Can Nanotechnology Make People Immortal?
Tiny machines may one day cure everything
These days nanotechnology seems to be the new frontier in science. It’s currently used to make “first generation” nanomaterials such as zinc oxide sun screen, cosmetics, surface coatings, food products, gecko tape, food packaging, clothing, tennis balls, disinfectants, household appliances, fuel catalysts and other new or enhanced products.
But “second generation” nanotechnological applications could include the production of nanomachines and nanorobots, both of which could be used in the human body in ways that are strictly science fiction in the present era. These technological marvels of the “extremely small” could one day be introduced into the human body to prevent disease, heal injuries, repair worn-out organs and, ultimately, perhaps extend the lifespan of people or even make them immortal.
To explore this exciting possibility, please keep reading:
Short History of Nanotechnology
Nanotechnology became possible in the 1980s, essentially because of the invention of the scanning tunneling microscope and the discovery of fullerenes, soccer-ball-like carbon molecules. The former allowed scientists to see atomic structure and the latter gave them the ability to produce materials on the atomic level.
For scale, a nanometer (a billionth of a meter) is roughly the width of a hydrogen atom, the smallest atom in the universe. In comparison to the diameter of the earth, a nanometer would be the width of a marble.
In 1986, K. Eric Drexler wrote a seminal work on nanotechnology: Engines of Creation: The Coming Era of Nanotechnology. In this book Drexler theorizes that a nanoscale assembler could create a copy of itself and perhaps make virtually anything its creators (people) wanted it to make, coining the term “molecular manufacturing.” He also warned that such tiny assemblers could run amok, creating an all-consuming grey goo, which could overwhelm the world!
Involvement in nanotechnology means that researchers, scientists and entrepreneurs must take into account quantum mechanics, the laws of which are only beginning to be understood. Simply put, substances behave differently at the atomic level. For instance, gold, which is chemically inert in the normal world, becomes a strong catalyst in the nanoscale realm.
Nevertheless, in the early 2000s, the commercial application of nanotechnology began.
When the Very Small Becomes Really Big
According to the article “Nanotechnology and Immortality . . . Really?” on the website Nanowerk, companies such as Intel are already producing devices as small as 20 nanometers. These devices comprise a quarter billion components. However, if according to Moore’s Law computing power continues to double every two years, then in the coming years devices with quadrillions of components could be possible. Thus extremely sophisticated nanorobots could be produced and sent through the human body, completing tasks as programmed.
In theory, at least, such robots could enter the cells of our bodies and reverse the causes of aging. Given enough of these anti-aging nanomachines, all cells in our bodies could be converted into younger copies and, if this process were repeated endlessly, the human body could become immortal.
How Practical Is this Possibility?
Clearly, at this time, we don’t know how to make such incredibly small robots. Even though these nanorobots could be programmed, in theory, to rebuild aging human cells - something we don’t really know how to do - they would still need to be autonomous machines capable of making changes on the fly, if you will. Presently, scientists can barely make an autonomous robot that can empty the household trash!
Also, these nanorobots would need a power source, as we simply can’t strap them to an internal combustion engine! Given such an incredibly tiny power source, we would also need the ability to control the nanorobot's motion through and around cells and other bodily structures. Again, nobody knows how to do this.
However, one possibility for the power source could be nanopiezotronics, a term invented by Professor Zhong Lin Wang at Georgia Tech University. According to the article “Nanopiezotronics: A Pathway to Self-Powering Nanodevices,” on the website Nanowerk, whenever a piezoelectric material such as a crystal is deformed, electrical charges form on its surface. Conversely, if the same material is subjected to an electrical charge, it deforms or vibrates. A quote from Professor Wang reads:
This new approach has the potential of converting biological mechanical energy, acoustic/ultrasonic vibration energy, and biofluid hydraulic energy into electricity, demonstrating a new pathway for the self-powering of wireless nanodevices and nanosystems.
Zinc oxide, a biologically safe or “green” material, could be used to make nanowires and nanobelts, both of which generating electricity by taking advantage of the natural movement of the human body, such as muscle stretching during walking or other daily activities. These nanowires and nanobelts would be like water wheels in one’s blood, converting the energy of motion into another kind of energy – electricity in this case.
Immortality May Come Soon
In an article entitled “Inventor Sets His Sights on Immortality” on the website for MSNBC, inventor, futurist and computer scientist Ray Kurtzweil, author of the book, Fantastic Voyage: Live Long Enough to Live Forever, thinks immortality may be possible in as little as 20 years. And, now in his sixties, he’s doing what he can to last that long!
Kurtzweil, a health and fitness freak of sorts, writes that in the near future what he calls “nanobots” will be able to travel throughout the body, continually repairing muscles, arteries and bones. And improvements to our genetic code, which could slow down or eliminate the aging proves, could be downloaded via the Internet! Intelligence could be enhanced in this way as well, he thinks.
“In my view, we are not another animal, subject to nature’s whim,” he says.
Is Kurtzweil a crank? In his book The Age of Intelligent Machines, published in 1990, he predicted the development of a worldwide computer network, and also that one day a computer would defeat a chess champion, both of which have come to pass.
Kurtzweil, among many other passions, is an advocate of transhumanism, an intellectual and cultural movement whose goal is to enhance the human condition through the use of emerging technologies.
So, will nanotechnology make people immortal? At this point, the possibility is little more than educated speculation. But it wasn’t long ago that cloning and smart phones were considered futuristic. Assuming immortality happens one day, is it something humankind needs? What would the world be like if large numbers of people became immortal? The world is already growing overpopulated. Would these “immortals” have to move to the moon or Mars? And the problem of living space is only one of among many that humankind would have to deal with in such a scenario.
Furthermore, if immortality becomes available - but is very expensive, only the rich will be able to afford it. Will this be fair? Shouldn’t everybody get to live forever?
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© 2011 Kelley