Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Nanotechnology, Prepare Your Molecules

Nanotechnology is the construction and use of technology at the nano level, that is specifically within the size range of 0.000000001 to 0.0000001 meters, this is from about the size of a virus down to the smallest atoms.  What this means is that nano technology is engineering using individual atoms as pieces.

This method has incredible possibilities for engineering and medicine.  The value of atomically precise manufacturing and manipulation could lead to a revolution in almost every major area of technology, from computers to houses, manufacturing to medicine.

Most nanotechnology falls into one of two basic categories:  Industrial or medical.  These will be addressed one at a time.

Industrial nanotechnology is the creation of machines or substances at the nano scale.  Mastering this realm allows for atomically precise manufacturing using techniques such as chemical assembly or the still conceptual nano printer.  The nano printer is a machine with molecular assembly lines that move and combine individual molecules together in ever larger iterations until a macro scale object is created from the pieces.  A computer controls how the molecules are fit together and so the user can fabricate any object or substance for which they are in possession of the constituent molecular elements and a digital schematic.

Another concept is the nano robot, combining tiny complex computers with molecular machines to create autonomous mechanical agents at the nano scale.  These robots can be programmed to  deliver molecules to specific locations and carry out complex tasks such as clearing molecular debris or scanning for specific molecules.  The nano robot turns out to be one of the most important tools in nano medicine.

Nano medicine is essentially the treatment of the body on the molecular level.  It allows for precise diagnosis based on nano level observation of the bodies systems.  Using nano robots traveling through the bloodstream, you can receive very specific information about the state of your health, from oxygen level in the blood to foreign bacteria or viruses.  They could also diagnose injuries, even on the cellular or molecular level and repair those injuries.

The possibilities for nano medicine are almost infinite, one could imagine that between gene therapies and nano robotic treatments no disease will fail to yield.  Nano bots could also be used to turn off the genetic components of aging, meaning that we could be virtually immortal.

Then there is augmentation, the purposeful upgrading of biology with technology.  Using nano augmentation, it is possible to achieve an almost unlimited list of upgrades, anything from super red blood cell robots that give the user the ability to run for many minutes without breathing or information collecting robots that give the user a moment by moment feed of everything that is happening in the body.  These are just some very basic examples, the possibilities are literally endless.

To enter a more fanciful area, one could imagine deploying swarms of nano bots from storage facilities implanted in your body, these nano swarms could be controlled by an interface such as a smartphone and used to accomplish any number of tasks.  You could scan anything around you and identify its molecular composition, you could heal or attack another individual, or even attack other nano bots.  You could also hack into computer systems or even living organisms.  This begins to illustrate the potential power involved with this kind of technology.

So what about a mad scientist using nano technology?  This is a very real and terrifying possibility, one of the most dangerous things a mad scientist could do is unleash a nano plague or even the "grey goo".  The grey goo is a concept in which a swarm of self replicating nano bots consume all material on earth and turn it into more nano bots.  Once the robots get going, they could consume everything in a matter of moments, transforming it into a grey goo of nano robots.

Another scenario is more of a super villain model, where the mad scientist uses nano technology to imbue him/her self with "super powers", such as armies of nano bots that attack on command.  The only solution seems to be counter armies of nano robots, programmed to defend ordinary people from random or targeted nano attacks.  In the future will we all have armies of nano robots floating around us fighting a constant war against malevolent armies of robots?  Looks like it's possible.

Returning to the industrial nano technology, what about that nano printer?  One can imagine that an efficient nano printer would operate something like the replicator in startrek, producing any item desired on command.  But where does the material come from?  The printer would require material from which to construct the objects, this could be something as common as dirt which contains many of the constituent elements that we need.  So we can make anything out of dirt?

That would appear to be correct, so what are the implications of this?  First of all, anyone with one of these things can eat/drink/be merry to their hearts content, almost any food or medicine can be synthesized from dirt, as well as tools, shelter, computers, you name it.  Also  the printer can theoretically make copies of itself, so they will become virtually free as well.  But how will this effect society?

It could be the makings of a shift in life style greater even than the industrial revolution, what this technology means is that every person will have access to free manufacturing.  This can be set up almost anywhere, meaning people will be free to leave cities and live as they choose.  People will also be free to create anything they choose, including weapons, armies of robots, space ships, ect.  So now we are back to the mad scientists.

What happens when a mad scientist uses nano printing for nefarious purposes?  They could theoretically set up vast factories, constantly replicating, building swarms of nano and macro robots that attack the human race.  It would seem that these technologies are returning us again to the possibilities of an old west type scenario, a kind of anything goes mentality.  Of course the authorities will try to stamp out this behavior, but they have a record of being behind the ball on technological change.

So its up to every day people to talk about how these changes will be used.  It is without question possible for us to build a better world using these technologies, but it is equally if not more possible for the chaotic aspect to escape and overwhelm the trends of peace and freedom.  As these technologies grow, they become more and more dangerous, so we must be more careful, take more time to consider risk, and act more with a whole world mentality rather than for the benefit of just an individual, corporation or nation.

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