The nanobots are coming back

In this article first published on Digital Journal I express enthusiasm for recent advances in practical nanotechnology, and at the same time regret for the heroic visions of the 90s. See also this commentary at Foresight Institute and my old (2006) essay “Globalization and Open Source Nano Economy.”

Nanotechnology has kept a low profile after the early hype in the 90s, but recent advances show that those nanobots might swim in our brains and build things for us sooner than we think.

Do you remember the nanotechnology hype waves in the 90s?

Nanotechnology — the Next Big Thing — would change the world in only a few years. Machines smaller than a cell would swim in our body and remove pathogens and viruses. Other tiny machines would re-assemble dirt and waste to build everything that we could dream of, one molecule at a time. And all that was coming, you know, real soon.

The public enthusiasm for nanotechnology started with Eric Drexler’s book Engines of Creation – The Coming Era of Nanotechnology, published in 1986. What Drexler had in mind was not just small machines, but “assemblers,” self-reproducing molecular machines able to build copies of themselves while performing their tasks. So, for example, “disassembler” nanomachines designed to disassemble toxic waste into harmless chemicals would produce billions of copies of themselves and get the toxic waste removal job done in no time.

Then nanotechnology fell from the Peak of Inflated Expectations to the Trough of Disillusionment of the famous Gartner Hype Cycle, and was stuck there for quite some time because the initial expectations were far too high to be deliverable by current technology. But, as it often happens, the Slope of Enlightenment may be on the horizon.

Engines of Creation was a cult book that inspired a generation of technology visionaries who didn’t quite manage to create nanotechnology assemblers, but made important advances in other great technologies that we use everyday – including the Internet and smartphones. It’s interesting to compare Engines of Creation to Drexler’s recent book Radical Abundance: How a Revolution in Nanotechnology Will Change Civilization, published in 2013. Radical Abundance is much less visionary and much more sedate than Engines of Creation. Gone are the self-reproducing molecular assemblers, but Drexler explores in detail the mature concept of additive manufacturing at the nanoscale, or Atomically Precise Manufacturing (APM) — building precisely manufactured goods from the bottom up, one atom or molecule at the time.

The quasi-mainstream APM nanotechnology vision is essentially equivalent to 3D nano-printing. Desktop 3D printers are already able to do very precise and detailed work. Now imagine a 3D printer able to pick up individual atoms or molecules of whatever material is needed at a given step, and put them in place with atomic precision. Even without self-replication, that would be pretty awesome indeed. Nano-printers — like the “Matter Compiler” described in Neal Stephenson’s science-fiction novel The Diamond Age — could build everything to order from software specs and the raw materials in their stock. You could literally email a toaster — or a toast — over the Internet, which the recipient could build immediately on demand.

APM is visionary but doable, and could be the next technology revolution — this time for real. Other advances in “realistic” nanotechnology keep making more and more headlines. Recently, Dr. Ido Bachelet of Bar-Ilan University reported the development of nanobots that can be injected into cancer patients to identify and kill cancer cells while leaving healthy cells alone. The first clinical trial might begin soon, perhaps even in 2015. Nicholas Negroponte, one of the founding fathers of today’s Internet, thinks that in 30 years nanobots will attach themselves to neurons and synapses and play an important role in our thinking and learning. He said:

“The key to my prediction is the best way to interact with the brain is from the inside, from the bloodstream. Because if you inject tiny robots into the bloodstream they can get very close to all the cells and nerves and things in your brain, really close. So if you want to input information or read information, you do it through the bloodstream. [So] in theory you could load Shakespeare into your bloodstream and as the little robots get to the various part of the brain they deposit little pieces of Shakespeare or the little pieces of French if you want to learn how to speak French. So in theory you can ingest information.”

Back to 3D printers, recent advanced models are already able to print tiny electronic circuits whose miniaturization and complexity are improving. That is an important step toward Stephenson’s Matter Compiler.

Image from Wikimedia Commons.

  • This makes me wonder what the current timelines of nanotechlogy look like.

  • Giulio Prisco

    Hi Stephen, reading current science news I see good indications of incremental progress in APM, but I don’t see any breakthrough that could permit the development of the replicating nanomachines imagined by Drexler. I guess we must keep waiting and in the meantime advance the development of practical APM nanotechnology.