Nanobots—Good or Evil?

Imagine you are seventy years old and showing (and feeling) your age. The year is 2017.

You have money and/or friends in high places, so you get an appointment at the Return-to-Youth Clinic. After a brief stay in the waiting room, you are taken to the preparation room to lie on a hospital bed. An anaesthetist attaches an IV drip that delivers a mild sedative. You are told that you will remain conscious throughout the operation.

Fifteen minutes later you are wheeled into the OR. A nurse attaches an impressive number of electrodes to various parts of your body. Displays on the left wall show monitor readings that mean nothing to you. The nano-surgeon enters and greets you cheerfully. “It won’t be long now!” he says. Then he shows you a hypodermic. It doesn’t look special but he tells you that it contains trillions of nanobots, sub-microscopic robots that are going to be very busy once they enter your bloodstream.

You feel the prick as the needle penetrates your skin. The nano-surgeon says you should not feel anything as the nanobots are distributed by normal blood flow throughout your body. While travelling the bloodstream they will remove any unwanted material that is impeding blood flows. The process will take half an hour.

At the end of the half-hour the nano-surgeon returns to the OR, checks the displays and tells you that he is going to start the next phase with your heart. He takes an electronic device, holds it over the location of your heart and clicks a button. You feel nothing, but the nano-surgeon tells you that the nanobots in that area have been activated and are repairing damaged cells and removing the accumulated debris of age. The nano-surgeon checks the display monitoring your heart function and seems pleased. You feel nothing.

The nano-surgeon then activates the nanobots to work on each of the other internal organs, one at a time. Your head, including your brain, is the last. You are noticing that some of your aches and pains have disappeared.

An hour after injecting the nanobots the surgeon tells you he is all done. You now have the body of a twenty year old! The only bad news is that it will take a few days for your skin to reflect your restored youth. When you get off the hospital bed you feel lighter, stronger and more energetic. You had forgotten what youth feels like.

All of this is possible—even probable. The only real uncertainty is the timeframe. It could be 2027 before the technology is available.

Sounds good? Well, let’s think about it…

You might worry that this miracle will be only available to the wealthy. Well, that will certainly be true in the first few years of its availability, especially because the major corporations that hold the patents will want to maximize their profits. The irony is that, once the first legions of return-to-youth nanobots are produced, it will be quite inexpensive to manufacture them in sufficient quantities to treat the entire world’s human population—but that will never happen. Imagine a world where nobody dies! Do we stop having children?

The fact is that this miracle technology will only be made available to an elite few—and those few will live in fear that their immortality will become known, and attract the envious fury of those who will be ready to kill them. So they will try to keep it secret. They may even wear makeup and walk stiffly in public to disguise their new-found youth. Is that living?

But there are more serious issues with nanobots.

History tells us that when man develops new technology, the first drooling customers will be those who are interested in killing. Whether their interest is labelled ‘defence’, ‘war’ or ‘terrorism’ they will want to be the first to have the technology packaged as a weapon—and they have deep pockets.

We worried when gunpowder was invented—then dynamite. We shuddered when the atom was split and atomic weapons materialized. We were horrified when we learnt that nations had inventories of bio-weapons for ‘defence’. Now we should really start worrying…

The reality is that, technologically speaking, our species is too clever for its own good. Since our ancestor, Homo erectus, first evolved on this planet, we have shown a flair for discovery and invention that is quite remarkable. It was our means of survival when we used it to recognize bones and rocks as weapons. It became our means of domination on our planet when we used it to create tools and weapons of ever-growing sophistication.

But our technological cleverness has outpaced our development as a mature, truly-intelligent species, capable of using our powers wisely. We are, metaphorically speaking, monkeys holding sticks of dynamite in one hand and lighted matches in the other.

There is a tiny spark of hope. Tools, weapons and medical miracles are not our only discoveries. Over fifty thousand years ago we discovered spirituality. Our ancestors theorized that there was more to our world than the simple physical. They formed the concept that there was purpose to our existence. Using their fledgling intelligence they postulated an omnipotent higher being—and they called it God.

The first concepts of God, formulated in a laboratory of ignorance, were crude—but they gave the believers a reason for better behaviour, and eased the pain of seeing their elders die. Animist religions can still be found among aboriginals in various parts of the world and, although they are viewed as primitive by the ‘developed world’, they continue to do more good than harm. Sadly, the same cannot be said for most of the organized religions that have evolved in the modern world.

In recent times the image of organized religion has fallen into such disrepute that “new atheist” authors such as Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris are selling large numbers of books telling us God belongs with Santa Claus as a feel-good fantasy that we must consign to the past where it belongs. Those authors, if they succeed in their mission, will destroy our last chance of avoiding extinction as a species.

Let’s undo our mistakes. Let’s rediscover an all-encompassing reason for our existence—and a reason to self-improve. There is a God. Not the tribal God of the organized religions that compete with one another as the ‘true faith’. Not the institutionalized God that gives its priesthood wealth and power. What I am talking about is the God that our intelligence tells us is the force behind our existence.

What we have to rediscover is the creator God that we cannot possibly put a face on—or dare to understand—but the God that we know has a plan; a plan that we can see outlined in the evolution of our universe to date, favouring life and, eventually, intelligent life. We are that, embryonic, intelligent life form on this planet. We have a duty to God to use the intelligence that he has given us to act like an intelligent species—before the bad actors among us use our technological marvels to kill us. If we cast out God we cast out hope.

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