Nanobots (very small robots, potentially as tiny as molecules) have been a staple of science fiction for decades. But, despite massive investment in scientific research that has produced amazing things, actual nanobots haven’t made it into the real world. However, that may be about to change. This article talks about research at the University of California San Diego. They demonstrated using micromotors, machines about half the width of a human hair, to treat a bacterial infection in a mouse stomach. Not exactly nanobots yet, but an important step in the right direction.
Richard Feynman first raised the issues that became nanotechnology in 1959, in his talk There’s Plenty of Room at the Bottom. These ideas really took root with the 1986 book Engines of Creation: The Coming Era of Nanotechnology, by K. Eric Drexler. He coined the term “nanotechnology” and proposed a nanoscale “assembler,” a machine able to build copies of itself and other nanoscale machines. These are the ideas adopted by science fiction writers as nanobots (and other names) and credited with near-magical capabilities, making their entry into the real world seem long overdue.
But creative minds also see a dark side to nanobots, usually referred to as the grey goo problem. In this scenario, the nanobots run amok, either accidentally or by design; the berserk nanobots indiscriminately consume everything to fuel their reproduction until the entire surface of the Earth is nothing but a mass of grey goo. This is essentially the disaster imagined by the 2008 remake of the movie The Day the Earth Stood Still. This is great for story tellers looking for a disaster to fuel a plot, but horrifying to consider in real life. Drexler and others have recently been looking into ways to develop this technology that minimizes the possibility of such a scenario, so let’s hope that such lines of thinking succeed.
However, whether you want them or dread them, it seems we are at the threshold. Ready or not, here come the nanobots!