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Nanomachines Nanotechnology's big promise in a small package by Brent Silby

Nanomachines Nanotechnology's big promise in a small package by Brent Silby

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Published by Brent Silby
Assessment of nanotechnology
Assessment of nanotechnology

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Published by: Brent Silby on May 19, 2008
Copyright:Attribution Non-commercial


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Nanotechnology's Big Promise in a Small Package
By BRENT SILBYDepartment of PhilosophyUniversity of Canterburywww.def-logic.com/articles
Nanomachines are devices built from individual atoms. Some researchersbelieve that nanomachines will one day be able to enter living cells tofight disease. They also hope to one day build nanomachines that will beable to rearrange atoms in order to construct new objects. If theysucceed, nanomachines could be used to literally turn dirt into food andperhaps eliminate poverty.In this article I will outline some of the possible uses of nanomachines. Iwill then assess some of the problems involved in producing suchmachines. One of the problems I will look at is that of producingself-replicating machines. Will these machines be controllable? Or willtheir reproduction escalate exponentially, thus putting our whole planet indanger.My conclusion will be that nanomachines offer humanity hope for thefuture, so the research should be pursued. However, I will also suggestthat the dangers involved in producing self-replicating machines out weighthe potential gains and for this reason, self-replicating machines shouldnot be built.
What are Nanomachines?
As the terminology implies, nanomachines are extremely small devices.Their size is measured in nanometers (a nanometer is about 1 billionth of a meter) and they are built from individual atoms. During the 1980's and1990's, futurist and visionary K. Eric Drexler popularized the potential of nanomachines. For Drexler, the ultimate goal of nanomachine technologyis the production of the 'assembler'. The assembler is a nanomachinedesigned to manipulate matter at the atomic level. It will be built withextremely small 'pincers' (as small as a chain of atoms) which will be usedto move atoms from existing molecules into new structures. The idea is
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that the assembler will be able to rearrange atoms from raw material inorder to produce useful items. In theory, one could shovel dirt into a vatand wait patiently for a team of nanomachine assemblers to convert thedirt into an apple, a chair, or even a computer. The machines in the vatwould have a molecular schematic of the object to be built encoded intheir 'memory'. They would then systematically rearrange the atomscontained in the dirt to produce the desired item.
This is a representation of a nanomachine. The colored balls represent theindividual atoms that comprise the machine. (Picture from Twibell (2000),see references.)
Another goal of nanotechnology is to design nanomachines that can makecopies of themselves. The thought is that if a machine can rearrangeatoms in order to build new materials, it should also be able to buildcopies of itself. If this goal is achieved, products produced bynanomachines will be extremely inexpensive. This is because thetechnology (once perfected) will be self-replicating and will not requirespecific materials, which might be rare and therefore cost money. ArthurC. Clarke has predicted that nanotechnology will herald an end toconventional monetary systems.If scientists manage to build nanomachines that can rearrange atoms, aworld of exciting possibilities will open up. Purpose designednanomachines could be used to provide breakthrough treatments formany diseases. Medical nanomachines programmed to recognize anddisassemble cancerous cells could be injected into the bloodstream of cancer suffers, thus providing a quick and effective treatment for all typesof cancer. Nanomachines could be used to repair damaged tissue andbones. They could even be used to strengthen bones and muscle tissue bybuilding molecular support structures by reassembling nearby tissue. Withthe ability to manipulate human cells at the atomic level, medical sciencewill rapidly devise treatments for most human illnesses. And sincenanomachines will be designed to make copies of themselves, thesetreatments will be inexpensive and available to the entire population.
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Food shortages and starvation will be a thing of the past if nanotechnologyis perfected. Nanomachines will be able to turn any material into food,and this food could be used to feed millions of people world wide. Again,since the technology is self replicating, food produced by nanomachineswill be low cost and available to all.As well as food, nanomachines will be able to build other items to satisfythe demands of our growing population of consumers. Clothing, houses,cars, televisions, and computers will be readily available at virtually nocost. Furthermore, there will be no concern about the garbage producedby the new consumerist society because nanomachines will convert it allback into new consumable goods.Environmental problems such as ozone depletion and global warmingcould be solved with nanotechnology. Swarms of nanomachines could bereleased into the upper atmosphere. Once there, they could systematicallydestroy the ozone depleting chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) and build newozone molecules out of water (H2O) and carbon dioxide (CO2). Ozone(O3) is built out of 3 oxygen atoms, and since water and carbondioxideboth contain oxygen, the atmosphere contains a plentiful supply of oxygenatoms. While the ozone construction teams are at work in the upperatmosphere, teams of specialized nanomachines could be employed todestroy the excess CO2 in the lower atmosphere. CO2 is a heat trappinggas, which has been identified as one of the major contributors to globalwarming. Removing excess CO2 could help halt global warming and bringthe planet's ecosystem back into balance. This will benefit all species onEarth.The perfection of nanotechnology and the production of nanomachinescould herald a new age for humanity. Starvation, illness, andenvironmental problems could quickly come to an end. But how realisticare the goals of nanotechnology? Will it ever be possible to producemachines the size of atoms? And if so, how feasible is it to buildnanomachines that can build objects from the atom up? Is it possible fornanomachines to build copies of themselves? Before we get carried awaywith the promises of nanotechnology, we should take a look at some of the problems that are yet to be solved.
Challenges to overcome
An important challenge to overcome is one of engineering. How can wephysically build machines out of atoms? Rearranging atoms into newshapes is essentially building new molecules (nanomachines aresometimes called 'molecular machines') and this is no easy task. Usingcontemporary technology to rearrange atoms has been said to be
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