The invisible robots that could save your life – or kill you


Imagine, if you will, a robot so small it’s invisible to the naked eye. Now, imagine an army of such robots programmed to perform a singular task. Finally, imagine them being injected into your body to explore causes of medical conditions or cure them.


You can stop imagining them. They already exist.


Leveraging sixty years of silicon technology development, Marc Miskin, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, has loaded a silicon chip with thousands of robots the size of a speck of dust. He has added nano-sized platinum filaments to them. The filaments react to an electric charge but curling up. Or, to put it clearly, they act like legs and move the robots according to how they’re programmed.


Writing in the journal Nature, Miskin describes how he and his team have placed over a million such robots on a four-inch chip. He describes his results as “an important advance towards mass-manufactured, silicon-based, functional robots that are too small to be resolved by the naked eye.” He envisions purposes for them like marching through electronic circuits to clean or repair faulty computer chips.


So far, so good.


Taking the theory to the next level, scientists at Stanford University have coated nanobots with medication and set them loose in the arteries of mice. They are reported to have helped reduce plaque and, by extension, reduced the risk of arteriosclerosis, a major cause of heart failure. The technology has the potential to fight cancer as well.


Another team of scientists worries more broadly that everything we manufacture, including microscopic robots, is constituted of materials that ultimately decay and are harmful to the environment and our health. Seeking to integrate lifeforms into nanotechnology, they have created “xenobots.” Writing in the research journal of the National Academy of Science, they have promoted them as an “approach to design a variety of living machines to safely deliver drugs inside the human body, help with environmental remediation, or further broaden our understanding of the diverse forms and functions life may adopt.” The xenobots would be controlled by artificial intelligence programmed to perform a specific mission.


They are called xenobots because the origin of the bio-compatible material is from a frog (Xenopus Laevis). This should remind us of the pseudo-science (also based on frog DNA) described in Michael Crichton’s best-selling novel Jurassic Park -- a book and movie that educated us about the Law of Unintended Consequences.


Imagine the unintended consequences of a well-intentioned programmer who fails to place limits on the mission assigned to these tiny nanobots. I have imagined such a future in my book The Awakening of Artemis. Nanobots programmed to find sources of carbon and convert them to artificial diamonds figure out that human beings are great sources of carbon and turn their unintended victims into gray goo.


Seem far-fetched? Maybe. Or maybe not.


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The Awakening of Artemis will be released to the public on August 26, 2021. To follow events on the trail to publication including the cover reveal and book giveaways, follow my website at www.johncalia.com.

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