What are the odds of a nanobot apocalypse?
Today's nanotechnologists are dreaming up tiny robots that could cure--or cause--huge problems.
Technologists' tiny toys terrorize Tacoma
In Caren Gussoff's The Birthday Problem, the author uses that fact to build a post apocalyptic world for us that showcases the wide possibilities for nanotechnology. Set in Seattle around the late 21st century, The Birthday Problem describes a world that achieved the dream of biomedical engineers everywhere: the invention of medical nanobots called "MaGo" bots promised a cure for all human disease and a guarantee of lifelong youthfulness and vitality. No one lives forever, but with the MaGo bots, everyone dies young at a ripe old age.
Until something goes awry, and a new strain of bot makes a lot of people fatally ill. The bots' origins, and their bizarre psychiatric effects on their victims, are explored through the eyes of a wide cast of characters whose stories improbably intertwine in a fashion that makes the novel feel like a Bizarro World crossover between Seinfeld and The Road.
The technological and literary elements of Gussoff’s work both center on the idea that in large swarms, what’s unlikely for one individual becomes likely within the group. This is alluded to in the title; the "Birthday Problem" is a classic thought experiment in statistics. If there are X number of people at a party, what're the odds that they share a birthday?
What are the odds?
Most people are surprised to learn that the odds are high even for small groups--after all, there are only 366 options. Playing off this idea of unexpected effects in a swarm, the intertwined storylines of the various characters all overlap—even if the characters don’t realize it. The Birthday Problem, like its namesake, reminds us that when there are enough variables, our insignificant actions have bigger consequences than we expect.
It makes sense that large networks of people would have complex, and sometimes disastrous, random interactions. Does the same chaos theory apply to nanorobots? Though it's never stated outright, The Birthday Problem suggests that as we dabble in advanced technologies, the odds of a catastrophe may be higher than we think.
Real World Nanotech Informs the Story
Gussoff, a former science teacher, did a lot of conceptual research on nanorobotics, and understands that many small machines working together can produce a large effect. The MaGo bots are simplistic machines with few lines of code, but they can be programmed to use cooperation to achieve major medical goals, and how that programming could mutate to pervert those goals. As a virologist, I've seen how nanomachines can evolve to cooperate for systemic effect. Gussoff gets it right.
I spoke to Gussoff about how she conceived of the MaGo bots, and she wove together a complex tapestry of sources. Initially, she combined an original research paper on longevity with an excellent 2009 nanomedicine review paper, “Impact of Nanotechnology on Drug Delivery,” by Omid C. Farokhzad and Robert Langer, both of the MIT-Harvard Center for Nanotechnology Excellence.
Realizing that nanotechnology could deliver life-extending drugs, Gussoff imagined what else they could do, and the MaGo bots were born. She did a lot of work finding textbooks that were accessible and had good ideas about the future of nanotechnology. She recommends Nanomedical Device and Systems Design: Challenges, Possibilities, Visions, edited by Frank Boehm, CEO of a nanomedical tech company. It’s well worth the $170 cover price if you’re interested in nanomedical technology.
At the same time, Gusoff took a look at how research dollars are spent and noticed that what she calls “sexy” conditions, “…those that effect our outward appearance, or those which attack a ‘desirable’ body part get the most dollars—plain and simple.” In creating the MaGo bots, which correct these “sexy” conditions and serve as a fountain of youth, she combined these medical objectives with principles she learned in the nano-engineering literature. In her world, human eagerness to solve these “sexy” diseases caused us to overlook the consequences, which she also based on her research into nanomedicine.
Talking to her about this, you begin to realize that what was printed in The Birthday Problem is just a tiny fraction of Gussoff’s nanomedicine understanding. But the question remains: does her imagination, for better or worse, match nanomedicine’s real-world possibilities?
Real Nanorobots...are made of DNA?
One of my personal favorite real-world nanomedicine projects is the work of Dr. Ido Bachelet at Israel’s Bar Ilan University. Dr. Bachelet uses a technique called “DNA origami” to built nanomachines out of DNA. It’s amazing what can be done with this technology. Complex switches and machinery in these nanomachines are able to carry out sophisticated tasks, such as carrying payloads of toxic chemotherapy drugs directly to tumor cells, and only releasing their cargo when they’re sure they’ve reached a cell that the physician wants to kill.
And that’s just the simplest task that Dr. Bachelet says his nanomachines can do. Similar to the MaGo bots, programming Dr. Bachelet's DNA machines to operate as an ant-like swarm could result in all kinds of fantasy medical technology. Off the top of my head, I can imagine a strain of these nanorobots that would replace the failed immune systems of AIDS patients. Or machines that could repair the damage caused by degenerative brain diseases before it becomes a problem. The possibilities are endless, but if you’re interested in more, Dr. Bachelet does a great job explaining his work in this talk from TEDMED Israel.
However, we can’t discount nanomedicine’s negative possibilities that Gussoff raises in her novel. Do Dr. Bachelet’s DNA nanorobots have the possibility of killing us all? That isn’t a silly question--working medical nanorobots will have a lot in common with the microbes that make us sick, after all--but it does have a simple answer: DNA origami is a careful process of mixing short DNA strands in a laboratory setting. These DNA machines don’t self-replicate, and thus, they don’t have the chance of random mutation that is present in something like the MaGo bots. Therefore, Dr. Bachelet's nanorobots can’t produce unexpected and improbable killer offspring like in The Birthday Problem.
Metal Machines: also an Option
Still, DNA machines aren’t what most people think of when someone says “nanorobots,” though. Instead, the idea conjures up metal and silicon machines on tiny scales, and the MaGo bots of The Birthday Problem are based on that model. Work on that kind of robot is still in its infancy, but it’s an area of active and enthusiastic research.
In the meantime, full-scale robotics projects are also working on “swarms” of robots that can cooperate in order to achieve great things. There are military, manufacturing, and aerospace applications, but as robotics technology gets smaller, there’s no reason that these swarm-design technologies won’t have medical applications. If Gussoff is right, though, it'll be important to include safeguards, that limit the self-replication of such medical robots, or at least prevent them from mutating in dangerous ways.
Nanotech Might Make Us Immortal
Frankly, the potential positive benefits are too great for us not to try and develop this technology. As long as we are intelligent about including safeguards that avoid a disaster like the one presented in the Birthday Problem, there is a lot to be gained. Medical nanorobots don't just have the potential to cure disease; they could also manipulate our metabolism, on the fly, to make us longer-lived, more productive, and generally more satisfied and effective in our lives. That's likely to change a lot of things about society, provided we have the scientific knowledge to apply when they nanomachines are ready for prime time.
Research on human longevity is already amassing information to use in nanomedicines. There are new papers on life extension every day, and while it’s impossible to summarize it all here, one example is the recent revelation that tweaking activity of the enzyme AMPK, found in humans and many other animals, extended the life spans of fruit flies by 30%.
Right now this information isn’t useful for human health, because we don’t have tech to go into cells and turn genes on and off at will. With advances in nanomedicine that resemble the MaGo bots in The Birthday Problem, this sort of knowledge could be applied to realistic human life extension. It could take some time, though—hopefully we’ll all live to see the day that allows us to live forever.
Could They REALLY Kill Us All?
Of course, we can’t discuss these more traditional mechanical nanorobots in The Birthday Problem without also discussing the probability of negative outcomes for them, too—namely, the chance that swarms of robots will eventually kill us all. It doesn’t seem so farfetched, even if the machines can’t self-replicate. In fact, in the past few months, a “ghost in the machine” on the International Space Station has launched a total of four small satellites, called CubeSats, without any human prompting. The CubeSats are part of a “swarm” strategy scientific mission, but they normally require a human command to launch. If they’re getting bored and launching themselves, it could make a person a little uncomfortable about the prospects of using swarms of robots in medicine. The Birthday Problem taps into that discomfort.
I don’t think that Gussoff is trying to play on this unease to scare us off of developing nanomedicine, though. Good technopocalypse tales of human hubris are not about staying away from new technology. Technopocalypse science fiction is about looking before we leap—not about avoiding the leap altogether. At no point does The Birthday Problem condemn nanotechnology. In fact, many characters continue to use it to keep themselves alive, despite the way rogue nanotech tore their world apart. Instead, this work’s commentary on nanotechnology is a warning. The way things stand right now, research money is poorly allocated to superficial causes, and if we aren’t self-aware and careful, we could develop something with dangerous consequences. The message is caution—not a moratorium on nanomedicine.
That said, I'm not too worried. Medical researchers tend to have concerns like this at the forefront of their minds. Contrary to what you might think from Bond films, nobody wants to be the doctor who ended the world. The medical engineering community has a lot of regulation as it is, and I imagine that clinical trials will be constructed to make these products safe rather than tiny horsemen of the apocalypse. Among the apocalyptic scenarios that keep me up at night, nanotech making us all suicidal ranks pretty low. Still, it makes for some pretty interesting reading, with a literary caliber that matches some classic, award-winning science fiction.
In fact, as I read it, it called to mind the fragmented world of Neal Stephenson's great Diamond Age, which also centers on a nanotech future. By contrast, The Birthday Problem is less aggressively off-the-wall and contains a more diverse cast of characters consisting of people of many races, religions, and sexual orientations. Gender balance is also well achieved. If you liked The Diamond Age, but want something with an updated sense of representation and nanotechnology informed by current science, you'll love The Birthday Problem.
Altogether, The Birthday Problem has a lot to add to the futurist conversation surrounding nanotechnology and nanorobotics. Its narrow technological scope allows the investigation of real human issues and potential dangers that nanotechnology engineers will need to prevent through good design. It forces us to think not only about the improbable effects of nanorobotics, but also about the improbable effects of our own actions. The wide human scope and overlapping storylines make for a living, breathing story that feels like it takes place in a real future. As the reader traverses what Gussoff has imagined, it reflects on our own visions of the future today, and allows us to wonder about how 2014's futurism will shape the world—will we be careful about what we develop, or will we allow ambitions to take us into dangerous territory? The wrong ten thousand lines of code could make all the difference.