Robots Will Kill You
Episode Three: Keeping An Eye Out For the Smaller Things In Life

Large things tend to scare people. Innovation is all fine and good as long as it isn’t 50 feet tall and engulfed in a spire of lighting - those types of things scream “he has bodies in the basement” to the general public. Most people reach the conclusion that our “humanity” will be lost if we give in to this new technology. The Large Hadron Collider brought on paranoia of the world being sucked through a black hole with little left but a void within space. Turns out the thing isn’t even working.
What people should fear is the small. Rather than commercial traffic on highways and metropolis cities, the most important form of traffic management will be managing the operation of artificial substances within the human body. Nanotechnology is what the next decade hopes to fully integrate into the world, whether the world likes it or not.

The myriad of theories being thrown around about the uses and misuses for nanobots are all far from modest. A veritable philosopher’s stone of nanotechnology has always been what most would label “magic bullets”: molecule-sized agents capable of delivering drugs to sites of disease within the human body. Basically, it’s Fantastic Voyage minus the whole shrink ray scheme, because that would be silly. Instead of shrink rays, we’ll have tiny robots designed to seek out and destroy cancer cells.

A researcher by the name of Virginia Nazarica Borza has developed what is being publicized as the first in ‘AntiCancer NanoTech‘  by combining water-based proteins found in the blood stream with radioactive elements (specifically, isotope rhenium-188). The idea is that the radioisotopes coupled to nanoparticles could deliver a high dose of radioactivity to a tumour as the element, while sparing surrounding tissues any hefty damage. The radioisotope emits high-energy electrons as it decays radioactively, so potential side-effects are at a minimum (which is the closest thing to a gold star in the world of science).

There are those that calculate that within 10 years, we’ll have nanobots that can invade the human brain and set up neural connections to replace damaged ones (i.e. rewire the brain). So the application of “magic bullets” go far beyond merely wiping out infection. Aside from the point on applications with humans, a lingering question that stands between such technology and the door of reality is “how does one mass produce such things?”.

So far, the most coherent way of building such devices seems to be by retooling things that are already small enough to invade the human body on a molecular level. Most methods involve manipulating cells or by assimilating living bacteria with an electronic circuit (or in a much more alarmist terms: Nano Cyborgs!). Chemists at the University of Nebraska who developed the first bacterial cyborg found that their device continues to survive and operate even after the death of the host. The only downside to this is that they now have to figure out what to do with it, and more importantly how to fuse it to human biological material. Most working in the field see the scenario of self replicated nanobots as a likely outcome of all the work being done now.

Engineer, and ‘father’ of nanotechnology, Eric Drexler has the goal to create “auto-assemblers” the size of cells, which would be programmed to collect raw materials from the natural world, such as atoms and molecules, and convert them into the building blocks of the desired product. This would also include, for such devices, the ability to replicate themselves. The biggest fear to develop out of this has been dubbed the “Gray-Goo problem”. Gray goo is what would happen if one of the auto-assemblers malfunctioned (because nothing is perfect) and the self-replication never stopped. The end result is what researchers,including Drexler himself, have described as a gray mass within the void of space.

But we don’t have to worry about this becoming reality for, what, 10 or maybe 20 years? I’m pretty sure something else will kill us all before that happens.

//Sam Macdonald
Black Belt

Sam MacDonald has been writing for the Cap Courier for more than three years now, and will continue to until the voices instruct him to stop.

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