I’ve been thinking a lot about the future lately. A couple days ago I started fantisizing about what nanotechnology could mean to the medical field, and ultimately to the lives of humans. I’m sure the majority of this stuff is assembled from dozens of tidbits I’ve read over the years on the topic, but I’ll indulge anyway.
The main idea for nanotechnology and medicine is a microscopic “robot” that can carry instructions given to it by its controller. In this case it would be the doctor/technician doing the treatment. The concept is that rather than being primitive and pumping a body full of general drugs that also target something undesirable in the body (while simultaneously tearing up countless other bits), a nanobot would see things at the celular level.
This perspective, combined with superior instructions and the ability to manipulate its environment, would allow such an entity to simply remove, deconstruct, and essentially assassinate known pathogens.
Imagine for a second that there is a bomb in a 50 story office building, and the bomb is capable of blowing up like half of the city. Well, current medicine, for the most part, releases a “death ooze” into the entire city that connects to everything. The upside is that when this ooze binds to bombs it’s able to disable them to a large degree, after which time if the bomb goes off it only takes out a room or two rather than the whole building.
The bad news is that the death ooze released to defuse the bomb also binds to other things. Cars, children, and everything else. Unfortunately, most of these things don’t react to well to the ooze. Some get violently ill; some die. Even when it’s not this extreme, it kills all the plants in the city, and it makes the whole place stink for 6 months.
The biggest problem with this technique is that little is actually known about the ooze. Essentially, somone figured out one day that the ooze works against bombs. And since it doesn’t seem to kill people immediately, it can probably be sold for large sums of money to those with a bomb problem.
The ooze I speak of is the pharmaceutical industry’s response to everything — drugs. It’s the crap that get pushed into one’s body in hope of the result being slightly better than the side effects.
A Better Way
Nanotechnology offers an alternative. Instead of releasing a myriad of mostly unknown toxins into the body in hopes of killing something worse than the toxins, why not just go and find the problem?
This is what nanotechnolgy promises — the ability to identify and counter any known pathogen.
Seek and Destroy
So imagine something like HIV. What if we could inject someone with an army of nanobots designed to do nothing but destroy HIV? They would course through the like a driver moving through traffic. So, using the car analogy, let us say that the nanobot knows that any car with 4 antennas on its roof is an HIV virus, and that it’s ability to harm other cells is due to its having a wench on the front bumper.
Well, at that point it simply finds all cars/virii with 4 antennae on them, and then it violently strips them of their wenches. Voila! Now the virus can do no damage. This happens on a mass scale through the whole body, until a certain predefined point is reached. Then the master-bot reports back to the doctor that x number of virii have been killed, and that the infection is under control.
So that’s how the basics work — you can go in and manipulate things on the sub-cellular level. This presents some very interesting possibilities in terms of fixing existing problems. Let’s say that in 10 years we know what causes aging, or what causes cancer. And using the car analogy, it turns out it’s cars that have a certain kind of tint on the windows in addition to having too little air in the front right tire.
Well at that point we could send in a special team of bots to start fixing cars. Take the tint off the windows. Put some air in those tires. Or, if there’s a problem, just destroy any car that you see with those issues.
I can see someone going into the doctors office in the future and watching with the physician as the number of cancer cells in their body is reduced from 2 million to 2,000 in a matter of hours. They watch this happen on a screen — a screen showing vitals and receiving reports from the controller-bot within the patients body.
That’s all cool and everything, but the most exciting thing for me (maybe because I’m in information security) is the notion of maintaining an active defense using these nanobots.
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We’ve all heard of antivirus, right? Like on a computer? Well, imagine this. When you are born you get your “nimunization” (nano-immunization). It’s a set of bots that monitor for what we receive vaccines for now. Polio, Anthrax, Mumps, whatever. They sit in the infants body and wait for their enemies to show up. When they do, they attack with impunity.
I envision a doctor having alerts coming to his personal computing device on his hip — reports on all his patients as updated via the bot controllers. So when an outbreak of measles happens in his area, and like 400 of his kids suddenly get faced with the virus, the bots within his patients will attack the intruder and then report (via their own personal computers that interface with the bots via short-range wireless) to their doctor the status of their body.
So the doctor’s sitting there eating lunch and his device alerts him that this morning 46 of his kids were exposed to measles (which their bots then killed). So at that point he knows there’s an outbreak. The interesting part comes when the bots’ analysis engine also reports that the virus was not as easily killed as before, and that based on current projections the next variation will be resistant to the bots’ attack. 🙂
Misuse, Terrorism, and Warfare
The most frightening implications of this technology are that it would be utterly trivial, if in control of this technology, to harm and/or kill people in a very granular fashion. It’s not so much the speed of killing — many poisons can do that already — it’s the fact that one could decide who to kill, and could program the killing-bots to make the decision on very specific attributes.
Someone could, for example, decide to kill everyone with blue eyes, or with black hair. Or perhaps everyone with a gene that’s linked to a disease or disability later in life (if the creator was trying to grow a “healthy and strong” future. Or in the case of war, how about designing bots to kill a specific race (and then giving the counter/antivenom to those of that race loyal them). This would probably be very hard to do given the splash damage, but it’s only psychopaths that’d be considering it in the first place.
So anyway, here are a few random thoughts along these same lines. I’d love to hear more if you have them, and/or other tangents in the same vein:
Heuristic BotsDue to the quickly-mutating nature of the threats of the day, bots are then coded with a separate mechanism for identifying attackers that they are not specifically coded for and then “learning” to defend against them without being specifically programmed to do so.
Realtime UpdatesImagine new organisms being uploaded instantly to a massive, centralized computer that determines whether or not it’s hostile or benign, and then writes new counter-attack strategies if it turns out to be hostile.
The Class GapWhat if the cost was prohibitive for all but the wealthy? What if simple illness became a non-issue for those who had money, while it could wipe out huge swaths of the poor?
Technology Genocide“If you can’t afford bots, you don’t deserve to live.” This mentality could lead to a generated pathogen being made to attack the poor. Probably not the best idea, though, since the rich make money only if the poor exist. Good sci-fi, though.
Realtime Mass Health MonitoringWhat if we could, over the course of 5 years, monitor the national health effects of a new diet fad? So, in 2046 bots had to do x amount of heart repair in the United States, but after the release of so and so book, it dropped to y amount. As such, this diet made the country z more healthy.
Anyway, let me know what you guys think.: