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Nanotechnology: The future is small but mighty

5 minute read
Man plugging usb into foreheard demonstrating nanotechnologyYou could soon download your memories to The Cloud… directly from your brain

Imagine working with things so small you can't even see them without a powerful microscope – that's exactly what nanoscientists and nanotechnologists do.

With the help of the latest technology, they design and build devices on the nanoscale. A nanometre is one-billionth of a metre. To put things into perspective, a human hair is between 80,000 and 100,000 nanometres wide and a sheet of newspaper is about 100,000 nanometres thick.

So what's the potential for nanotechnology and what are its limits?

Robots in our brains

Yep – you read that right.

Renowned technologist and futurist Ray Kurzweil predicts we will be able to send tiny robots into our brains by the 2030s.

Credit: Cosmology Today

“In the 2030s, we are going to send nano-robots into the brain (via capillaries) that will provide full-immersion virtual reality from within the nervous system and will connect our neocortex to the cloud,” Kurzweil says. “Just like how we can wirelessly expand our smartphones 10,000 fold in the cloud today, we'll be able to expand our neocortex in the cloud.”

And the possibilities are huge. Plugging your brain into the internet could mean brain-to-brain communication becomes a reality. If you want to learn a new language or expand your memory, you could simply download the expertise and be bilingual before you can say - ‘parlez vous Francias?’

Plugging your brain into the internet could mean brain-to-brain communication becomes a reality.

Nanobot wars

Kurzweil also predicts a role for nanobots that can download software when new pathogens – disease-producing organisms – arrive in the body. He sees the bots as having the potential to attack cancer, bacteria and viruses, as well as maintain healthy levels of nutrients and repair and replace damaged organs.

So, these tiny robot soldiers could bring ground-breaking technology when it comes to the future of medicine.

Recently, researchers developed a way to treat lung disease using nanoparticles to transport the chemicals through thick mucus membranes that coat the airways. For people with asthma or cystic fibrosis, these particles offer an alternative to inhaling the drugs, which can result in the mucus becoming even thicker.

Inspired by blood platelets that automatically clot and repair cuts, a team of researchers devised nanobots that can repair circuitry. While they are definitely useful in computer applications, they also have potential in the medical arena – nanobots that can use the body's chemistry to repair tissue.

Nanotech and wireless electronics have also come together in a new type of retinal prosthesis that one day could help many millions of people with eye diseases, including macular degeneration and loss of vision due to diabetes.

Credit: RT AMERICA

Mind-reading bots

Nanotechnology’s reach isn’t limited to physical when it comes to fighting disease.

Steve Burgess is president at the Foresight Institute, a non-profit organisation that aims to advance beneficial nanotechnology and transformative tech. He explains that these bots could eventually allow us to interpret someone’s brainwaves.

“There are devices currently growing out of their infancy that read brainwaves and translate them into computer code to do away with the input devices we’re currently used to,” he says.

"Bryan Johnson of startup Kernel, for instance, has recently put millions into evolving systems, computers and humans side by side to extend our capabilities, to allow us to communicate instantaneously with smart computers and indeed with each other. It could also allow us to overcome neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer's and Parkinson’s that plague, diminish and terrify so many today.

“The technology is coming more quickly than most imagine – it is improving exponentially and may well have a positive impact on most people alive today.”

Hack-hazards – the dangers of nanobots

Of course, if you’re letting nanobots run around in your brain and body, one of the first questions you’d be asking is - could I be hacked? Burgess says this fear isn’t baseless, but the means to combat it will grow with the technology.

“Nanotechnology is the method and mean to build tools,” he says. “Most tools can be used beneficially and also for harm. A hammer can help you build, or it can be used as a weapon. Fortunately, out of the millions of hammers in people’s garages, a vanishingly small percentage are used to harm people purposely.”

Computers are hackable, meaning anything controlled by a computer – like a nanobot – is also hackable. However, research is taking that into account. As with all technological advances, there are potential pitfalls, but the predicted benefits of nanotechnology far outweigh them.

As technology advances, there’ll be an opening for new and exciting roles in the healthcare industry, from nanomedical engineers to cyborg psychologists. Check out 10 futuristic health-tech jobs that may be closer than you think.

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