In most fiction, it’s called “nanotech,” because the parts are built on the nanometer scale. A nanometer is one billionth of a meter and is often used to measure stuff as small as atoms. For reference, your typical ribosome is about 20nm. That’s pretty fricken small, as you’ve probably noticed when observing your ribosomes. It’s really hard to see them. You have to squint.
Now, it occurred to me a couple of decades back when I was first learning about this crap, that the whole idea of “molecular sized machines” really wasn’t that much different than biology, and in fact, bacteria were already doing most of the stuff we wanted molecular sized machines to do, they just weren’t doing it for us. What we really wanted were bacterial slaves. You know, a whole army of tiny motile one-celled organisms marching in lockstep over the field of battle, kicking ass and taking names, excreting alien-like crustini that builds up in layers upon organized layers until they finally lay down that bullet-proof skin we’re looking for. One of the first things I did with organic nanotech of this nature was grow a gun. In my science fiction writing – I mean. Don’t get the wrong idea. My house isn’t littered with vats of goo that are growing me weapons. But the characters in my SF? Yeah. I had a slew of arms dealers on a colony world who didn’t import weapons from offworld for their revolution, instead they imported the data used to produce the weapons, and then grew them. It was just easier that way.
I love the idea of an organic nanotech lathe. Except, it’s not really a lathe. A lathe takes a chunk of matter and carves it into a part the same way a sculptor would. Nanotech doesn’t do that. It assembles the part from scratch one molecular bond at a time until it’s done and becomes the finished product. So a nanotech “lathe” should probably be called an “assembler.”
Anyway, the question to ask is, how close are we? The answer is, we’re already there. We’re already engineering bacteria to produce the stuff we want. Did you think the world would turn into grey goo? A lot of writers did. Is it disappointing to them that the earth wasn’t consumed? I suppose to those who stood up and screamed “we’re all gonna DIE!” it might be disappointing in the same way it’s disappointing to bite into a really big ravioli and find only more noodle instead of cheese or meat. I mean, who makes a ravioli like that? But you’ll eat it anyway, won’t you? And it will probably be pretty good, even though you were hoping for ricotta. Don’t worry, doomsayers, there’s still a chance we’ll unleash something nasty in the future, but don’t expect it to be inorganic. Don’t expect them to look like the little robots in that picture I made. Rather, expect them to be blobby looking sacks with all sorts of crusty extrusions and protein surfaces that operate like keys in a lock.
Was there a point to this post? Yes. Sorry if I took so long getting to it. The point is that there’s an interesting article on synthetic biology and the production of the components we need to move forward with the assembly of more complex objects, like medicine delivery mechanisms and hopefully more complex things, like something we can inject into the bloodstream that will clean the cholesterol out of cardiac arteries. That would be good, wouldn’t it? Instead of ramming stents into arteries and cleaning them out like a pipe, you’d just get a shot.
Professor Paul Freemont, Co- Director of the Centre for Synthetic Biology and Innovation at Imperial College London had this to say on the subject:
“Before the industrial revolution most items were made by hand, which meant that they were slower to manufacture, more expensive to produce and limited in number. We are at a similar juncture in synthetic biology, having to test and build each part from scratch, which is a long and slow process. We demonstrate in our study a new method that could help to rapidly scale up the production and testing of biological parts.”
So, we’re in the industrial revolution of nanotech assembly. Pretty cool. I wonder if I’ll live long enough to enjoy the fruits of the nanotech revolution. Sometimes technology grows in little tiny increments. But when lots of people are incrementing a little bit at a time, then occasionally you get a big leap. That’s one of the problems with the patent system. By the time something cool is developed, it relies on so many different technologies that paying each constituent provider of the individual patents results in something that no one could possibly afford, and yet it could save many lives. Don’t even get me started on what the patent system has done to computer technology. I could rant for hours.