Thursday, 7 June 2012

Nano Futures

Tiny robots with cameras, scalpels, and sensory equipment are already being used by surgeons to unclog, excise, snip, tie, and mend diseased organs of the human body, going by an Associated Press report published worldwide this week, But now medical researchers say that even smaller nanobots that can freely roam around the body, fixing problems as they arise, are on their way.

The AP report quotes Dr Michael Argenziano of New York-Presbyterian Hospital and Columbia University’s Medical Center as saying “It won’t be very long before we have robots that are nanobots, meaning they will actually be inside the body without tethers.” In other words, unlike the surgical robots in use today, the nanobots will potentially be free agents that are not remotely connected to an anchor elsewhere.

This is clearly a revolutionary development and the report has been picked up by several science news sites such as and has been the subject of intense debate and discussion on a number of social news sites as well (see e.g., Reddit). 

But as with possibly all radical developments in technology, the most significant challenge is to be able to anticipate and understand potential and unplanned consequences. How much public, or even scientific, understanding is there about the uses of nanotechnology, the science of the miniscule, in medicine or other fields? While it does open the doors to enhancing and even prolonging human life, could there be other consequences that are hard to imagine and therefore respond to? 

Science fiction is often something people go to for a handle on futuristic science and this tends to be more dystopic than utopic. We’ve just finished reading Michael Crichton’s last novel Micro in which nanobots, invisible to microscopes, can enter a person’s body and destroy the vital organs with such precision that even those conducting a post-mortem have no clue about the cause of death. This new novel, left unfinished by Crichton at the time of his death and completed by Richard Preston, has a feel for the world of nanoscience and the new frontiers it is reaching out to.

In the world of Micro, devious corporations, ostensibly manufacturing nanobots for medical uses, pillage the earth’s mineral and biological resources by bio-prospecting at a micro level. They even have a “tensor generator” that can shrink humans to miniscule sizes to get closer to parts of the world that humans can barely see. 

Nanotechnology is one of those new and emerging technologies that few people know enough about. And this is what makes public engagement with it very difficult. Among the institutions working on making public engagement on nanotechnology more meaningful is the Center for Nanotechnology in Society (CNS) at the Arizona State University in Tempe, Arizona, USA

One of us was in Tempe recently and got to see an innovative exhibition of art, sculpture, and narratives on the future at the ASU Art Museum called Emerge: Redesigning the Future that provides a glimpse into how people can visualise the future through a collaborative interaction between art and science, society and academy, the grassroots and the elite. The exhibition, on until mid-August, is an offshoot of a path-breaking workshop/seminar/meeting-of-minds get-together of “artists, engineers, bio-scientists, social scientists, storytellers and designers to build, draw, write and play with the future” organised by CNS in March this year. 

Such collaborative endeavours that allow us to envision and create scenarios that anticipate the uses and challenges of new and emerging technologies are perhaps one way of engaging with imagined futures.