As it isn’t at the forefront of consumer technology (yet). it’s something very few of us know anything about. I recently asked a friend what he thought nanotechnology was and his answer was akin to what many of us would say: “Really small tech?”.
To be fair, that’s pretty accurate. But that was allhe was able to say on the subject. I asked if he knew anything about it other than that or what it was currently or could, in the not-too-distant future be used to do, make or prevent but he came up with nothing. I asked a few more people. They all came up with pretty much the same blank expressions.
So what is nanotechnology(or nanotech, for the sake of characters), beside just “really small technology”? Well, the official definition is “the manipulation of matter on an atomic, molecular and supramolecular scale”. Now that sounds pretty sci-fi and futuristic in itself, but what are the practical applications of this today?
Well, the hopes for nanotech are primarily – at the moment – biological. It is believed by many leading scientists that nanotech can, and will, be used in the reasonably near future to prevent all sorts of illnesses by being introduced into the bloodstream in the form of microscopic “nanobots” (nanotech robots) and scan the body for early signs of life-threatening illnesses such as cancer, diabetes and so on. And then further on from that, go about stopping the early onset of such diseases themselves and almost entirely automatically. Just as a reference, nanobots are robotics on the scale of nanometers. And in case any of you aren’t 100% on what a nanometer is, 1mm = 1,000,000 nanometers. Yes, that’s right, one millionth of a millimeter. Though most nanobots being researched and developed today are between 0.1-10 micrometers (0.0001-0.01mm).
But here’s where it gets a bit more sci-fi; some scientists believe there is a genuine possibility of such nanobots being used to prevent deathitself. Now that’s just too far, I hear you say. Well that might not necessarily be true:
The reason we age, grow older and weaker, and then eventually die from old age is simply because every time our cells regenerate, they cannot ever make an exact copy of themselves. They simply make a very very close copy. Over the course of a person’s lifetime, these cells have copied copies of copies so many times that we change in our appearance and we age. You could akin it to copying an old VHS tape. In doing so, you get something that looks very much like the original, but having lost some of its quality. If you then make another copy from that copy, you lose a little more detail, and a little more quality. Doing this enough times leaves you with something that so barely resembles the original tape, it could essentially be something else altogether. The human body is very similar in this regard, in the way it copies itself as cells die and regenerate. Your DNA can make copies of dead cells, but not perfectly.
And here’s one of the ways nanotech could potentially come in; nanobots, entered into the bloodstream and performing two functions. The first of which is scanning the body for early signs of fatal illnesses or diseases, reporting to a computer of such warnings or even just resolving them there and then; repairing damaged tissue, destroying tissue damaged beyond repair and so on. But, according to Ray Kurzweil, computer scientist, engineer and winner of the US National Medal of Technology, as nanotechnology advances, it will slowly begin to fuse with biotechnology and become sogood at scouting out early signs of bodily ailments, it will begin to detect and prevent any form of molecular damage caused through cell-reproduction, essentially curingageing.
This may all seem far-fetched but you’d be amazed at just how much that isn’t the case. Around the world, billions are being spent of nanotech research. The US alone has spent nearly $4bn through its National Nanotechnology Initiative. Europe has spent over $1.2bn, Japan almost $1bn and many more. It isn’t something that’s “a nice idea but not practical” or “a bit too futuristic for now”. It is current and it is progressing as fast as any other field of science or technology. The main reason we don’t hear so much about it in mainstream media is simply because its practical uses aren’t quite here yet.
Ray Kurzweil predicts that anyone alive in 2050 will be in with a very strong chance of living anything up to ten times longer than current averages.
That, of course, brings with it a whole host of questions and issues. Are we not, as a species, already pushing the boundaries of what this planet can cope with in terms of numbers? Would there be enough room, money or desire for people to live that much longer? Would extended life be something reserved purely for the super rich and powerful while the working classes and third world are left to die at 80?
These are questions I truly believe will need to be asked and answered before this century is out, either by us or our children. But in the meantime, just for the purpose of debate, would you take a pill full of nanobots today that promised to guarantee you lived for the next 1,000 years?