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Name:  Natasha
Status: student
Grade: 4-5
Location:  IL
Country: N/A
Date: December 2006

Question:
What are nanobots used for?



Replies:
Natasha-

At this time there are no nanobots anywhere we know of, so if anybody has some, I don't know what they use them for. So far, nanobots are just a science-fiction idea, an idea which might come true little by little, and mostly not within the next lifetime. Maybe it'll be well along a few lifetimes after that.

Viruses and bacteria can be genetically engineered to do some jobs (already have been a few...), and I suppose they could be considered nanobots built of carbon and water. So germs are our first examples of what nanobots can do. What can they do? They can make certain molecules for us, for sure. We already make cheese and drugs using bacteria that we humans have bred or modified. They can detect certain molecules or other micro-organisms for us; we're just starting that. Lots of scientists are thinking about how to use viruses to go all thru the body adding a missing gene in the right places. We'll have to think pretty carefully about doing that.

Notice these jobs are using small, soft bugs to do small, soft jobs. "Biological" nanobots to do "biological" jobs.

Big jobs or hard materials (inorganics) will take longer to develop. Nobody knows how much longer. To build metal structures or materials using bacteria would be more difficult. Most living germs don't yet have ways to build hard substaces like glass and steel. Sure they could it in the long run, but it will take us a while to figure out, and maybe other ways of doing things will always be easier. To lift big things in the air, I mean even a pencil, would be unlikely. That will take some mechanical energy, and tiny nanobots can store only tiny amounts of energy. We still need to invent (or discover in nature) the motors that nanobot would use. When we are just starting, those motors or muscles won't be very strong. Nanobots could glow a little, but one nanobot can't make a big well-pointed laser beam, even weak ones just for talking to another nanbot or to "the boss", because you need a big lens to make a straight and narrow beam. Bigger than a nanobot, anyway. Maybe if they worked in teams, spread out across a surface. Which they might be able to do if designed for it. Many of the best things nanobots could do are team jobs.

There are some college students and professors now studying how to do computer-like calculations using biological molecules like simplified, customized DNA (genes). This is a little closer to the nanobot business.

Suppose an air-hockey table was covered with invisible nanobots, each with stubby microscopic arms reaching upwards to pass things over their heads. This way you might invent a hard-but-frictionless surface much like an air-hockey table, but without the air. Like I said, I think this kind of thing won't happen in our lifetime. But maybe soon after. Or maybe nobody will ever want to do the work to invent this.

Maybe someday we could have 3-D displays, 'holo-tanks", based on nanobotics. They would be billions of little color nodes, held in the air a certain distance from each other by invisibly skinny stick-legs. The legs might be used to carry power and picture-information to all the color-nodes. The whole thing had better be in a glass jar, because the web of skinny sticks would be pretty weak. It would be like a ghostly jello you could shred by blowing thru it. These nodes and legs might be nanobotic parts. They couldn't replicate themselves, but they might be able to put themselves and their neighbors in the right places, so we wouldn't have to assemble a billion tiny pieces one piece at time, and maybe it could replace defective pieces too. Probably the easiest way to make the color-nodes change color is for each to have a little flag or colored plate, which it could turn edgewise to the person watching to be invisible, or turn broadface to assert a "color". It takes very little energy to turn a tiny flag left or right. The light would be shined on them all from ordinary lamps ouside the tank. I think this is a classic use of nanobotics.

But then, it's the future and we don't yet know how it will go. You might get closer to nanobots than I will.

Jim Swenson



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