Nanomachines and Their Implications For Human Society

Nanomachines have already significantly improved manufacturing in almost every field they’ve touched and will do so much more in the relatively near future.

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James Clerk Maxwell became the first human to intentionally design a nanomachine in 1867. Since then, nanomachines, or structures with dimensions measured in nanometers that can perform quasi mechanical movements, have ingrained themselves into every part of modern life. Nanomachines have also become a field with major potential to advance society in the coming decades. These technologies no longer exist only in the sci-fi realm—they are an integral part of humanity's present and future.

There are two major approaches to nanofabrication, the processes used to create structures in the nanoscale. The first is the top-down approach, in which traditionally larger technologies are miniaturized to the nanoscale or are created by the breakdown of a larger block of material. The second approach to nanofabrication is a bottom-up approach, which consists of smaller pieces being built into novel nanostructures. Some technologies that have been successfully made smaller through this approach include the components of integrated circuits. This approach is significantly more cost-effective but can be very difficult to achieve. It can also be challenging to replicate a piece of technology’s function at that scale.

This requires very sophisticated technology and is therefore rather expensive. Structures built using this method are important complements to top-down designs and are often inspired by life processes. An example of a process inspired by biological machinery is DNA origami, consisting of DNA and proteins. Since many biological systems are nanomachines that serve a variety of purposes, they are replicable blueprints for effective nanoscale engineering.

One of the most important displays of the potential of nanotechnology is the transistor. This is a vital component of modern computing, and sophisticated nanotechnology has made it smaller and therefore faster and more efficient. This significantly improved computing capability and helped grow the global economy. It has also spurred the creation of the MRAM system, which will allow computers to boot instantly.

Even outside the IT field, nanomachines improve consumer products. Nanoscale material can make personal body armor more deflective, tailor smart fabrics to monitor health and capture solar energy, and make vehicles more lightweight.

As much as they’ve improved our present, nanomachines have even more potential to benefit our future, most notably through two major potential innovations. The first is internal hospitals. Hospitals operating inside the body at a nanoscale could provide several boons, including earlier diagnosis of difficult-to-detect diseases, quick treatment, and significantly simplification of the logistics of hospital visits. If this technology had been deployed during the pandemic, we would have discovered the true infectious potential of the virus sooner. Patients would also have been diagnosed almost immediately when they got sick, allowing for much earlier quarantines. Hospital beds wouldn’t have filled up because even relatively severe cases could have been treated by the nano-hospital from within the body. This would allow the hospital’s limited space to be taken up by only the most severe cases. Experts believe this incredible technology could be available by 2045, though right now, it’s more of a far-reaching goal that could induce other advancements. When it does arrive, it will decrease healthcare costs and improve our quality of life considerably.

The second potential innovation is injectable nanosensors. Nanosensors are tiny data collectors, and the unique thing about them is their ability to cross the brain-blood barrier safely. Right now, they’re just being used to record and transmit data on the brain's internal conditions. This is already incredibly useful for increasing our understanding of neuroscience. This technology could eventually be used to effectively interpret mental data into actual thoughts, potentially allowing machines to follow mental orders. The ability to control machines with human minds would remove the need for a non-mental user interface, shortening development times and improving human capability with technology. Obviously, this is a massive number of innovations (and decades) away, but its benefits would be incredible for every aspect of human life.

Nanomachines are an incredibly useful future technology with the potential to revolutionize practically every industry. While there are several obstacles to nanotech development, including the difficulty of scaling down technologies and the sheer cost of building something tiny yet functional, nanomachines will fundamentally improve human life.