Michael Crichton's 2002 best-selling novel, “Prey”, is ostensibly about nanotechnology gone wrong. It's about a swarm of Nano-particle having the capability to self-replicate, wreaking havoc when an experiment in the Nevada desert goes horribly wrong. The little critters evolve swiftly becoming deadly predators with each passing hour.
Much before Crichton, this possible nightmare scenario famously called “gray goo scenario” was first dreamed up by futurist Eric Drexler, in his 1986 book “Engines of Creation” where uncontrollable self-replicating tiny Nanobots run amok disintegrating and devouring anything and everything they come across on the earth.
Vasily E. Tarasov, a quantum physicist at Moscow State University, believes that quantum replicating nano-robots are possible and will eventually be a reality. Even outside of the quantum field, experts discuss replicators as a legitimate possibility.
Now, imagine a mass of nanorobots, smaller than specks of dust, programmed to travel in a cloud over Balakot, Pakistan or for that matter any country, to not only carry out a surgical strike but also stream back videos of the attack. Unlike an aircraft, nano-robots can't be shot down; being microscopic, they can't even be seen by naked eyes, yet if they are seen, bullets will pass right through it.
Today, in the 21st century, we are skyrocketing into a new age of technological power, one that offers enormous promise for the future and colossal dangers as well. The new technology is “Nanotechnology”.
Nanotechnology is a general term that describes any material or device - whether electrical, medical, or any material, that has dimensions typically between 0.1 and 100 nanometers (nm) in size, with 1 nm being equivalent to one billionth of a metre. Nano-devices can be as much as one million times smaller than a particle of dust. The dimensions become mind-boggling when one considers the fact that the size difference between the Nano-device and a particle of dust could be equivalent to the size difference between the particle of dust and the size of Qutub Minar in New Delhi.
A nanometer is also the size at which the biological world functions and materials of this size display unusual physical and chemical properties. These abysmally different properties are attributable to an increase in surface area compared to volume as particles get smaller and smaller and also due to accompanying bizarre quantum effects.
In 1959, Nobel Prize-winning physicist Professor Richard Phillips Feynman first discussed nanotechnology in a lecture titled “There's Plenty of Room at the Bottom”, in which he described the possibility of synthesis via direct manipulation of atoms. The term 'nanotechnology' was used first by the Japanese scientist Norio Taniguchi in 1974, though it was not widely known.
Nanotechnology has the potential to change the world around us completely. Already, nanoscale technologies have revolutionised medicine by allowing for the detection of bacteria in bloodstreams and potentially even cancer;by contriving new ways to deliver drugs and fight ailments; by guiding drugs to tumours and destroying tumours with nano-bullets; by growing new organs; by starving cancer cells using Nanoparticles; by diagnosing diseases and monitoring health. Doctors are also planning to deploy viruses as Nano-cameras to get a view of the goings-on inside our cells.
In the field of computing, existing computer chips are already being manufactured taking advantage of techniques at the nanoscale. Some experiments have even demonstrated that it might be feasible to construct micro-parts for computers inside bacteria. Quantum computing and quantum cryptography also bank on advances in nanotechnology. Nanotechnology in future will make it possible to create powerful microchips with mind-boggling capacity and significant reductions in size.
Furthermore, new and powerful light-emitting diodes (LEDs) are replacing conventional electric bulbs, offering substantial energy savings. LEDs are built with semiconductors, increasingly developed at the nanoscale.
As far as the environment is concerned, nanotechnology is already being used to detect and filter pathogenic bacteria in drinking water supplies as well as degrade heavy metal and chemical toxins. The catalytic converter is already being used the world over, for detoxifying engine fumes. Nanotechnology is also helping create smaller, more efficient batteries and advanced solar power cells.
New and powerful nano-materials are under development. Graphene is a powerful nano-material discovered in 2004; it guarantees to be every bit disruptive as plastics were. The “wonder material” is hundredfold stronger than steel, weighs one-sixth as much, and conducts electricity head and shoulders above copper. Bridges and aeroplanes might be made from the material one day.
For the security forces, nanotechnology is helping develop weightless equipment and weapons, bullet-proof battle-suits that can transmogrify to provide camouflage or even stiffen to provide splints for broken limbs, and nanosensors that can spot chemical or biological perils.
Sci-fi fans are even aspiring a futuristic age of nanorobots that can tamper matter on the molecular level, leading to 'nanofabrication' which could help, us create an amazing variety of products. Other nanotech concepts include 'foglets' - nanorobots that could behave like programmable matter, and could assemble themselves into any desired shape. For instance, the furniture or things at our office or residences could rearrange itself into an entirely new form.
Sometime ago, scientists working on the nanoscale have created a multitude of other nanoscale components and devices, including: Molecular pistons, supercapacitors, “biomolecular” motors, chemical motors, a nano train set, nanoscale elevators, a DNA nano walking robot, nanothermometers nanocontainers, nanodiodes, nanosensors, nano weighing scales, a nano abacus,nano-guitar, a nanoscale fountain pen, and even a nanosized soldering iron.
Like the nanoparticles in Michael Crichton's book “Prey” in the real world too there is a possibility of Nano-robots developing the ability to replicate themselves.
When they do so, they will be able to infiltrate technological systems and produce a great capacity for biological harm. Due to the inherent difficulty in tracing them, it will become challenging to understand their unpredictability. It's for these reasons, in future nanotechnology could contribute to devastating new weapons. As a consequence, these weapons would add to massive human rights violations because of the massive numbers of people it could impact and imperil. And the horrors it would be capable of inflicting. The international community needs an active dissuasive element, to stop both the governments and individual actors that seek to weaponise nanotechnology. We would also need to put in place a proper and trustworthy system for punishing crimes which attempt to weaponise nanotechnology.
Israel has already developed a future Nano-weapon in the absence of effective international deterrence. The weapon called “Dense Inert Metal Explosive” (DIME) is an explosive device that scatters microparticles of shrapnel at intense heat and speed. The microparticles of shrapnel are extremely difficult for doctors to remove from the target of the weapon because of their minuteness. Weaponised nanoparticles from DIME once they enter the bloodstream, are capable of penetrating the brain by using pathways which are not even accessible to bacteria and viruses. The nanoparticles inflict a toxic effect at the blood-brain barrier. Deployment of DIME by Israel is perhaps tantamount to violating the international weapons treaties as DIME is similar to banned chemical weapons. A weaponised nanoparticle has a potential equal to or greater than a weapon of mass destruction. But no International body has so far come forward and condemned it nor has it called for a moratorium on such weaponised Nanoparticles.
Small things come with massive risks if nanoscale machines can build materials molecule by molecule, using such billions of assemblers or nanoscale machines, one can create any object or material one can imagine. But to get to that scale, first nanoscale machines would have to be built in the labs, which in turn would develop more assemblers, growing exponentially with each generation. In the process, self-replicating nanobots could become a weapon. For example, one rogue nation or a terrorist could program self-replicating nanobots to target another group or country, thereby making nanobots a technological counterpart to biological warfare. In the 2008 film, “The Day the Earth Stood Still”, the alien robot “GORT” fragments into a swarm of self-replicating nanobots which covers our planet and rampages through all life and matter by destroying them within seconds. We may dismiss this as sci-fi, but the movie has done its duty, to reveal the stark realities and capabilities of self-replicating Nanobots.
In another scenario, let's say billions of nanobots are released to clean up an oil spill disaster in an ocean. During the process, what if due to an inadvertent
programming error the nanobots start consuming all organic matter, instead of just the hydrocarbons in the oil. The nanobots might end up devouring everything in their path,” turning the planet to dust.” We know these machines are coming. We know we will have to control them when they do. It is not too early to plan how we will treat them, what we will allow in the way of research and what we will prohibit. Historically, human beings have a poor record of addressing the hazards of new technologies as they arrive. If we humans fail to have control over them, the Nanobots might as well write the last line in human history.
Nanotechnology, of course, is a double-edged sword. It can be used to create utopia or dystopia.We need to understand that it is not technology but humans using technology who wield it to cause harm. We can use nanotechnology to produce weapons of mass destruction and destroy all life on the planet or use the same tool to turn this planet into a utopia where humankind can lead happy, fulfilling lives. For which, humanity may need spirituality alongside technology to tune into compassion....