Let’s start with a simple definition. Nanobots are nanoscale robots. Once, strictly confined to speculation and science fiction, the military and medical industry is making them a reality.

In the medical industry, specifically the area of nanomedicine, nanobots are being developed and used in human trials to cure a number of diseases, including cancer. For example, on May 15, 2015 Next Big Future reported, “Bachelet (i.e., Dr. Ido Bachelet, manager of Bar-Ilan University’s robot laboratory) has developed a method of producing innovative DNA molecules with characteristics that can be used to ‘program’ them to reach specific locations in the body and carry out pre-programmed operations there in response to stimulation from the body.” In this case, the pre-programming involves detecting cancer cells and delivering an existing cancer drug treatment directly to a cancerous cell, bypassing healthy cells. As of this writing, Dr. Bachelet and Pfizer announced “partnering” to perform human trials, using the DNA nanobots. However, there have been no reports on the human trials to date.

Other medical researchers are taking a similar approach, as reported in Science Translational Medicine, Renier J. Brentjens et. al., 20 Mar 2013. In essence, they remove some of the patient’s T-cells, which are cells produced by the patient’s thymus gland. T-cells work as part of the human immune system. After removing the T-cells, researchers alter them in the laboratory with a gene therapy to make them recognize a protein on the cancer cells. Then they inject the altered T-cells into the patient’s bloodstream. There the T-cells order the cancerous cell to return to their normal configuration. If the cell has mutated too far to return to its original configuration, it orders the cell to self-destruct. Their results, reported in 2013, have been astounding, causing the cancer of 14 out of 16 terminally ill patients to go into remission. I think it would be correct to consider the altered T-cells nanobots.

The military has been relatively quiet about their work with nanobots. However, the use of United States military robots dates back to World War I, with its use of torpedoes. As is clear from recent conflicts, military robotics are now an indispensable technology the United States, and other countries, use to make war. A new thrust in military robotics is emerging, namely shrinking them.  For example, on December 16, 2014, the Army Research Laboratory announced creation of a “fly drone” weighing a small fraction of a gram. The fly drone’s capabilities are secret, but it is plausible the fly drone will offer the United States military the ability to enter buildings, perform surveillance, and potentially offensive operations. This gives a completely new meaning to “fly on the wall.” Although the Army did not comment on the construction of the fly drone, I judge it incorporates nanotechnology. If the Army is willing to announce development on a fly size drone, it is likely that they have even smaller more advanced drones in development.

You might wonder how does a fly drone provide offensive capabilities. Similar to the way biological flies spread diseases, the fly drone could deposit a toxic substance on an adversary’s food. For example, it may be used to deposit botulinum toxin H, the most lethal toxin in existence. The lethal dose is 100 nanograms. That amount of toxin would be impossible to see, smell, or taste.

I wrote this post to make an important point. Nanobots have move from sci-fi to science fact. Millions of nanobots can cure diseases like cancer or, as nanoweapons, become nanoweapons of mass destruction (NMD). Technology is ethically neutral. It is up to humanity to use the technology ethically.