Nanobot’s Sci-Fi Potential and The Gray Goo Scenario

By: Gittan Alicia | Contributing AOJ Journalist

Nanobots are an exemplary example of sci-fi becoming a reality. We’ve all seen the movies where tiny robots, so small we can’t even see them, either help in some way or cause massive destruction. A prime example of this in a movie would be the movie Stargate Atlantis, where the main characters run into a world entirely made of nanobots, and in such world, the nanobots seek to kill the main characters. That is not exactly what today’s molecular engineers are aiming for in their development of nanotechnology, but it certainly is an inspiration and a driving factor for peoples fear of the development of the technology

              Despite the often-nightmarish depiction of nanobots brought about in the sci-fi world, molecular engineers and bioengineers foresee several positive aspects in nanorobotics. In Eric Drexler’s book, Engines of Creation, Drexler outlines possible implications of nanobots in medicine, economy, and the environment. Others involved in the field of nanotechnology foresee nanobots in use for cancer treatment, drug delivery mechanisms, medical imaging, new sensing devices, and several other applications. Perhaps the most exciting and feared potential application of nanobots out of them all is the use of nanobots as replicators. In which case, nanobots would be used “to guide chemical reactions by positioning reactive molecules with atomic precision” according to an article from singularity hub by Peter H. Diamandis. This idea of replication through nanobots is a common them in sic-fi and has driven fear over the development of nanotechnology. Most famously, sci-fi has depicted the world’s end through a scenario known as the gray goo scenario.

              The grey goo, or gray goo, scenario was coined by Eric Drexler in his book Engines of Creation. The scenario, as described by Drexler, entails self-replicating nanobots that spin out of control, destroying the Earth’s biosphere by consuming all the materials necessary for life to replicate themselves. All that would be left after such destruction is conceptualized by Drexler as gray goo, hence the name the gray goo scenario. While this scenario at first glance seems quite impossible and purely sci-fi, Drexler brings the possibility of such in reality to light by describing recent advances in nanotechnology that could make replication by nanobots a reality.

              A subfield of nanotechnology known as molecular electronics could allow for the manipulation of matter at the molecular and atomic level by changing individual molecules into circuit elements. This along with advances in physical sciences and genetics would have the potential to make replication through nanobots a reality with endless possibilities for application in the real world. However, with such possibility comes risk and fear, which is where the gray goo scenario comes into play. It’s because of this that several individuals involved in nanorobotics have proposed how situations like the gray goo would be avoided.

              In hopes of controlling the potential future self-replicating nanobots, several suggestions for control have been put forward. Such ideas include limits on nanobot’s replicative capacity; operational energy and chemical requirements; use of rare elements not found or exceedingly insignificant in a human’s bloodstream; vigilant monitoring for destructive behavior of self-replication; and several others. All of these proposed controls may be effective against a potential gray goo scenario should nanobots ever be developed, but, as with all technology, there will surely be other unforeseen issues with the technology. However, the outcome of such issues likely won’t be near as detrimental as sci-fi has made others like the gray goo out to be. In fact, the positive aspects and potential use for nanobots may just outweigh the faults that arise, and several other fields of use for nanobots outside of replication are often overlooked due to over-focus on the common replicator theme of nanobots in sci-fi.

              Remaining in the field of replication for the use of nanobots, nanobots could be exceedingly beneficial in manufacturing. With nanobots, the cost of most manufactured products, especially complex products like computer chips, could be reduced toward the bottom limit, close to the cost of the raw materials for the product. Not only that, but nanobots could replicate themselves and create other nanofactories as needed, producing even more nanofactory products at a much lower price, with greater precision, and greater efficiency than our current factories. Industrial waste would also be greatly reduced, if not eliminated, due to the atomic precision of nanobots. The nanobots would be able to organize all atoms either into a product or into properly packaged waste, and thus prevent pollution from being released into the environment. That’s just a few advantages of nanobots in manufacturing and replication.

              There’s also great potential for the use of nanobots in medicine. With atomic precision, medical nanorobots could be released into the human body to cure specific diseases through surgery, repair injuries, protect the body against injuries, reverse the effects of aging, and several other possibilities. However, nanobots could also have negative effects on people should they be used as biomedical weapons. Just as nanorobots could have the potential to heal, there would be nothing preventing them from having the potential to harm or kill should they fall into the hands of the wrong people or the military.

               A very unique and potentially very beneficial impact of nanorobotics could be the use of nanobots for energy. Nanotechnology has the potential to save energy through weight reduction of vehicles and optimized function of several energy-consuming products. For instance, nanotechnologically optimized materials like plastics or metals with carbon nanotubes could optimize cars and planes to be lighter and just as strong, thus reducing fuel consumption. An example where nanobots could be used and are working on being used is to optimize products and save energy, would be with lighting materials for light bulbs.  Nanobots could add nanoscale layers of plastic and organic pigments which could change the conversion from energy to light in a light bulb from 5% to up to 50%, thus saving energy.

              Most of our storage today actually includes nanotechnology, which most are unaware of because we can’t see it. Nanotechnology is used in several common technologies for storing data today and plays a key role in their function. For instance, flash storage media utilizes quantum mechanics and nanotechnology to save and delete data. In the future, nanotechnology may be used to condense storage space even further, as more and more storage is becoming necessary for companies generating massive amounts of data. In fact, physicist Dr. Sander Otte has already experimented with the possibility of data storage through the use of the atom through an experiment involving chlorine atoms. In such experiment, he created a two-dimensional array by having chlorine atoms arrange themselves on a flat copper surface. Other techniques for storing data in more condensed techniques have also been developed experimentally, like the use of nanomagnets. However, Dr. Sander Otte’s technique and other data storage experiments have come with flaws that would make them impractical or even impossible to use.

              It’s hard to tell where nanotechnology will take us in the future, or if our sci-fi based fears of nanobots are anywhere close to what the reality of nanobots may be. For all we know, nanobots may never actually be developed if something else is discovered that would be more efficient and effective than the wonder of the nanobot that we’ve all become so awed by in television. Not only that, but nanobot technology is far from becoming a reality, currently the only applicable breakthroughs in nanotech have been minor, and we don’t possess the technology to develop nanobots with the same features we see in sci-fi. We’ll just have to see where the exponential curve of technology takes us in the coming years to really find out.

Diamandis, P. H. (2016, May 16). Nanorobots: Where We Are Today and Why Their Future Has Amazing Potential. Retrieved from https://singularityhub.com/2016/05/16/nanorobots-where-we-are-today-and-why-their-future-has-amazing-potential/

Gregersen, E., & Francis, S. (2016, August 1). Grey goo. Retrieved August 6, 2019, from https://www.britannica.com/technology/grey-goo

Nanofactories. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://foresight.org/nano/nanofactories.html

Berger, M. (2015, July 23). Nanotechnology and energy – a path to a sustainable future. Retrieved from https://www.nanowerk.com/spotlight/spotid=40843.php

Nuncic, M. (2018, November 1). How nanotechnology could change data storage in the future. Retrieved from https://www.ontrack.com/blog/2018/11/01/how-nanotechnology-changes-data-storage-in-the-future/

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