Date: February 2004
How are nanobots made? What are their primary functions?
I do not believe any nanobots exist yet, Colleen. So far they are just a science-fiction
idea, that is just beginning to be visible on the horizon of our technological development
Nanobots will need to be built an atom or molecule at a time, or by beams "painting" with
metals and hard oxides, or by custom enzymes acting as construction hands for us, or by much
smaller lithography (printing) than we do now. So far we can put
hundreds of atoms of a convenient kind one at a time, on intended spots on numerous materials,
but we need to do it with many different kinds of atoms, and do it with millions to billions
of atoms. Or develop much more ability to design and build large
bio-molecules that do the right construction-things spontaneously.
Keep in mind that a Bacterium is a naturally occurring untamed nanomachine. Bacteria modified
by genetic engineering will happen first, and do simple fixed jobs for us, and so might be
considered our first nanobots. In the mid-range it seems likely to
me that there could be some largish computer-object that can quickly re-design and build new
nanobots for each different job we want. Even slightly different. Flexible nanobots you
can "talk to" and re-program to do different jobs are much farther in
the future, and it is anybody's guess whether arbitrarily programmable behavior will be built
in bio-organisms or inorganic nano-machines first.
Primary functions, we are all guessing. Just use your common sense and science education about
what little solid objects can actually do without super-powers. Somewhere between what insects
and germs can do. They will not travel at supersonic speeds. They will not dissolve steel
bridges in an instant. In a year, maybe. But then, acid does that. And dynamite does it in
a second. Building a spider-web bridge in a year might be a better idea to use nanobots for,
like a swarm of tamed worker-ants. An
individual nanobot might even have problems making radio waves strong enough for another
nanobot across the room to hear it. They would have to work in teams, or swarms, to make
one wave, consuming some chemical fuel dispersed throughout their
environment to make the power in the radio waves.
Unless they are modified natural bacteria, they will not be anywhere near capable of
reproducing themselves. So far, nature is better at all robotics than we are. When/if we
do make ones that reproduce, we must consider ourselves as creating living
organisms, and be extremely careful and wise. Possibly it will never be smart to do that.
I suspect the first inorganic nanobots will be entirely dependent on a special artificial
environment to work. Suppose you had a glass dish, the bottom of which was a not-very-dense
swarm of nanobots, sorting cells or painting 1 million x 1 million
checkerboards. For them to keep working, a nutrient bath would need to keep flowing through
the dish, or maybe an electrical grid could be printed all over the floor of the dish, and
they could only "slide along the wires". Any nanobot that accidentally
let go of the wire, would be dead dust. I am not trying to be reassuring that they would be
harmless, I am trying to emphasize that they would be very limited in use and durability, at
first and for a long time.
It is easier to predict what they will use, than what they will be used for. Light waves will
be easier to direct than radio waves, because their wavelength is smaller. Chemical senses will
be easier to use than throwing waves of any kind, and maybe chemical "broadcasts" too. If
there is a spider-web or clear film that conducts light of electricity, it will be a valuable
telegraph system for them. Sensing and reporting will be an easier job for them than building
or acting. Nanobots are all surface and almost no volume, so they will be extremely weak in
stored power, and tend to be "tactile" about what they do. Static electricity might be a good
muscle-force for some legs and arms, but it is easily interfered with, so other kinds of
muscles will be much sought. They may skitter and wiggle fast on their scale, but their
velocities compared to our size will still be slow.
I have an vague idea that nanobots are an almost self-serving idea. It takes nanobots to build
other nanobots, and what nanobots will do best for us is building other small-featured things
with regular rules. 3-D sensors and displays where a swarm faintly fills a volume or area, is
another likely class of applications. Crawling into a jungle for us is a 3rd category, as
most body-implanted medical uses would be. They probably could not accomplish instant-healing
for you, as in sci-fi TV shows, but they might gradually hunt certain large-particle
infections, or do dispersed surgery in a specific part of the body, or substitute for some
simple body function temporarily. Keeping them solely in the right part of the body, because
elsewhere they would do some harm, might be problematic.
There will be some word-confusion over just what size-and-function category one means by
"nanobot". There will be organic ones (re-designed bacteria), and inorganic ones, and
hybrids. There will be truly small ones 100 atoms across that only do one simple reflex
action, up to bigger ones the size of insects, up to space-ships that think and try to
self-repair. No distinct definitions will hold for long, except perhaps those we as a
Is that food for thought?
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Update: June 2012