Nano! Nano!

Mork, from 'Mork and Mindy'

When an affable, humorous TV alien named Mork was first heard using the traditional greeting from his home planet we could never have guessed how prophetic those words would be. The inhabitants of Ork were certainly an advanced race, because today we are facing a future which is summed up by the immortal line, ‘Nano! Nano!’ If Orson was alive today he’d be pleased with our progress.

Mork and Mindy is hardly the limit of our glimpses at this nanotechnology-based future however.

In simple terms nanotechnology is the science of manipulating single molecules and atoms. The word itself comes from the fact that objects at this scale are measured in nanometres – billionths of a metre and only three or four atoms wide.

While the idea of nanotechnology has been around for a while in science fiction circles and amongst others who ‘dared to dream’, the scientific community rejected it up until as late as the 1980’s, claiming it was non-viable, as atoms were then believed to be too unstable and insubstantial to function as components in the type of nanomachines being theorized. In fact scientists at the time believed that atoms could not even be precisely located at any given point in space.

In 1959 Feynman, a nobel prize winning physicist, proposed that no actual physical law prevented machines from being built at the atomic scale in a lecture entitled ‘There’s plenty of room at the bottom’. This was taken as a joke by his audience, but undeterred he went on to spend some years attempting to promote the idea of the nanomachine to the scientific community.

Later Dr. K. Eric Drexler began the real scientific breakthrough, in a speech he made in MIT in the late seventies. Again the scientific community chuckled under it’s breath, but Drexler continued to insist throughout the eighties and nineties that the technology would work, and eventually was taken seriously. He founded The Foresight Institute in 1986 which was devoted to ‘the coming ability to build materials and products with atomic precision. The Institute continues to be a pioneer in the field, spearheading many new forms of research.

Perhaps what most people do not realise is that nanotechnology is not just a future vision on the brink of our reality – it exists as an actual science today, in our world. Not only are there nanotechnology research labs all over the country, but there are entire companies whose sole line of business is ‘nanotech’.

IBM logoThe late 80’s became the birthplace of realised nanotech. One of the most well known experiments was when IBM managed to spell out the company logo with 35 individual Xenon atoms, using a device called a Scanning Tunnelling Microscope or STM.

The STM was invented in 1981. Only five years after Binnig and Rohrer built the first STM, they were awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics. The device itself is conceptually quite simple. It uses a conductive needle to scan a surface. The tip of the needle is guided until it is within 0.1 Angstrom of the surface – that’s less than the radius of a hydrogen atom! When the tip is close a small voltage is applied to the needle, which creates a ‘tunnelling’ current flowing from the tip to the surface. This tunnelling current can then be detected and amplified, and can be used to map the shape of the surface. Imagine closing your eyes and drawing a pencil over lumpy surface, and you may get a crude idea of the concept.

Compared to the early days we now know quite a bit about atoms. We know they are strong, can be isolated without causing immediate deterioration, and we have the means to manipulate them individually. Knowing how to push them around leads to the natural scientific urge, ‘What can I do with this?’ Today scientists the world over get to dream up new ideas and techniques for their nanoscale Lego sets in the name of progress and a wage packet. Fancy a career change?

Building every day components and machines on a smaller scale seems like a natural progression for this new technology. The drive to miniaturize, spurred on by the ever increasing amount of gadgets in our lives, is worth money.

Actual nanomachines would have more or less the same components as macro, or normal sized machines, with recognisable gears, bearings, motors, levers and belts.

Constructing complete machines can be done in two ways. As we have seen we can physically manoeuvre the atoms with a STM or by laser, but the process is pretty time consuming. We can also manipulate atoms chemically, which is faster because each atom relies on programmed instructions to determine its ultimate location.

Just recently researchers were able to tag fine gold wires with DNA strands and have them form into an roughly ordered circuit on a thin film of gold by joining their own DNA up to corresponding strands on the surface material.

Even with our rudimentary nanotechnology, it has been possible to fabricate a surprising range of simple nanomachines. These include abacuses, gears, rotors, wires, switches, logic gates and even batteries. Jim Gimzewski and his team at IBM created a calculator with a diameter of less than one millionth of a millimetre. The molecular abacus consists of 10 molecules of carbon 60 that can be moved along a microscopic groove.

In Strasbourg they’ve built cleverly designed molecular jigsaws. In Birmingham they’ve built a molecular train set complete with start and stop signals. In New York they’ve built geometric structures and porous networks from DNA.

Enormous amounts of data, terabytes of the stuff, can be stored on diamond and scientists are working right now on a viable solution which will sate our ever increasing demand for more memory and storage. And you thought those crystals in the Superman films were cheesy and unrealistic.

Although these things seem extremely simple at the moment they demonstrate that the processes required to make more complex machines are feasible. Genealogy and Chip Manufacture are just two fields with already fierce competition and huge profits at stake, and each of them is heading toward a nanotechnology solution at an alarming pace.

As these devices become more sophisticated and combine to make complex machines we step closer to the nanoscientists dream – the autonomous nanoscale robot, also known as the nanobot. Drexler proposed the idea of an ‘assembler’ which would follow pre-programmed instructions and would be capable of building other nanodevices from scratch, much like the larger scale robot arms we employ on today’s production lines. He also suggested that it would be self-replicating, implying much more than a simple ‘arm’. Companies like Zyvex have already formed specifically to go after the Drexlerian assembler.

Nanobots have featured heavily in Science Fiction in every medium, often to some amusement. The Borg (Star Trek) come complete with ‘Nanites’ for internal maintenance, analysis and regeneration functions, while in the comedic Red Dwarf they rebuild a large ship and it’s entire crew from nothing more than debris.

While the nanobot may be a familiar concept to us, most nanotech won’t be so programmable or sentient. Nanomachines, gears and motors are strong and useful and likely to be plentiful long before the ‘bots’.

So how would programmable, or even intelligent, autonomous nanobots affect our daily life?

If nanobots can build things on an atomic scale, drawing raw materials (atoms) in at one end, then building items up atom by atom according to stored information, there is really no limit to what goods we can deliver at the other end, and their quality is dependant only upon the information available to the assembler. There is no reason to assume that a program for almost anything you wanted wouldn’t be available freely to anyone who wanted it. You’d have something like a regular Star Trek replicator, with a thousand more functions.

You could make a copy of anything you have to send to your friend. Try and police that, R.I.A.A. Heck, you could probably even copy your friend, and gee, isn’t there a million ways in which that experiment could be really fun (calm, calm), and another million where it could go really, horribly wrong. Imagine how much you could damage the life of someone you didn’t like if you could clone them and get the clone to do all sorts of illegal activities. How can you combat libel, slander or defamation if it was originated by ‘you’?

The automatic construction of consumer goods without traditional labour costs or a traditional workforce will obviously have a huge effect on many aspects of our businesses and lives, not to mention the widespread damage it could potentially do to the arts, with copyrights becoming extremely different to protect. Forget owning a Da Vinchi print and think about owning an exact replica, stroke for stroke, atom for atom, of the original.

With food replicated from raw materials the world’s hunger would end. We could at last ‘save the trees’. Not only save them, but benefit from products which look and smell as wonderful as natural wood, but altered atomically to make them harder than steel, and custom ‘assembled’ to the shapes you want.

Not every nanobot will be an assembler however.

Medically nanobots will make an incredible change in our world. That change is also closer than many other nanotech dreams because most medical nanobots need not be intelligent at all. Groups could be programmed to perform particular tasks and then shut themselves down, being automatically discarded as waste by the digestive system.

Respirocytes Flowing Through A Blood Vessel Courtesy of Philippe Van Nedervelde

Respirocytes Flowing Through A Blood Vessel Courtesy of Philippe Van Nedervelde

Nanomachines might also be used to replace or repair diseased human tissues. Some medical nanobots could remove malignant growths, effectively eliminating cancer. Others could clean blood vessels, to some extent preventing heart attacks and strokes.

Others could monitor and regulate the body’s fat content and placement automatically ensuring it never falls below or climbs above certain limits, thus eliminating obesity and helping to combat the effects of eating disorders such as anorexia or bulimia while the patient undergoes traditional therapy.

Nanobots could help to deliver nutritional supplements, chemicals and proteins to various areas in body, and generate alerts when ‘host’ intervention or the ingestion of new nutrients is required, keeping nutritional levels at their optimum and possibly reducing our need for sleep and increasing our awareness and energy levels.

Short or long sightedness could be corrected by nanobots which temporarily help to retension muscles in the eyes to achieve the correct focus, gradually reducing their efforts to allow the body to take over as the muscles change to cope.

Spots could be a thing of the past as scores of nanobots perform cleansing operations on your skin, unclogging pores and removing flaking skin cells.

They could also intercept nerve signals from various parts of the body, curing the pains of anything from a simple headache to a broken leg or open surgery.

On a more aesthetic level, fair skinned people could get the tan they always wanted with automated melanin distribution.

Fancy a removable tattoo? What about one you can change when you feel like it? Using pre-programmed nanobots to perform skin pigmentation would be painless and cheerfully non-permanent. You might even end up ‘jacking in’ to your computer and downloading new tattoo’s from the ‘net. Your mother doesn’t even have to know, since you can remove your tattoo swiftly and easily.

For those in love with their cigarettes lung filtering nanobots could eliminate the damaging effects of tobacco, not to mention other atmospheric pollutants and allergens.

Recreational drugs would no longer be necessary as nanobots could stimulate or subdue the appropriate neurons to create similar effects. While still potentially dangerous this would still be much safer than using their traditional chemical counterparts.

In fact, aging itself could be greatly reduced and life expectancy could skyrocket as our bodies are automatically maintained at optimum working levels and wear and tear is repaired again and again.

Robotic technologies also benefit directly from nanotechnology because of the increased amount of systems which can be placed in a given amount of space. Once, simple computers filled whole rooms, now they sit in the palms of our hands, and in the future they will be completely out of sight, implanted in our own bodies.

In the far future we should see enormous computing power contained in single cells, and because nanotechnology allows us to build useful objects on a molecular scale it brings us one step closer to cybernetic implants which augment bodily function.

It’s not too hard to imagine building and embedding tiny recording cameras near the optic nerve to allow recording (and playback?) of important events.

With the reduction in electronic storage size already described it’s not such a step to say that these images may be stored on a tiny ‘hard drive’ also implanted somewhere in the body.

Sub-dermal ‘datajacks’ allowing us to plug directly into common electronic devices and deliver commands to them isn’t such a long way off, although the origin of those commands would remain pretty mundane (involving electronic switches triggered by physical movement) until significant developments in neurology produce sufficiently reliable interpretation of thought and mood patterns to enable mental or semi-telepathic command techniques. Even the model which requires physical control would still grant us the ability to interface more directly with cars, household gadgets, computers, in fact anything with an electronic brain, which can pretty much be anything right down to your refrigerator, even in today’s world.

Utility Foglet Courtesy of J. Storrs Hall

Utility Foglet, courtesy of J. Storrs Hall

Far from crawling around in and out and on top of things however, nanobots also have the potential to be all around us. Dr. J. Storrs Hall, inventor of ‘Utility Fog’, realised just how useful it would be to make the tiny bots airborne – well, almost. His Utility Fog model consists of millions of intelligent nanoscale robots each with a number of thin telescopic arms connecting to the others nearby. The entire mass can then expand or contract, break-off or re-join as necessary.

The default state would be greatly expanded, giving the impression of being airborne, although they would remain invisible to the naked eye, and unable to be felt, just like a fog. However when the user desired it, the ‘foglets’ could contract and realign to represent any structure, with the effect of objects materializing from thin air right in front of you.

Since you are effectively enveloped by the fog it can calculate every position and movement of your entire body, creating a virtual reality which is more real than any dataglove and headset could ever give.

With a suitable library of programmed objects and commands you could transform your living room into a small bit of tropical rainforest, cause extra seating to appear where needed at a party, hug a simulation of your old dog who passed away years ago, or perhaps more pleasantly, don your Trek uniform and truly experience a real Holodeck, having your environment change around you as you go.

Imagine your online gaming experiences as you hook your UF control program up to the internet and join a group of other users in the same shared virtual world.

Not without a downside though, the technology raises a huge amount of questions and problems, and no few of them are ethical. What about pregnant women? Should their use be restricted in any way? Children? If we remove the potential harm from taking drugs or smoking shouldn’t they be allowed to do either from any age? Euthanasia and suicide could be virtually unstoppable. Let alone murder. If you replicate a complete human being would it live? Would it have a soul? Could this answer questions about our souls, whether we have a creator, or whether we are simply complex biological machines?

There is also the worrisome prospect that such devices could function as toxic or lethal agents for military warfare purposes. There’s no better disease carrier than something invisible to everything but a powerful microscope.

What would the implications be for the economy and the workforce? In a world where the bulk of useful jobs are scientific or highly technical the entire way of living changes. Will mankind be forced into a kind of intellectual revolution, pushing us onward to a higher state?

As it is an accessible industry for amateurs the threats involved with nanotechnology easily surpass the current nuclear threat. Recently we’ve seen just how vulnerable the ‘net is to virus attacks, and many of us realise that these Virus creating tools are widely available. Imagine the biological and mechanical threat to our whole lives, not just our information systems, that would come if the same kind of backyard terrorism was applied to nanotech.

Fasa’s Shadowrun gamesystem depicts nanobot ‘cutters’ which can be introduced surrepticiously into a victims system with the sole purpose of cutting and destroying tissue, resulting in the hapless soul being effectively eaten or liquified from the inside in a most disturbing and painful way.

Can this really be the future we are facing?

Like any new technology nanotech must be properly managed. I’m quite sure I’m not the only one who feels uncomfortable with the thought of living (and breathing) with these nano-entities controlled by God-knows-who, all around me doing God-knows-what, and I’m not even a technophobe. I for one hope the market will be quick to upgrade its detectors and ‘bug sweeps’ will soon become ‘bot sweeps’.

The potential for good or ill seems to be enormous and we can only hope that nanodevices will eventually be put to a whole range of constructive uses.

It’s hard for the human brain to comprehend a world devoid of our traditional limitations. That’s part of the reason why top scientists will always be reading science fiction.

Science Fiction not only expands our minds to the possibilities, it helps to desensitise us, enabling us to pursue them with some sense of hope. That can be good, encouraging progress and development and embracing the myriad ways to make life easier. It can also be bad however, as we become even more dependant upon machines, create increasingly solitary work environments and become less sociable.

We can at least take comfort in the fact that while there are people who are still in awe of technology, and while there are people who are still distrusting of it, there will be great Science Fiction.

If you like the idea of a nanotechnology future you may enjoy these authors: Greg Bear, Jeffrey Carver, Michael Flynn, Dean Koontz, Charles Platt, Michael Swanwick, Walter Jon Williams, Peter F. Hamilton, Ben Bova, William Gibson, Neal Stephenson.

Utility Foglet and Respirocyte pictures with thanks also to
Lead in picture by Olivia Tan, used with permission.


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