Could there soon be spy devices too small to easily detect? Imagine microscopic (or nanoscopic?) “bugs” that could be planted on a person through their food, inhaled, or sprayed on their clothes, and which would travel in their blood stream or hide in their hair or pores, transmitting audio or vital signs to nearby data collectors, themselves microscopic, which could forward the information farther along wirelessly. An intelligence agency could achieve greatly expanded capacity to observe and intervene, all without anyone being able to detect the devices with the human eye. Nanotechnology could certainly make the professional spy’s job easier.
Nanotechnology radio receivers already exist. Granted, the receivers are extremely simple and capable of demodulating only AM signals (link), but it is only a matter of time before such capabilities are extended by increasingly sophisticated designs to permit more complex signals to be demodulated. The development of meaningful processing power required to process signals may occur at a somewhat larger but still microscopic scale.
Nanotechnology radio transmitters will be developed eventually. Can a nanotechnology device vibrate at radio frequencies high enough to contain useful information, be modulated with that information, and produce enough RF power to be detected at any useful range? Such functionality may require larger and more sophisticated “microbots” to serve as network nodes, or at least repeaters, to forward (or store, process, and forward) nanobot signals to systems that can interface with humans. Larger microbots, as opposed to nanobots, might also be required to effectively detect sound, for example.
Nano-scale power sources are coming soon. The biggest problem with transmitters is simply power. Though a variety of power sources applicable to nanobots have been suggested, it is difficult to package any of them in a small enough unit for nanobot application. Biologically-based nanobots (similar to cellular organisms) have the potential to run on blood sugars or similar sources, but mechanical nanobots would need a battery or other source of electricity. Fortunately an MIT team is deep into the development of nano-scale batteries that are partly self-assembling and partly assembled by genetically-modified viruses (link). It is also possible that the right input chemistry for an electricity-producing reaction might be found in the human body or another living organism that could survive in or on the human body.
Capability for remote controlled actions by nanobots is also an eventuality. Intervention would require not only the ability to receive and obey commands, but far greater numbers of nanoscale devices. Using nanotechnology, however, those commands could be carried out at the molecular level by perhaps millions of nanobots all following the same wireless commands.
The possibilities are intriguing. Imagine, instead of the prick of a needle in the end of an umbrella or the nasty substance placed in food, a mist or cloud of dust that is inhaled, or some mud that gets splashed on one’s ankle, that actually contains a horde of tiny nanobots and/or microbots capable of reporting a great many details about the person on or in whom they collect, and ultimately doing them harm. Nothing might happen to the person except that their condition and possibly what they heard would be known to the monitoring agents, though they could have the capability to “take out” their target at will.
James Bond might not find nanotechnology particularly useful. Unfortunately for the movie industry, invisible things, while suspenseful, are nowhere near as exciting as car chases, fistfights, and gun battles. But then, the reality of the spy business has never been as glamorous or as exciting as the movies portray. Nanotechnology certainly, however, suggests new and frightening capabilities for the surveillance and intelligence business.
Rupturing the Nanotech Rapture, June 2008, Richard A. L. Jones, IEEE spectrum