- I disliked the word “nanobot” the first time I heard it.
- I like it less now.
- I don’t know what it means.
Once, “robot” meant a machine that resembled a human being. In fiction, robots usually were intelligent and capable of plot-advancing independent action.
Later, “robot” also meant a machine with an arm that could do certain kinds of industrial work like a human being. Industrial robots are programmable, but most aren’t even responsive, much less intelligent.
Today it seems that a “robot” is any machine that has a moving part and is considered cool for one reason or another. An elevator mechanism is called a robot, provided that it’s for a space elevator, or a model of one.
By this standard, I suppose anything that is both “nano” and “a machine” can be called a robot, and a tiny robot is widely viewed as a magical thing, likely to be intelligent, fertile, hungry, and grouchy (or something). Never mind that researchers haven’t gotten large robots — real, mobile devices with sensors and grippers and stuff — to exhibit any impressive degree of intelligence, and never mind that making machines smaller doesn’t tend to make them smarter. Cool machines are robots, nanomachines are cool, “nanobot” sounds twice as cool, and there you are: a source of endless and destructive confusion.
It was once alleged (by a senior scientist who should have known better) that manufacturing systems that process molecular building blocks must inevitably be tiny, swarming, intelligent, socializing, conniving things that would be very, very bad if they weren’t impossible.
Real concepts for nanoscale manufacturing systems (of the advanced sort, very different from the accessible and attractive near-term objectives) have much in common with conventional automated manufacturing systems.
In recent posts, I’ve discussed how automated, high-throughput manufacturing system works today, and it doesn’t use robots to make and assemble small parts. Each post includes videos that show where common things in our lives come from, and the several show simple machines that make and assemble things with blurring speed:
- High-Throughput Nanomanufacturing: Small Parts
- High-Throughput Nanomanufacturing: Assembly
- High-Throughput Nanomanufacturing: Assembling larger products
And finally, if you haven’t seen it already, you might enjoy the nanofactory animation video.