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A Long Rant About Nanobots and Nanotechnology

TsaiJan 3, 2017, 2:28:27 AM

The word nanotechnology and nanobots refers to structures and machines that operate at the scale of tens of nanometres. Science fiction creators often depict nanotechnology as technology that is in its infancy today that will come into full fruition sometime in the near to intermediate future. These works of fiction often depict nanobots as the zenith of nanotechnology, nanobots being scaled down versions of man-made machines. I think this betrays a deep misunderstanding of the term by the science fiction community, thus I will explain why I think the term 'nanotechnology' is really nothing more than a fancy, science-fiction buzzword to make mundane, every-day things that we take for granted seem more interesting than they really are.


If you're reading this right now, then you own a device that contains a microchip. The microchip is so-named because, once upon a time, transistors existed on the scale of micrometres. Today, we can fabricate transistors that are 14 nanometres in size (a nanometre is one thousand times smaller than a micrometre). Very soon, we will be able to fabricate 10 nm transistors. This means that you are holding in your hand (or have sitting on your desk) a device that contains nanotechnology – and it is everywhere. Everywhere you go, there is nanotechnology. I don't know why we still call microchips 'microchips'. We should call them nanochips to make it clear that we already live in the age of nanotechnology, and we've been living in it for quite some time!


You may point out that 'real' nanotechnology is robots that can do work at the nanoscale, not just boring old integrated circuits. The reason for having such small robots is that they will do work inside the human body at the cellular level. Okay. Let's think about that for a second. Moore's Law is rapidly approaching a dead end. Very soon, the transistor will be so small that electrons will leak out of their circuits and create a short-circuit because of quantum of mechanics. In fact, given that we are expected to shrink the size of the transistor from 14 nm to just 10 nm this year, I'd say we've pretty much reached the end of Moore's Law. It can't get any smaller than this.


Given this limit, it is not possible to create a robot so small that it can operate on the scale of nanometres. Yes, its microchip (really, it should be called a nanochip) might be small enough to fit inside a red blood cell that is 6-8 micrometres in size, but that microchip would have to be very small, which means less computing power than what we're used to for a computer. Furthermore, a microchip on its own cannot control a robot. You need memory storage as well, and this memory unit needs to be big enough to contain all the instructions that the robot would need to work on the cell. In addition to all this, the robot needs to have appendages that can grab hold of things and do work. How are we going to build electrical servos small enough to operate at the nanoscale if electrons leak out of their circuits at the nanoscale?


Clearly, we cannot simply shrink our existing technology to make nanobots work at the cellular level. We would need to invent an entirely different engineering paradigm designed specifically to operate at the nanoscale. You might think that this technology is decades or even centuries away, and you'd be off by a couple of billion years.


That's right. Nanobot technology has existed long before humans even set foot on the Earth. It's called biology.


If we want tiny robots to do work at the cellular level, why don't we make use of the engineering marvel that is nature? Why go through the trouble of redesigning biology? We already have the ability to reprogram proteins, enzymes, viruses, bacteria and human cells to do what we want them to do. These structures are all examples of nanobots. Enzymes are tiny robots that do work at the nanoscale. Viruses are tiny robots that hijack the cellular machinery of bacteria and animal cells, and reprogram these cells to make more copies of itself.


If we want to kill cancer cells, we should figure out how to modify the HIV virus to seek out and infect cancer cells instead of white blood cells. We can insert modified protein receptors into the HIV capsule so that the HIV virus can recognize and bind specifically to cancer cells. The HIV capsule will then inject its modified RNA strand into the cancer cell. The RNA strand will hijack the cell's machinery and reprogram it to make thousands of copies of the modified HIV virus, thus killing the cancer cell and creating more copies of the tiny robot that will seek out and kill even more cancer cells.



At this point, I'm going off on a tangent, but you get my point. We don't need to invent an entirely new engineering paradigm to create nanobots. Nanobots have existed for billions of years. It's called biology. Nanotechnology is not futuristic. Nanotechnology is not the way that we imagine it to be in science fiction. Actual nanotechnology, whether man-made or occurring naturally, is already all around us. It is mundane, and we take it for granted. To the science-fiction community, let's stop misrepresenting nanotechnology as some mysterious futuristic technology, and let's start representing it as what it really is – computer chips and biology.