June 24, 2006

The Future of Nanotechnology - investment grows but nature has beaten the scientists with the world's first nanobots

I am often asked about nanotechnology: load of hype? Industrial miracle? Future threat to human health? The US government has been investing more than $1 billion per year and the EU, Japan, China and other countries are investing over $6 billion per year.

Nanotechnology is the understanding and control of matter at dimensions of roughly 1 to 100 nanometres. At this level of engineering we are beginning to see spectacular advances, particularly in surface coatings, but also in processes which could give a further massive step forward in making things smaller eg computer memory chips.

We can expect to see all kinds of domestic applications – for example fabrics which are better at repelling stains or can be cleaned in jets of compressed air, or new kinds of non-stick, easy to clean surfaces. We will see advances in lubricants and so on.

But when it comes to manufacturing tiny nanotech machines, the talk is far further ahead than the reality. We are not going to see nanobots made by humans anytime soon – except of course by imitating the powerful nanobots which nature makes.

As a physician as well as a futurist I am particularly interested in this – especially through my work with AIDS and the charity ACET – http://www.acet-international.org.

Viruses are essentially nanotech machines which are capable of being carried around around the body, so that they are then able to identify individual cells by their surface characteristics. Once the identification test is passed, the virus legs become firmly attached, and then bend, allowing a needle-like device to puncture the cell surface, injecting the core material of genetic code.

This is then activated automatically inside the cell, taking over command of the cell brain, and turning the cell into a factory of hundreds of millions more identical virus nanobots…