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Thursday 27 Oct 2016 | 5 min read

Nanobot implants – what are they, what could they do, and how could they affect our future?

Graphic art depicting microscopic robotics attached to cancer cells

Nanobots, nanites, nanomachines, microbivores, just what exactly is meant by nanotechnology anyway?

Nanotech is the research and development of controllable (and often self replicating) swarms of molecular machines designed to improve our health and wellbeing. Nanorobots have the potential to make us smarter, better understand our environment, and tackle things like disease and aging. But will nanobot implants improve our lives, or are they (as some point out) a legitimate threat to our existence?

Tiny teams in the bloodstream

We already know that there are billions of transistors on a computer chip, but what should we think of billions of tiny machines in our bloodstream?

Working together in groups of millions and billions, these robots sound like the stuff of science fiction, but they could be a reality sooner than we think. Founder of the XPRIZE Foundation Dr Peter Diamandis gives some visual cues for understanding the sheer scope of miniaturization in nanotech, including:

“A sheet of paper is about 100,000 nanometers thick.”

“The ratio of the Earth to a child’s marble is roughly the ratio of a meter to a nanometer.”

Let that sink in. Nanobot implants are so small, we’ll be able to carry billions of them around in our bodies, just like cells.

Some assembly required

Nanobots will probably resemble regular robots in many ways. They’ll need a power supply, sensors, and a computer to control them. Where they differ is they’ll appear in the millions and billions, working together to tackle specific problems or achieve specific goals.

To create this critical volume nanobot implants will likely be self replicating. Using a process similar to cell mitosis, a smaller number of nanobots will build a larger number. Because it’s a game of multiplication, nanobot cultures will grow exponentially when instructed and disassemble as needed (we hope).

In his book Emergence: The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities, and Software Steven Johnson examines the ’emergent behaviour’ of ants, neurons and certain types of moss, and how a critical mass of small agents create a more intelligent and cohesive working whole.

Nanobots possess similar traits. While a single nanobot will be too small to do much, their ability to coordinate, sense, replicate and respond to input will make them an effective ’emergent’ technology.

Internet brains

This ‘emergent’ behaviour (often referred to as complexity) and ability to self replicate at an exponential rate puts nanobots in the purview of futurist and Chief AI guy at Google, Ray Kurzweil.

An inventor and entrepreneur, Kurzweil is perhaps best known for his theory of accelerating returns, which is basically the theory underpinning things like Moore’s Law (how our technology progresses at a faster rate the further we develop). Kurzweil has made a startling number of predictions, including the assertion that an AI would beat a world chess champion by 1998. (IBM’s Deep Blue defeated Garry Kasparov in 1997).

Kurzweil predicts that by 2030 nanomachines will be implanted in our brains, specifically the neo-cortex, allowing us to send photos and videos to one another just by thinking about it:

“’There is beauty, love and creativity and intelligence in the world, and it all comes from the neocortex.”

Kurzweil also believes that we will be able to access a superintelligent ‘cloud’ using nanobot implants similar to the way our phones use cloud processing. Will it make us super smart, more charismatic, and more fun to be around? Perhaps, but there are no doubt certain risks associated with letting little robots into your brain.

Surgical precision

In the secretive labs of the US military organisation DARPA, development is already underway for the In Vivo Nanoplatform. Designed to reduce the need for medics in conflict zones, In Vivo seeks to “develop new classes of adaptable nanoparticles for persistent, distributed, unobtrusive physiologic and environmental sensing, as well as the treatment of physiologic abnormalities, illness and infectious disease.”

Just as the early internet began as a tool for the US military, it’s possible to see In Vivo becoming public as demand for the technology increases. Nanotech implants will monitor our bodies, curing disease, correcting poor eyesight, even muscle mass, potentially leaving us fit, healthy and beautiful into old age.

Nanobots will also be used for single cell surgery. The Guardian highlights a proposed case study where chromallocyte nanobots extract chromosomes from a diseased cell and replace them with new chromosomes. At a larger scale, these sorts of treatments could be the cure for aging, as millions (or billions) of chromallocytes correct the genetic damage to our cells that cause us to get older.

Improving the environment

Outside the body, Nanobots are likely to have positive effects on our environment, monitoring changes and correcting problems.

We all feel a pang of regret when we see a preventable disaster like an oil spill. Nanobots will not only help in monitoring and assessing onboard oil tankers, providing thousands of sensors to collect data and prevent tragedies, but can potentially assist in the clean ups. Imagine billions of coordinated molecular cleaning bots all working together like a massive ant colony. It could mean the difference between an environmental tragedy and a minor accident.

Access to clean drinking water still remains a problem for over a billion people on earth. Nanomachines could also be used to purify water in affected regions. Because they are self-replicating, the scale of nanobots can increase rapidly where needed, providing real benefits in times of drought, shortages and other crisis.

Small bots, big risks

A swarm of controllable, molecular sized robots isn’t without it’s own problems. Futurist author William Gibson recently fictionalised the devastating effects of nanobots in his novel The Peripheral, where swarms of aggressive nanomachine implants are used as effective tools of assassination. While that might be the stuff of science fiction, there’s no doubting the risks nanomachines pose to our everyday life. Billions of tiny robots implanted in your body seem like less of a good idea if someone else controls them, and the risk of nanobot implants becoming the next Zika is something we need to consider.

Even successful technocrats like Elon Musk think that nanobots and artificial intelligence in general could represent a more serious threat than nuclear weapons:

Screenshot of a Twitter post by Elon Musk, dated 3 August 2014. It says "Worth reading Superintelligence by Bostrom. We need to be super careful with AI. Potentially more dangerous than nukes."

And the Future of Humanity Institute rated molecular nanotechnology weapons as one of the most probable causes of human extinction:

RiskProbability of human extinction before 2100
Molecular nanotechnology weapons5%
Superintelligent AI5%
Engineered pandemic2%
Nuclear war1%
Nanotechnology accident5%
Natural pandemic0.05%
Nuclear terrorism0.03%


So while there’s the potential for a bright future of nano-powered health, wellbeing, creativity and excellence, we all need to be wary of how we use new technologies, and who will benefit in our future of tiny little robot implants.


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