Nanobots are not new. The technology was, in fact, introduced as far back as 1959. Physicist Richard Feyman first mentioned nanobots in his famous talk, “There’s Plenty of Room at the Bottom,” concerning curing heart diseases. Since then, the term has appeared in various publications and featured in movies. But what are nanobots, exactly? Read on to find out.
What Are Nanobots?
Nanobots are molecules with unique properties that allow them to be programmed to carry out specific tasks. These tasks include but are not limited to:
- Convert heat into kinetic energy: This was seen in the single-atom engine that physicists from the University of Mainz in Germany created in 2014. The machine works like a regular car engine, which transforms the heat energy from fuel to make the vehicle run.
- Run repetitive tasks: Mechanical engineers from Ohio State University showed this nanobot capability when they created a three-dimensional (3D)-motion nanomachine from deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) in 2015. DNA, of course, refers to the genetic materials in any living organism. The researchers hope that one day, their creation can work like “DNA origami,” which can change shape, depending on the task they’re assigned to do.
- Deliver medicine through biological fluids: Dubbed “nanoswimmers,” these magnetically controlled nanobots can be made to deliver drugs through a patient’s bloodstream. These are especially useful for cancer treatment, which need to be applied only to cancer-ridden cells.
Where Are We in the Nanobot Space?
After decades of research, we now have evidence of the marriage of artificial intelligence (AI) and biology—a nanobot tagged “the first living robot.” In early 2020, a team of roboticists and scientists revealed how they created xenobots from stem cells or cells that are uniquely able to develop into specialized cell types in the body.
Xenobots, according to one of their makers, are living, programmable organisms. These are less than 1-millimeter long and made up of 500–1,000 living cells each. Their shapes vary. They can move in linear or circular directions, join together to act as one, and move small objects. And by just using their cellular energy, they can live up to 10 days. They can also repair themselves if they get damaged.
But while this new breed of nanobots can spell huge healthcare benefits, their use is surrounded by legal and ethical concerns. Some of these have to do with questions like:
- Who gets to use them?
- Can proponents ensure that the nanobots will not be used for illegal activities such as warfare (i.e., as biological weapons)?
What Can We Expect from Nanobots in the Future?
At present, Zymergen, Synthace Limited, Ginkgo Bioworks, Imina Technologies S.A., Kleindiek Nanotechnik GmbH, and Thermo Fisher Scientific Inc., among others, are considered the key players in the global nanobots or nanorobots market.
The market, according to a global study, is expected to reach US$8,685.7 million by 2025. That could mean either increased investments from the current market players or the entry of new manufacturers. What is common among the vendors, though, is their goal, that is, to create nanorobots that can carry out complicated tasks to overcome human error.
To date, manufacturers are focusing on producing nanobots specifically for the healthcare industry. These robots are being designed to perform cellular repair or patient diagnosis, monitoring, and treatment.
Apart from the potential legal and ethical ramifications, nanobot developers are also likely to face other hurdles, such as huge costs. In 2017, purchasing Lunatix, a nanobot designed to jump on the moon, through an auction, was reported to cost US$17.1 million.
Regardless of how fast nanobots are introduced, manufacturers must first reveal how transparent their decision-making processes are; how sensitive and responsive current policies are to all stakeholders; and how they plan to address whatever ethical, legal, and social issues might arise. Only when all these challenges are met can we genuinely see nanobots in our midst.