The 2016 Nobel Prize for Chemistry went to three researchers who have actually created a range of functioning nanotechnology devices, molecular scale machines that replicate motors, vehicles, and muscles. Each of the three started out with a single function tool, added other functions one after another, and ended up with something a thousand times thinner than a human hair that could do real work. I am sure to a lot of people it doesn’t seem like something that small could do anything that would make a difference to their lives. What useful thing could you do with a programmable device so small that you would need an electron microscope to see it?
The first thing that comes to my mind is to teach it to recognize malignant cells such as cancer, and load it up with a medicinal payload to deliver to such a cell, leaving its uninfected neighbors unharmed. Considering what our current chemotherapy treatment does to the rest of the human body, poisoning the entire thing in the hopes that the cancer cells will die before too many of the healthy cells do, I think this would be a serious improvement. Plus, that is a lot simpler to do than getting it to regrow a missing hand or eye or other body part, so it could be rolled out quickly. I am sure the profit from the cancer cure they could deliver within the next few years would go a long way towards financing the additional research and development needed for the more complex physical repairs to the human body.
Another application would be using them to build things one atom at a time. If you think today’s computers are powerful, wait till you see how small the computer can get when constructed using this method. You could build a fully functional Oculus Rift grade computer plus include all the headset functionality, and embed them into your contact lenses. Or you could just use the nanotech to create the much simpler room temperature superconductors, again depending on the profits of the simpler process to finance the R&D needed to develop the more complex one. Nanotechnology has been one of the Holy Grail’s of Science since Richard Feynman introduced the concept in 1959, and a bit more than half a century later it looks like we are finally getting it to work, at least the early tools. Check out this BBC Story to get the full details.