnology," by contrast, is nothing so imposing. In fact, the term has been co-opted, corrupted, and reduced to the point where what it refers to is essentially just small-particle chemistry. And so now we have "nano-particles" in products raging from motor oils to sunscreens, lipstick, car polish and ski wax, and even a $420 "Nano Gold Energizing Cream" that its manufacturer claims transports beneficial compounds into the skin. Nanotechnology in this bastardized sense is largely a marketing gimmick, not likely to change anything very much, much less "everything."

But what if nanotechnology in the radical and grandiose sense actually became possible? What if, indeed, it became an operational reality? That would be a fundamentally transformative development, changing forever how manufacturing is done and how the world works. Imagine all of our material needs being produced at trivial cost, without human labor, and with no waste. No more sweat shops, no more smoke-belching factories, no more grinding workdays or long commutes. The magical molecular assemblers will do it all, permanently eliminating poverty in the process.

Then there would be the medical miracles performed by other types of molecular-scale devices that would repair or rejuvenate your body's cells, killing the cancerous or other bad ones, and nudging the rest of them toward unprecedented levels of youth, health, and durability. All without $420 bottles of face cream.

There's a downside to all this, of course, and it has nothing to do with Michael Chrichton-ish swarms of uncontrolled, predatory nanobots hunting down people and animals. Rather, it has to do with the question of what the mass of men and women are going to do when, newly unchained from their jobs, and blessed or cursed with longer life spans, they have oceans of free time to kill. Free time is not a problem for the geniuses and creators. But for the rest of us, what will occupy our idle hands? There is only so much golf you can play.

But perhaps this is a problem that will never have to be faced. The bulk of mainstream scientists pay little attention to radical nanotechnology, regarding its more extravagant claims as science-fictional and beyond belief. Before he died, chemist Richard Smalley, a Nobel prizewinner, made a cottage industry out of arguing that insurmountable technical difficulties at the chemical bonding level would keep radical nanotechnology perpetually in the pipe dream stage. Nobody knows whether he was right about that.

Some people may hope that he was. Maybe changing everything is not so attractive an idea as it seems at first glance.