Nanotechnology War, and Just How Big Are Nanobots Anyway?

speculative nanobot

Many ideas come forward in discussions of possible nanotechnology wars. It is interesting and scary to contemplate a war using electromechanical nano-weapons. (My assumption is that we will have electromechanical nanotechnology in place before we develop biological nanotechnology, though that will win out eventually.) Would an aircraft dump a bucket of nanobots over a country like dust? Would the air currents waft them all over the world? Or would they be brought in with a shipment of goods? Since the technology exists to provide nanobots with radio receivers, could they be commanded as to when, what, where, and how to attack? Since radio suggests the possibility that nanobots would have GPS-like capability, would everything within a particular set of borders suddenly begin to rot from a concentrated nanobot attack, while nothing on the other side of the border would be touched? Would nanobots home in on particular cells in the body and cause the heart to stop, or deadly toxins to be produced by previously benevolent cells? Would independent nanobot factories the size of a human hair be deployed to continuously manufacture nanobot armies and reinforcements, like extremely sped-up hives of bees? And how would you defend against nanobot attack?

Nanobots (the electromechanical type) might be destroyed by electromagnetic pulse. I’ve considered that putting a 9 volt battery across one’s tongue, as we did as children (blechh – unpleasant, and tasted very metallic) might kill a few million nanobots, at least on the tongue. A taser might be sufficient to kill all the little machines in one’s body, though the treatment would be pretty painful. Small radio transmitters distributed across the landscape might jam nanobot control frequencies, or track their spread-spectrum transmissions and selectively jam them.

Since nanobots, by nature, would be programmable, computer virus technology might be used to reprogram them, and, instead of everyone in a city suddenly dying, perhaps the flowers would look much better that season. Of course, nanobots might go after each other, too, and an invisible war might take place with nobody except the perpetrators aware of it. Microbots, much larger than nanobots, might roam invisibly tiny landscapes vacuuming up the nanobots and electrocuting or digesting them. Larger microbots, still invisible to the human eye, might spray molecules that act like superglue, fixing all the nanobots for millimeters around them in place until they ran out of energy.

The scale of all this is hard to imagine, but was brought home to me by reading that there are a half million white blood cells in a single drop of blood. A visual comparison of various sized natural objects is here, and keep in mind that nanobots are expected to be under 100 nanometers in size, or about 50 times the size of a common cold virus. In other words, you could line 20,000 of them side by side in a line across the head of a pin (about 2mm).  Another page that can give perspective on how large a 20 nm device would be is here.

I also found that a computer memory circuit was announced in January of 2007 (link) that would hold the Declaration of Independence (<160kb) in a space smaller than a white blood cell, with each bit requiring 15 nanometers. This suggests that, in the near term, nanobots will not have much computing power, but microbots a thousand times larger might be quite capable of sophisticated computation and communicating with them by radio. As computer technology advances and architectures continue to shrink, a process which has been occurring at a steady and very rapid rate for decades, nanobots with sophisticated capabilities could be possible within the next decade or two.

I will continue to write about nanobots from time to time, as I believe they represent a very significant change in our technology that has already (but just barely) begun, and which can be expected to continue indefinitely. Exercise your brains, folks … the future belongs to those who think, plan, and act ahead.

As always, I welcome your comments.

Dec. 5, 2009 – Here is another example of how big nanotechnology objects are – a video of a tiny snowman created at the University of Illinois for an amusing holiday greeting, related article here.


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