The nanobot – the tiny submarine gliding through the bloodstream curing all our ills – is one of the most powerful images underlying the public perception of nanotechnology. In the newspapers, it seems compulsory to illustrate any article about any sort of nanotechnology with a fanciful picture of a nanobot and a Fantastic Voyage reference. Yet, to say that nanoscientists are ambivalent about these images is putting it mildly. Amongst the more sober nanobusiness and nanoscience types, the word nanobot is shorthand for everything they despise about the science fiction visions that nanotechnology has attracted. For my own part, I’ve argued that the popular notions of the nanobot are an embodiment of the fallacy that advanced nanotechnology will look like conventional engineering shrunk in size. And even followers of Drexler, in an attempt to head off fears of the grey goo dystopia of out-of-control self-replicating nanobots, have taken to downplaying their importance and arguing that their brand of advanced nanotechnology will take the form of innocent desktop devices looking rather like domestic bread-making machines.
The power of the nanobot image in the history of nanotechnology is emphasized by a recent article by a social scientist from the University of Nottingham, Brigitte Nerlich. This article, From Nautilus to Nanobo(a)ts: The Visual Construction of Nanoscience traces the evolution of the nanobot image from its antecendents in science fiction, going back to Jules Verne, through Fantastic Voyage, right through to those stupid nanobot images that irk scientists so much. Nerlich argues that ” popular culture and imagination do not simply follow and reflect science. Rather, they are a critical part of the process of developing science and technology; they can inspire or, indeed, discourage researchers to turn what is thinkable into new technologies and they can frame the ways in which the ‘public’ reacts to scientific innovations.”
Attempts to write the nanobot out of the history of nanotechnology thus seem doomed, so we had better try and rehabilitate the concept. If we accept that the shrunken submarine image is hopelessly misleading, how can we replace it by something more realistic?