How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love Nanobots

The Disney cartoon "Phineas and Ferb" rules at my house, a house that is, in turn, ruled by my two boys, ages 6 and 7. My sons enjoy the clever jokes and music, while I also enjoy the occasional reference to quantum physics and, in the title sequence, "creating nanobots" listed as one of the many outlandish, physics-defying intellectual tasks Phineas and Ferb can do over the summer.

I smile every time I hear that opening theme song (and I do hear it quite often in my house) because it proves that nanobots still capture the imagination of young and old despite attempts over the past decade by various interests to paint nanotech as simply Chemistry 2.0 with nothing truly amazing in its future.

Nanobots: Those crazy, nonexistent (as yet) little nanosized workers became hopelessly intertwined with my very real life and career about a decade ago.

One reason I first began to blog about nanotechnology back in '03 was because of my frustration over attempts by the self-appointed -- yet equally nonexistent -- "nanobusiness" community to marginalize those who believe in the possibility of true, bottom-up advanced nanotechnology. I saw that the reason for this had nothing to do with science and everything to do with politics.

Long story short, the government is more likely to fund nanotech research if they are not distracted by issues such as the potential "downside" of nanotech -- for example, letting little things loose in the body and the environment that cannot be controlled. This was about the time Michael Crichton's nanotech dystopian novel Prey came out and the "nanobusiness" community was worried that this perception of nanotech would have a negative impact on how the public -- and potential government regulators -- perceive their business.

But they were not happy to simply say that the "out of control nanobot" or "gray goo" scenarios of our nightmares were far-fetched. Even those who believe in the possibilities of advanced nanotechnology never really bought into "gray goo." No, they went further and mocked and marginalized those who believed that true, bottom-up assembly -- the nanotech of popular culture -- is possible at all.

They tried to have it both ways, actually -- on one hand claiming that the nanotech they were developing had wonderful, game-changing, industry-changing qualities due to its size, yet then turning around and claiming that it was nothing special, really, just chemistry on a smaller scale. In other words, believe our hype, but do not use the same logic to believe the dystopian scenarios.

And, for the most part, the mainstream media went along for the ride. Suddenly, it became fashionable for science and technology writers to proclaim that true advanced nanotechnology was physically impossible.