Writing the history of the nanobot

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?

10 thoughts on “Writing the history of the nanobot”

  1. Robert Freitas has done a lot of work on medical nanobots. He has basically picked up the Drexler baton and is running with it vigorously. His short bio at http://rfreitas.com says, “Robert A. Freitas Jr., J.D., published the first detailed technical design study of a medical nanorobot ever published in a peer-reviewed mainstream biomedical journal…” and links to http://www.foresight.org/Nanomedicine/Respirocytes.html . His book Nanomedicine vol 1, available online at http://www.nanomedicine.com/NMI.htm extends many of Drexler’s ideas and offers a more detailed picture of many aspects of diamondoid nanotech, particularly medical nanobot technology, than has been seen elsewhere.

    Freitas also organizes the Nanomedicine Art Gallery at http://www.foresight.org/Nanomedicine/Gallery/index.html , full of images to make the mainstream nanotechnologist’s blood boil. Take a look at http://www.foresight.org/Nanomedicine/Gallery/Species/HistorGeneral.html , I can just imagine the steam coming out of respected scientific ears.

  2. The Nanomedicine Art Gallery certainly is a Nanobot Hall of Shame. Interestingly, it’s not just me that thinks that – this image from the gallery is the one I used to illustrate my Physics World article as an exemplar of a stupid nanobot image, and Drexler himself, in his published letter in response to that article, vigorously dissociated himself from it, describing it as “an artist’s fantastic conception of a ‘nanosubmarine’ – a conception not based on my work”, and saying “it is, I think, important that scientific criticisms address the scientific literature, not artistic fantasies.

  3. Hi Richard
    What are your main core problems with what Eric Drexler and others outline as nanotechnology? I have your book here and you seem to agree that true atomic precision manufacturing, including some form of nano factory, and mass diamondoid manufacturing IS possible and inevitable. Is it that you think it will be different than Drexler’s? He even said that all he did was to outline some basic capabilities.

  4. Hello again, I want to add something.

    The following comes from Eric Drexler’s website: http://www.e-drexler.com
    I ask and challenge, in a friendly way, any of the users and regulars of this here blog to tell if any of the following is in any way erroneous:

    ” Early-generation productive nanosystems

    Biology provides an existence proof for productive nanosystems, showing that they can produce an enormous tonnage of atomically precise products cleanly and at low cost. Early generation productive nanosystems, enabled by current research in nanotechnologies and the molecular sciences, may follow the biological model, building small machines from self-assembled polymeric components. Design and analysis, however, show that longer-term capabilities can grow far beyond this biological model. The history of technology revolves around the use of tools to build better tools; early-generation productive nanosystems will open the door to advanced systems.

    Advanced productive nanosystems

    Advanced productive nanosystems (that is, molecular manufacturing systems) will enable the fabrication of large, complex products cleanly, efficiently, and at low cost. Among the feasible products of advanced productive nanosystems will be:

    desktop computers with a billion processors
    inexpensive, efficient solar energy systems
    medical devices able to destroy pathogens and repair tissues
    materials 100 times stronger than steel
    superior military systems
    additional molecular manufacturing systems

  5. Nanoman, I’m not sure I’d agree with you about what I conclude in my book! In the last chapter I write:

    “What then of the road to nanotechnology exploiting rigid diamandoid structures put together by positionally sensitive mechanochemistry, as proposed by Drexler and his followers? I don’t think this approach fundamentally contradicts any physical laws, though I think that some of its proponents underestimate the problems that features of the nanoworld, like Brownian motion and strong surface forcees, will pose for it. But I see many more disadvantages than advantages. Unlike the top-down route provided by planar technologies in silicon, there is no large base of experience and expertise to draw on, and no big economic pressures driving the research forward. And unlike the bionanotechnological and biomimetic approaches, it is working against the grain, rather than with the grain, of the special physics of the nanoworld. For these reasons I anticipate that this approach to nanotechnology is least likely to deliver results. ”

    Since writing the book, I have become less rather than more convinced of the practicality of the Drexler approach. For some very specific scientific issues that are likely to cause difficulties, see my post six challenges for molecular nanotechnology (challenges, I might say, which have yet to be responded to by the MNT community).

    In response to the quote from Drexler’s website about biology, I address exactly this point in What biology does and doesn’t prove about nanotechnology.

  6. Thank you for the reply Richard.

    Here are some thoughts I wanted to run by regarding this whole molecular nanotechnology idea.

    I have often wondered, could silicate/silicon based Molecular technology be a very feasible more near term system? Think about it:
    Silicate crystal systems can solidify/polymerize out of solution/liquid phase, without the need for high vacuum/inert enviroments which the carbon and hydrocarbon diamondoid and fullerene materials require.

    This allows a more flexible near term system that could possibly be bootstrapped from a wet protein/DNA based system.

    Could a bio nano technology base, based on control of folded proteins, do much of what MNT can do, and more?

    1 A protein folding industrial base already exists.

    What about the concept of “PROGRAMMABLE DIATOMS”? Look at what we have in nature. Tremendous amounts of nano scale bio machines just waiting to be used.

    Programmable diatoms could do all of the things promised by Drexler style MNT. Thoughts?

    Silicon quartz materials can be nearly as hard as diamond, and tough and strong, especially made with atomic precision. Also…..

    CARBON BURNS. Even diamondoid and fullerene can burn when exposed to high heat and oxygen.

    Silicate is fire proof. It wont burn. Silicon oxide is more resistant to fire then.

  7. By the way here are those SILICATE MNT papers I mentioned. Feel free to take a look at them and give your views.


    This is quoted from the papers:

    ” Theoretical studies of molecular nanotechnology (MNT) have focused on tetrahedral carbon (“diamondoid”) frameworks as an ultimate goal. It seems natural to wonder, though, whether silicon, carbon’s second row homolog in the periodic table, could form a reasonable basis for MNT, especially given the importance of Si in semiconductor technology. Although Si itself is unpromising–the Si-Si bond is not nearly so stable as is C-C, and Si shows minimal tendency to form the double and delocalized bonds so typical of C–silicates, compounds of Si and O, indeed show promise for MNT, because of:

    The strong and directional character of the Si-O bond, due to its partly covalent character.
    Their ease of polymerizing into 3D structures (“tectosilicates”). Silicates enter tetrahedral coordination at STP, even out of aqueous solution, in stark contrast to sp3 carbon.
    Their thermal stability: certain tectosilicates, such as quartz and feldspars, will even crystallize directly from silicate melts at hundreds of degrees C.
    Their stability to oxidizing conditions; whatever its other virtues, C burns.
    Their sheer abundance. O and Si make up, respectively, 60.4 and 20.5 atom percent of the Earth’s crust. Nearly all common minerals are silicates.

  8. Nanoman, I certainly agree that silicates have very exciting possibilities because they offer the clearest route by which you can go from a “soft” nanotechnology to a “hard” one. As you say, we have inspiration from Nature in the form of diatoms, and there are already great examples of complex nanostructures being made by templating silicate materials on soft, self-assembled structures like surfactant mesophases (the work of Jeff Brinker at Sandia National Lab springs to mind here). But the downside, from the point of view of trying to implement a Drexler-like scheme based on mechanical engineering paradigms, is that they are not very stiff – silica is more than an order of magnitude less stiff than diamond. And since I think that floppiness on the nanoscale is going to be a problem for the mechanical engineering approach even for diamond, it will be much worse for silicates. My feeling is that silicates will be useful where you need extra stiffness and strength within a soft nanotechnology paradigm.

  9. Just wanted to thank Richard Jones for his insights. I probably don’t belong in the same conversation as it is somewhat out of my league, but I certainly enjoy reading your thoughts.

  10. This is a very interesting thread, especially as I must confess some guilt. My partner and I run an animation company. A few years back we were hired to create an animation of Robert Freitas’s Respirocyte in action for the PBS documentary “Beyond Human”. You can see it here:

    We often get requests to license that animation as well as others for various documentaries. The two subjects that seem to be the most requested are medical nanobots and grey goo.

    I would love to hear some of your ideas as to what would make a dramatic yet accurate and educational subject for a nanotechnology animation. What animation would prepare the public with realistic expectations about nanotechnology’s true potential? What sort of animation would help the public understand the principles of nanotech as well as some of it’s eventual manifestations?

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