The promise of nanobots makes for one of the most exciting visions of the future – a world which is almost like something from a fantasy novel, where we can control matter and energy in a way that seems like magic. Nanobots are essentially robots on the nanoscale. These (still hypothetical) little robots are one of the key pillars in many projections of future economies, space exploration, and personal augmentation. It’s all very exciting, but nanobots also hold some serious potential dangers.
If nanobots do become a real technology, we’ll have to think hard about whether the benefits do outweigh the risks. What exactly are those risks, though? In this article I’m going to go over what I think are the most important risks that this technology could bring; the things we’ll have to work out if nanotechnology is ever going to be a part of our existence.
Self-Replication and Grey Goo
The most commonly-cited danger of nanobots is their purported ability to self-replicate. Nanobots aren’t all that useful if you have to manufacture them yourself. If you can make a few and then have them reproduce to make copies of themselves, that’s a far more efficient way of getting enough of them for useful work. You may also remember that we ourselves are composed of microscopic natural machines known as cells. We’re multi-cellular organisms, in other words. We all started off as just one fused cell, which then kept dividing until we were ready to be born. That’s an oversimplification, but it’s basically what happens.
As a grown up, your cells continue to divide throughout your entire life, to replace worn out cells and heal damage to your body. Your cells do this according to the instructions contained in your DNA, so that it only replicates as much and as often as needed. But sometimes that division goes wrong and becomes uncontrolled. This is what we call cancer, and it’s still one of the most destructive and terrifying diseases known to science.
Now imagine if your nanobots started replicating uncontrollably. Except, they don’t use up the surrounding sugar, carbs, and proteins. No, instead they’ll use ANYTHING. Buildings, people, animals, cars, and eventually the entire Earth. The only thing stopping them would be the boundary of space itself. Everything will become a grey goo of mutant nanobots.
How will we avoid this? No one really knows yet. We may just avoid making self-replicating nanobots as a whole. This will keep them expensive and they will only be applied in very special circumstances. This is not an attractive option, but unless we can figure out a foolproof kill-switch, it may be the only safe way to use this technology.
There’s no technology, no matter how benign, that we humans can’t find a way to turn into a weapon of war.
Weaponized nanobots could make current bioweapons look like a mild case of flu in comparison. Imagine a weapon that will only kill a specific person or a specific group of people. What if it doesn’t kill them, but rewrites their memories so that they turn against their own side?
It’s not just anti-enemy applications – nanobots are almost certain to be used in order to augment soldiers and military hardware such as large robots, who could then do things like self-repair. The list of potential military applications is far longer than this entire article could possibly handle, and if one nation starts the race others will have no choice but to compete.
The End of Privacy
The internet and the ever greater presence of network-connected devices has already caused serious changes to the nature of privacy in the modern world. The right to privacy has never been a more hotly-contended topic, and when nanobots arrive it may signal the final nail in the coffin of our current ideas about privacy. After all, your nanobot can assemble and disassemble surveillance devices almost anywhere. Certainly normal citizens would have no way of defending themselves against it even if they wanted to.
Whenever you introduce a radical new way of making stuff, it’s not going to be a bloodless process. Lots of people lose their jobs and then the whole market is overturned because the new stuff is cheaper and more plentiful. This is what happened in the industrial revolution, and it’s happening again right now with the true automation of our industries across the world, thanks to regular-sized robots.
Now imagine the economic effect when you can take lumps of raw material and watch it simply turn itself into a finished product; most likely much better quality stuff than we can make now and so cheap it might as well be free. Certainly we’ll adapt to this new economic situation, but in the meantime there’s sure to be a lot of pain too.
Nanobots may have the dubious honor of introducing an entirely new form of pollution to our world. In a human body, dead or malfunctioning cells are destroyed and recycled. How will we deal with that problem in the future? If we don’t adequately solve this issue there’s a good chance that the world will be littered with broken nanobots and potentially deadly nanoparticles. In fact, the nanoparticles problem may already be here since we already use them, and, ironically, specialized nanobots could be the answer.
By its nature you don’t need a huge lab or facilities to work with nanobots. After all, you only have to create a few of them to start the process and then they’ll build themselves. We’re seeing something a little similar to this today. I’ve written another article on home genetic engineering that has some present day people worried about potential abuse.
We also have a thriving hacker culture where people will buy safe consumer products and then modify them. In general, this democratization of scientific research is a good thing, but it could be worrying if someone took commercial nanobots and modified them in ways that could be a problem.
The Nanobot Quandary
In general, a technology’s potential to do good is matched with the potential for things to go very wrong. Atomic energy is a good example of this. Atomic energy holds a lot of promise, but you can build bombs or simply build unsafe power stations.
Atomic disasters are nothing compared to the potential existential risk that nanobots will pose, but the potential gains will be hard to pass up.