From Metamodern, Drexler himself has commented on what I've been thinking for a few months now:
This quote probably sums it all up the best: "The progress I have in mind centers on advances in atomically precise fabrication by chemical and biological means, and these advances now have reached a level that places the implementation of first-generation artificial APM systems within reach. These, however, also won’t resemble slick, large-scale, general-purpose HT-APM systems. Instead, they will support the implementation of more-capable second-generation APM systems that can support a fast design-build-test cycle and thereby enable a well-focused and well-organized develpment program to rapidly ascend a ladder of technologies leading to HT-APM.
Available technologies now enable the design and fabrication of intricate, atomically precise nanometer-scale objects made from a versatile engineering polymer, together with intricate, atomically precise, 100-nanometer scale frameworks that can be used to organize these objects to form larger 3D structures. These components can and have been designed to undergo spontaneous, atomically precise self assembly. Together, they provide an increasingly powerful means for organizing atomically precise structures of million-atom size, with the potential of incorporating an even wider range of functional components."
Did you catch that?
We now have the tools to make the tools that will build real nanotech. Let me clarify, Drexlarian style Mechanosynthesis is now at the stage of where feasibility has been proven, large scale 3d positional assembly has been proven, and the main problem left is an engineering challenge to design the first generation of positional manufacturing devices.
The system is basic. DNA programmed to structurally assemble latticeworks in 2D, Proteins to construct single dimensional "strings". But they offer all the potential needed to create atomically precise structures. Layered 2D sheets built into 3D structures, 1D strings connected side by side into 2D, then layered as well to make 3D.
And because it is based in DNA and proteins, it can do it in parallel in millions of iterations. Yes, it's liquid phase, yes it's limited. But it's the true beginning.
For comparison, I would say it's at the era of punchcard reading computers. And if it follows the same exponential curve that they did, doubling every two years or so, we may still have a few decades before it matures. But with the fact that the Internet allows instant dissemination of designs, sequences, and 3D models, I am not willing to bet it's going to take anywhere near that long.
The last year alone has seemed to have made as much progress in nanotech as the previous eight did. I can't even begin to make a mathematical or statistical measuring system, and it's certainly not going to be as carefully analyzed as a Kurzweil prediction, and I will almost certainly believe that the actual progress might have been more spread out and only being released in a free-er scientific era than the bush regime, but if we follow that 8 to 1 ratio, the next gen of assemblers might only be 46 days away, and gen 3 just 5 days later...
I don't think it will be anywhere near that rapid, but that is the thing with exponential curves. They can sneak up on you fast.
Considering we are already working on macroscale assemblers that use the exact same line joined to line, layer by layer designs in 3D Rapid Prototyping machines, once engineers begin seriously applying their skills... it might not be a hard transition to make at all.
Welcome to 2010. And just maybe... the birth of the post scarcity world.