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Swarms Of Tiny Robots To Monitor Water Pollution 182

savi writes "The University of Southern California School of Engineering has received a research grant to create swarms of microscopic robots to monitor potentially dangerous microorganisms in the ocean. Basically, nanoscale robots with electrical and mechanical components that can propel themselves, send signals, and do basic computations. "
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Swarms Of Tiny Robots To Monitor Water Pollution

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  • But! (Score:5, Interesting)

    by 1010011010 ( 53039 ) on Monday January 14, 2002 @03:44PM (#2837690) Homepage
    Will the nanoprobes monitor the water supply for pollution by nanoprobes? Huh? Huh?
    • Yes, and then when they start to break, we will dump larger nanoprobes in to clean the smaller ones up. And when those break, we will have to dump in larger MICRO-probes to recover the broken nanoprobes. And then a fish will eat the micro-probes, get sick and die, and a larger fish will eat that dead fish and get sick and die as well. This will continue untill we've filled the ocean with dead fish and broken robots, and we will once again realize that sometimes technology causes more problems than it solves.
      • Re:But! (Score:3, Funny)

        by markfive ( 167272 )
        Skinner: Well, I was wrong. The lizards are a godsend.
        Lisa: But isn't that a bit short-sighted? What happens when we're
        overrun by lizards?
        Skinner: No problem. We simply release wave after wave of Chinese
        needle snakes. They'll wipe out the lizards.
        Lisa: But aren't the snakes even worse?
        Skinner: Yes, but we're prepared for that. We've lined up a fabulous
        type of gorilla that thrives on snake meat.
        Lisa: But then we're stuck with gorillas!
        Skinner: No, that's the beautiful part. When wintertime rolls around,
        the gorillas simply freeze to death.
    • Re:But! (Score:3, Interesting)

      by jmccay ( 70985 )
      Will they be able to tell when they get eaten in the food chain? We could end up eating a few of these when we eat tuna of some other fish in the ocean's food chain. I am more concerned abouot that, and the side effect of sending multiple signals through the ocean. We are not even complete sure sonar does mess with the the navigation of ocean creatures.
    • Will the nanoprobes monitor the water supply for pollution by nanoprobes?

      Nope, but they are breeding strains of insects that eat the nanoprobes. But what about the insects? Well...

      ....5 minutes later....

      ...and the beauty is, the giant gorillas all freeze to death in the winter!

  • How long .. (Score:4, Interesting)

    by SirSlud ( 67381 ) on Monday January 14, 2002 @03:45PM (#2837693) Homepage
    .. until we have to send out the second swarm to monitor for the pollution levels the first swarm cause? ;)

    Yeah, it might sound like a troll, but it's not! Honestly, how do we know these robots won't affect the ecology of the water they are placed in?
    • The robots will undoubtedly affect the environment. If the engineer(-ing students?) involved do their job correctly, though, they'll minimize potential harmful impact.

      • We hope. Although, I think what usually happens is that you discover /what/ you're affecting long after the collateral-damage studies are done, and consequently, after the damage has been done. Unfortunately, I think we only discover /what/ we're doing after we've done it. This is one of the main prinicipals of technology: it is impossible to predict how they will affect the system you live in, and new technologies ALWAYS affect a system (be it physical or social) in a way that is, to varying degrees, different than your best predictions.
      • Remember, those denying the existence of nanorobots might actually be nanorobots themselves.
        • Remember, those denying the existence of nanorobots might actually be nanorobots themselves.

          Old Glory robot life insurance, right? The one thing that has always stayed great on Saturday Night Live has been their commercials. Even when the show was at its worst.
      • > The robots will undoubtedly affect the environment. If the engineer(-ing students?) involved do their job correctly, though, they'll minimize potential harmful impact.

        Oh, sure [] ;-)

    • Consider the water they are placed in. Or more accurately, consider the pollution. Dioxins, PCBs, cadmium, mercury, arsenic, oil spills, raw sewage, etc... And then consider the nanobots.

      Basically, if we're sticking these things in the water then it's already polluted enough that it doesn't _have_ an ecology!

  • by gilly_gize ( 470403 ) on Monday January 14, 2002 @03:45PM (#2837699)
    So can you end up drinking the microscopic robots? Couldn't this raise as much protest as floride in the water? (We must protect our precious bodily fluids!)

    Oh well, I suppose I don't have enough iron in my diet anyhow...
    • by Quizme2000 ( 323961 ) on Monday January 14, 2002 @04:04PM (#2837839) Homepage Journal
      They article mentioned that these would be used in oceans near industrial areas, not your local artisan well or mountain spring. And if you did *drink* them, well then you would *release* them later on, a billionth of an inch is so small you could breath these in a 1,000 at a time and they would get stuck in the mucus membrane in your lungs. Ok..Ok.. You get injected with these things via a crazed scientist in your local mall, your white blood cells, liver, and kidneys would desolve them in you blood stream and release the waste o'natural.
      • No part of robots (no matter how itty bitty) exiting me, via my urethra, sounds appealing.

        Thanks, but no.
      • And if you did *drink* them, well then you would *release* them later on

        Maybe, maybe not. Mercury atoms are even smaller, but that doesn't allow them to pass through our systems.

        Hopefully the transmitter that allows them to communicate their data will allow us to track them down (and hopefully they're very reliable). Otherwise we won't even have a place to start to recover them if they get stuck in blue whale livers and can't find their way home.

        Still, a very cool idea.
      • If I built these guys the whole world would be in danger.

        First they would carry a toxin that would make you look like the Joker. Second they would feed of the life force of all of the living beings that they encountered. Thirdly they would make me so freakin sexy to those of the female gender (human of course). Lastly if i felt realy nasty I would make you all love MS...MUHAAAAAHAAAAHAAAAA. (*pinky to lip*) I'm so evil they would say it EEEEVILE!!

        I might also add some cool stuff like cloning ability and a few lasers and maybe a PPG or a BFG. just for SAG's
    • What makes you think that these robots are going to be made out of iron? They'll more likely be carbon-based life-forms.

      The crude, early versions will be built using something like the NanoManipulator already on the market for less than some fools pay for an SUV (see The next generation will probably use a very simplistic RNA/DNA programming structure, we're pretty close to that already.

    • So can you end up drinking the microscopic robots?

      Mmmm, crunchy!
  • What happens when the real fish start going after these things?
  • Potential Problems (Score:4, Interesting)

    by mosch ( 204 ) on Monday January 14, 2002 @03:46PM (#2837704) Homepage
    Is it just me, or does monitoring pollution by dumping large amounts of microscopic robots into the pollution seem really rediculous? What happens if a person consumes these robots? What happens to animals if it turns out that these robots build up in some part of their body?

    This is fascinating, but I'd prefer to see these studies being done in tanks, not in the ocean. This smells a lot like somebody solving a problem by creating a different one.

    • It's okay. Just boil tapwater before you drink it; that will destroy any microscopic robots within.
    • They might make the robots digestable, so that any organism big enough to eat them will be able to digest them, and possibly use them as a food source. :)
    • These robots join to become VOLTRON... At which point they (it) exit(s) the body in the same manner as the spider nasty in Alien.

      Subject verb agreement can be a pain.
    • I believe these nanobots will be in a diminute quantity that they'll make absolutely no difference in the tons and tons of water the oceans have.

      You know those tracking devices that biologists attach to some wild animals, like little metal rings in the birds leg, that help cientists identify migration patterns ? Some even transmit radio waves. Using the same logic, you could also say that attaching identifiers to wild birds would make extra weight and thus disturb their flight. Or would harm the predators who eat those birds. Well, it makes as much difference for them as a billion of nanobots would make to an ocean.

      Besides, these nanobots apparently so harmless that, according to the article: "I don't think these robots will be confined to the ocean. We will eventually make robots to hunt down pathogens or repair cells in the human body".

      Correct me if I'm wrong, but I'd think blood from a live person would me more sensitive to impurities than an ocean.
    • If you go drinking that water, you've got more problems than just the nanobots!

      Like Weil's Disease from the raw sewage, chloracne from the dioxins, breakdown of the central nervous system from the mercury, poisoning from the oil spills...

      Basically, you're not going to be drinking it! And anything that's living in there (if anything can!) is not going to form part of our food chain, and likely not part of any animal's food chain either.

  • Great. (Score:5, Funny)

    by wo1verin3 ( 473094 ) on Monday January 14, 2002 @03:46PM (#2837707) Homepage
    Just great.

    I give it two weeks before they get in to all the systems, shut down our life support and start calling us ugly bags of mostly water.

    BAH. Where is Wil Wheaton now to save us?
    • Nah. They'd just multiply using the minerals available in the water.

      They would then infiltrate our cities water supplies. Through self-modification they would be able to integrate themselves into our brains. They would then take over the cities, and the states, then finally the planet. It would happen so slowly, but so quickly, nobody would notice. You see, its all part of my tremendously ingeneous plan to take over the world! (hides mouse ears)


      (To answer, Wil is lurking. Remember, he reads slashdot too. Hi Wil!)
  • by koreth ( 409849 ) on Monday January 14, 2002 @03:46PM (#2837714)
    And I thought lead in the water supply was bad enough. Now I have to have my water tested for excessive robot levels.
  • I've got a water filter. I don't want these little metal bugs swimming around in my intestines.
    • I'm pretty sure that your Brita© water filter wouldn't be good enough to stop any "nano-robots"'d probably need some sort of industrial strength super-filter for that...
    • Hehe, yeah just imagine if one got into some geeks stomach.

      "Sir robot 1,344,533 is reporting that the whole ocean has turned to Mountain Dew!"
    • Why don't you put a 50oz magnet next to your filter.. or magnatize the filter.. that should catch a few of them =p
      • If a magnetized aircraft carrier cruises through, will it take all of them with it? ;)

        They're building these with gold, silver and organic molecules, so the magnet idea probably wouldn't work. It seems that the advantages to quickly finding toxins would outweigh any of these concerns. Even better would be if the nanobots destroyed the toxins and then rapidly degraded into trace elements. The Diamond Age [] by Neal Stephenson does a great job at describing a world where diseases and toxins have been eliminated through nanotechnology.
        • Yes, I remember The Diamond Age. Diseases and toxins were eliminated to be replaced by hostile nanites.

          Frankly, I prefer diseases. At least we know how to handle most of them.
          • Really? When did this happen?

            Most infectious diseases are controlled by antibiotics, but many are now resistant. What we've been doing to diseases is roughly like spraying the swamps with DDT - it works to start with, but eventually the bugs become resistant and then you're screwed and need to find something else. We're rapidly approaching the "screwed" state in infectious diseases, without much in the way of ideas when everything's resistant to the latest *cillin.

            Then there's cancer, where the only cure so far is either to hit the patient's body with something incredibly toxic and hope it kills the cancer before it kills the patient, or to cut it out and pray to God you got it all.

            Then there's congenital disorders, which are utterly unsolved.

            The best we can say for diseases is that we understand the symptoms - they're the devil we know. Are you happy with that status quo, or would you rather investigate the devil we won't know, just in case he's going to screw you over less?

  • and hopefully (Score:4, Insightful)

    by kraada ( 300650 ) on Monday January 14, 2002 @03:50PM (#2837736)
    this will be the first step towards nanobots inside the human body. If these things can monitor pollutant rate, then they can be easily modified to check for oxygen level in the blood, nutrient level, etc. If they can start moving things around, maybe they can fix internal damage . . .
    There's lots of great application for this . . . if it starts by fixing pollution, cool, but I'm going to continue to look ahead to all of the great thigns that this can lead to.
    • Goodbye Viagra, Hello Nanorect! .... erm....
    • If they can start moving things around, maybe they can fix internal damage

      If they can start moving things around, maybe they can cause internal damage.

      Until the first international treaty on nanowarfare at least, after that the major counties will just secretly stockpile them.
  • This is cool, Im all for minature robotics, like the
    one the Brit came up with that feeds and then powers itself on their bodies. They could gather invaluable
    information on the oceans, BUT are hey going to put a JONAH circut in these things ?

    I mean what happens when a plankton feeder sucks up a hundred thousand or so of these, it will (may) register a higher temp, movement pattern etc.

    I love the idea of a self sufficient ocengoing robot, I always have, I saw a solar robot creature
    demo a few years ago, neuralnet stuff, that the jellyfish would react to the crab etc, Why no use a larger scale verson, build em in Taiwan at 2 bucks a pop and set em loose, A larger unit could accomplish this, perhaps much more efficently, Miniturization for Minituriztions sake has always eluded me.
  • Definitions (Score:4, Interesting)

    by medcalf ( 68293 ) on Monday January 14, 2002 @03:50PM (#2837741) Homepage
    Wouldn't "swarms of microscopic robots" constitute "potentially dangerous microorganisms"?
  • by spatrick_123 ( 459796 ) on Monday January 14, 2002 @03:51PM (#2837745)
    Is this anything like those Sea Monkeys I had as a kid? :-)
  • ...the big questions won't necessarily be how might these affect the environment as much as they will be, how with these affect the surfing...
  • Uh-oh. (Score:2, Funny)

    by Stonehand ( 71085 )
    From the article:

    "I don't think these robots will be confined to the ocean. We will eventually make robots to hunt down pathogens..."

    Quoth Agent Smith: "Human beings are a disease, a cancer of this planet. You are a plague. And we are... the cure."
    • We will eventually make robots to hunt down pathogens...

      Too bad Dubya didn't have any pretzel-fighting nanobots yesterday. Would have saved him a trip to the floor.
  • What if these nanobots figure out how to incorporate marine life into themselves, create a big hybrid creature controlled by their collective intelligence and try to take over the world???!?!?!?!!
  • by ackthpt ( 218170 ) on Monday January 14, 2002 @03:56PM (#2837790) Homepage Journal
    The worst pollution happens on land, particulary from Ag run-off, and re-irrigation, which draws salts out of soil and makes downstream water unusable. Just look for dead plants or mutated babies and you'll know enough.

    BTW, read in the Sunday paper that Erin Brockovich is on the trail of another suit against PG&E for Chromium 6 in ground water.

    Interested in a history of water use and mis-use? Read Cadillac Desert, by Marc Reisner.

    • BTW, read in the Sunday paper that Erin Brockovich is on the trail of another suit against PG&E for Chromium 6 in ground water.
      Erin Brockovich was wrong; there's no evidence to suggest a link between the problems of Hinkley, CA and Chomium 6. According to a relevant Wall Street Journal article []:

      Here's what the EPA's Integrated Risk Information System, updated in 1998, says about chromium 6: "No data were located in the available literature that suggested that it is carcinogenic by the oral route of exposure."

      Exhaustive, repeated studies of communities adjacent to landfills packed with chromium 6, including that detectable in residents' urine, have found no ill health effects, cancer or otherwise. A January report from Glasgow, Scotland, found "no increased risk of congenital abnormalities, lung cancer, or a range of other diseases." Earlier, a panel evaluating exposed residents near a New Jersey landfill estimated that "the plausible incremental cancer risk to individuals at residential sites would be substantially less than 1 in 1,000,000."

      A study by Mr. Blot and others, just published in The Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, evaluated almost 52,000 workers who worked at three PG&E plants over a quarter of a century. One was the Hinkley plant, and another is near Kettleman, Calif., where Ms. Brockovich's firm is rounding up plaintiffs today. The researchers found cancer rates were no higher than in the general California population and death rates significantly lower than expected.

      Other studies have shown that rodents dosed at 25 parts per million and dogs dosed at 11.2 parts per million displayed no ill effects. The amount of chromium 6 in Hinkley's water never got higher than 0.58 parts per million. As for miscarriages, the EPA reports that in studies of mice and rats, "the reproductive assessment indicated that administered at 15-400 ppm in the diet [it] is not a reproductive toxicant in either sex."

      Given all this, why did PG&E cough up $333 million? For one thing, much of this medical evidence came in after the settlement. Further, Ms. Brockovich's small firm enlisted high-powered trial lawyer Thomas Girardi, a specialist in toxic pollution suits. Slick lawyers and sympathetic witnesses could have cost the company much more at trial or arbitration.

  • I hope they've got that "don't hurt any humans" thing down, because when they get smart enough to find out where all the pollution is coming from, they're going to come hunt us down.

    Each and every one of us.

    And bore through our miserable human bodies.



    But, other than that, great idea!
  • by Quizme2000 ( 323961 ) on Monday January 14, 2002 @03:58PM (#2837801) Homepage Journal
    Now for those of us that read the Damn article. The ability for the project to suceed on only 1.5 mil is pretty ambitious, the article mentions that they need the software to link together millions of these 'bots via weak radio link, and a mass producing method of creating the other 999,990 units. I would really like to know how they fit a device that transmits a unique indenitifer and a binary digit in an envirment that would seem to distort any type of transmission and amplify electric interfernece.
  • by klaun ( 236494 ) on Monday January 14, 2002 @04:02PM (#2837828)
    The problem I've always seen to nanobots is where does such a small device store energy? In looking at various proposals and ideas on how they would work and what they'd do, it seems energy storage is always the missing component. Propulsion, RF transmission, anything involving actuators are all going to be energy-expensive activities, where does the energy come from?
    • A system as chaotic as a water container large enough to have temperature differences in its various parts and thus creating various streams of water (turbulent streams) is the energy source. What do you mean where the energy is stored? The ocean of-course. The robots will have to have some mechanism of extracting the energy (be it the temperature or pressure or direction differentials). Imagine a creature that consists of a very very thin and strong wire, on both ends of that wire you can have two elements each of which is pressure sensitive. Once the horizontal position of one changes, the pressure in the element also changes, this somehow produces energy. Since the two elements are connected and since they can actually share their energy, the system has more chances of survival. Now, imagine that this system connects to another system with an extra wire. What you can have is some sort of an organism in which every part of the organism is almost nothing, but the energy potential grows the more elements are present in the system. In fact, we could use this technique to generate energy for ourselves.
      • Another method is the Brownian Ratchet. This consists of a nano-sized wheel, with a ratchet allowing movement in only one direction. Brownian motion in the water will move the wheel in random directions, but as the ratchet only allows movement in one direction, the result is a slowly rotating wheel. Still pretty theoretical, but then, so is the rest of this :).
      • Wait a sec...

        I know nothing of fluid dynamics or, for that matter, the ocean...

        But it seems to me that for these things to be effective, they would need to be pretty close to the surface pretty much all of the time (which is where most of the pollution is, right?)
        If that is the case, I don't think the temperature or pressure is going to vary all that much. If you make the robot of such a density that it can take advantage of differing water pressures, wouldn't you run the risk of most of your nanites sinking to the bottom?
  • by Anonymous Coward
    Maybe this is what've been needing to gain my regularity back. Maybe while they're in there, they can rebuild my arthiritic fingers from programming for so many years. Or better yet, analyze my blood alcohol content, and give me a warning buzz, and an override button. I cant wait, I am going to go eat some drill bits and a wrench, maybe an entire Erector set.
  • Here in Oregon, we have the Bull run water shed. I've been up to see it as I worked for the City of Portland at one time. The water was so clear you could see the bottom center of the lake, fish and all. Our tubidity (the amount of leaves and crap that you don't want to drink) was less than that of cities using filter systems. Personally I would not like to add anything to my water as it is some of the best in the world.
  • The gut of a whale or other plankton-eating creature.
  • Phillips has entered into an agreement with USC to piggy back encrytion software into the nanoprobes. The purpose is that "humans" would serve as node-receivers in wireless networks. The nanaoprobes would then be able to scramble and encrypt data before arriving at its final destination.

    Wasnt there an article some time about shooting lasers from the moon to create electricity?

    repeat after me ...
    "To much Star Trek"
  • So these things generate an electrical charge. What if they are injested or otherwise enter some water dwelling creature? What happens if they wind up in neural tissue? This just sounds like a bad idea.
  • I wonder that I'll have little robots in my can of tunafish. I'll check the labels carefully to make sure that I only buy robot free tuna.

    Wouldn't there be more pratical ways, like putting sensors on commerical boats? You'd have a nice big power source to share from and perhaps even large antennas to transmit your data.
  • Microscpoic to humans, yes, but not to fish. Will fish eat these things or at least chew them up enough to destroy them?

    Fish are unintelligent enough to mistake a hairy peice of silver for a fly, why wouldn't they mistake these robots for some food?
  • This page was generated by a Swarm of Microscopic Robots for kievit [] (303920).

    I am sure Slashdot was presented to me with that line four days ago. Today it said in the morning that a Cadre of Random Chickens was in charge, and now a team of Stealth Ninjas, but Friday it was done by microbots. Really.

  • Wow! (Score:3, Interesting)

    by RareHeintz ( 244414 ) on Monday January 14, 2002 @04:10PM (#2837878) Homepage Journal
    Imagine a Beo...

    No, I can't do it.

    Jokes aside, that's interesting stuff - but also a little scary. Once you have free-roving nanites monitoring pollutants in the Pacific, how long is it before someone comes up with a way to have them monitor, say, intoxicant levels in your blood?

    Just imagine having your workplace demand the ability to monitor what you do with your body 24/7. "Have a few margaritas last Saturday, Wilson? You should really keep an eye on that sort of behavior. You are a company asset, after all..."

    - B

    • I'd rather that the nanites be able to collect dead cell tissue and use it to ferment alcohol, which could then be rereleased into my bloodstream, thus keeping me drunk all of the time (for free!)
  • by foo fighter ( 151863 ) on Monday January 14, 2002 @04:11PM (#2837883) Homepage
    If you read the article you will learn that they don't even have a fully functioning prototype yet, and anything they say they are going to do is wild speculation at this point. As are the comments here forcasting ecological disaster or weird effects when ingested.

    Also, from the article, they currently are trying to learn how to control 5-10 robots. They are a long way from learning how to control the millions of robots needed for any monitoring to be effective. The researches said that nanotechnology today is at the same stage of development as the Internet was in the late 1960's.

    I'd say we are a decade or more from seeing any of these things actually released into the wild.
  • by garoush ( 111257 ) on Monday January 14, 2002 @04:13PM (#2837892) Homepage

    It is no secret that those "tiny robots" which monitor the quality of our drining water end up in our body system. However, the big puzzle about why we are seeing so many good citizens coming to a temporarily halt and turning into "blue" color for a short period of time, has been explained.

    It turned out that the government has used an Operating System called TinyXP (tm) produced by a company called Microsoft to be the source of the problem. Aperently those robats are "crashing" and emiting "blue" color until they recover.

    While Microsoft did not acknowledge the problem, nor did they deniy it. They simply said that they didn't have any comments.
  • When I first read this article, I thought Slashdot's "Swarm Bots" took over the articles too..

    This Article was generated by a Swarm of Tiny Robots for josh crawley (537561).
  • by Graff ( 532189 ) on Monday January 14, 2002 @04:17PM (#2837912)
    I'm not that big on the mechanical nanotech, we have a long way yet to go before we can duplicate some of the most perfect nanotech systems out there: microorganisms.

    We have the ability right now to craft custom virii and bacteria which can replicate and destroy other creatures. If we want to kill cryptosporidium and giardia (two common water-bourne parasites) then we should find the natural predators of such creatures and turn them to our needs.

    It's similar to the chemical spraying of crops to prevent insects and other pests from destroying harvests. For years we have been laying on the pesticides in order to stop crops from being ruined. Instead of relying on chemicals, we should instead be investing in natural methods of reducing pests, such as the use of preying mantis, ladybugs, egg-laying wasps, and other natural predators.

    Don't get me wrong, I don't think that all chemicals are evil and should be eliminated. I'm a chemist myself. I do believe that we can be much more effective if we cut back on the more toxic chemicals and replace them with more gentle alternatives. Many of the harsher chemicals build up and end up destroying the producing potential of our farmlands.
    • We have the ability right now to craft custom virii and bacteria which can replicate and destroy other creatures.


      Call me a flat - earther, (or better yet, call me a Catholic) but I don't see the benefit in creating custom-virii to counteract other parasites.

      For instance, look at the at the Africanized [] bee. (Aphis mellifera scutellata) []

      I know that "killer bees" is a misnomer, but the aggression of the Africanized bee is something that scientists failed to account for in their creation, much to the detriment of Sounth and Central America and some areas of Texas. Creating custom lifeforms is not what we should be doing.

      Transporting animals to do one thing or another, OTOH, is somewhere between here and there. The Spanish brought horses; I brought my dog from Arlington to Austin, and he fathered in Austin.

      I'm not an expert in morality (I'm still trying to figure right V wrong out myself) but I can't see the creation of custom lifeforms as a Good Thing under any circumstances.
      • I'm not an expert in morality (I'm still trying to figure right V wrong out myself) but I can't see the creation of custom lifeforms as a Good Thing under any circumstances.

        Scientists creating custom lifeforms is really no different than what happens in nature, it is just on a different time-scale.

        As an example: I am a chemist who has worked with water treatment systems for industrial use. One of the projects I worked on involved bacteriological treatment. We had a waste stream which was loaded with organic compounds, some of which were pretty nasty. It was going to be horribly expensive to chemically or mechanically treat the water, and we couldn't just release the stuff out to the environment. It's not only illegal, it's also immoral.

        What we did was to take a sample of bacteria found in sewer sludge (we bought it, we didn't have to go into the manholes for it!). We put these normal, everyday bacteria into bottles which had a very low concentration of our waste. Most of the bacteria were killed, but some tough ones survived. We took those and added in a stronger mixture of our waste and the same thing happened. After doing this dozens of times, we not only ended up with bacteria that could live in our waste, but also used it as a source of food.

        These bacteria "evolved" into being the perfect waste treatment system. They would break down a complex soup of organic compounds into carbon dioxide and other non-toxic wastes. They had no negative impact on the environment because they would die without our waste food. We tested them exhaustively and found the water coming out of our pilot treatment plant to be as clean as the water outside the facility.

        So just like anything else out there, science can be used in a responsible manner that does good. The key is to spend a ton of time testing your ideas to make sure that the risks are minimized. Accidents will happen, but they will happen with anything, not just with science.

        • we not only ended up with bacteria that could live in our waste, but also used it as a source of food....These bacteria "evolved" into being the perfect waste treatment system.

          And, quite possibly (I shudder to think that evolution was your goal) "evolved" into something more resistant to the toxins that should have killed it. How does this advance us in the use of antibiotics? What is the name of this bacteria, and what does it do when introduced to Humans? If it is not directly harmful to humans, then what about other lifeforms? How certain are you that you haven't plagued species X with the "evolution" that you seem so proud of having caused. Have you accounted for every single species that might encounter your evolved bacteria?

          Science is a tool that can be used for good purposes, I agree. The discoveries of the wheel, fire, and fire extinguishers were all good. Ultimately, science will lead to absolute proof of God's existence. But science, as a tool, like all tools can be used for evil as well. Even the Holy Bible can be used to hit my grandmother and knock her down. In this case, tool isn't the problem; the problem is its use.

          On the other hand, there are certan tools that can be used only for destructive purposes. Pornography comes to mind, in as much as it short - circuits a normal, healthy sex drive and although a pornographic book can be used to hold up the short leg of my dinner table, that clearly is not its intended purpose.

          At any rate, my argument was not Utilitarian; it was Judeo-Christian, specifically Catholic. It is not good, according to God's will, to try to design your own bacteria, cat, dog, or child, as it shows a grave disrespect for life and for God. Furthermore, we have no idea what kind of impact such a grave decision could bring about. That one would try to justify doing it for the use of cleaning up after our wasteful society, is little more than a further indictment of our wastefulness.

          Look at the lengths we have to go to just to clean up after ourselves! Can't we just learn not to make a mess in the first place?!

          Read my sig. To error in the side of being pedantic, read ! as "not".

          Read the posts about the nanorobots to clean up after the other nanorobots.

          Think about the story of Eve. If you don't know it, start here [] Understand that Eve was conned into thinking that it wasn't really "that bad". Yet she showed such disrespect for God, that we're all suffering.
          • At any rate, my argument was not Utilitarian; it was Judeo-Christian, specifically Catholic. It is not good, according to God's will, to try to design your own bacteria, cat, dog, or child, as it shows a grave disrespect for life and for God.

            I understand these are your beliefs and you believe them for your own reasons, so don't take this as an attack or a flame war - I'm just throwing in an observation.

            How do we know what God's mind is (assuming that he does exist)? According to the Bible, God created us in his image and he did give us a brain. In other words, he made it so that we are thinking beings. Who is to say that he didn't intend us to manipulate nature any way we choose? I don't think that we should even start to pretend we understand anything about the mind or the will of God, again working on the assumption that he exists.

            That being said, I feel we should always work on the principle of our own good, since that is a tangible ideal we can work toward. Is it good to ruin our environment? Is it good to make people sick? No, obviously not. That's why every choice we make and every idea which science comes up with should be evaluated as much as possible.

            In the case of the bacteria strain which I and others helped to develop, it was fairly obvious that it was as harmless as possible. Bacterial strains similar to the one we "evolved" are found everywhere, they naturally form on their own in nature. When we attempted to "reverse-evolve" the strain we had developed, we found that the bacteria returned to be almost exactly what they had started out from. They didn't gain super mutant powers, they didn't gain resistance to antibiotics. To be sure, we even added a UV light final stage to our scrubbers, along with a biodegradable scrubber material. This assured that all traces of the bacteria were removed from the treated waste stream.

            Not all scientists are evil, power-hungry tyrants, just the ones you see in the cartoons and the movies! :)

            • I understand these are your beliefs and you believe them for your own reasons, so don't take this as an attack or a flame war - I'm just throwing in an observation.

              Indeed, I wish I had said the same, as I also mean it sincerely. There are some people who do like to bash others over the head with their bible; I try not to act like that.

              I don't think that we should even start to pretend we understand anything about the mind or the will of God, again working on the assumption that he exists.

              While we cannot know God's will in its fullness, a good start is the Bible, the Catechism, and a healthy amount of prayer. The Ten Commandments were a pretty good indication of God's will, as was the birth, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

              That being said, I feel we should always work on the principle of our own good,

              Here's where you get into trouble, especially here:

              That being said, I feel we should always work on the principle of our own good,

              WE CAN'T FIGURE OUT WHAT IS GOOD FOR US. We don't have a clue. Just look at what we're doing to the environment, and how big a mess we have to clean up. I'll ask again, why can't we learn not to make messes in the first place?! I'd cite other examples, but they'd just sidetrack our conversation further. (free love -> abortion comes to mind, as does pornography -> stunted love life...somehow I see a third connection to be made here..)

              Don't get me wrong: whether it is better for me to eat rice or a hamburger, usually isn't a decision I reserve solely for God. On the other hand, I'm grateful for all the signals that have come from Him, some of which only I could see, and some of which I ignored entirely, to my own shame.

              Not all scientists are evil, power-hungry tyrants, just the ones you see in the cartoons and the movies! :)
              You are correct. No one (NO ONE) is inheriently and completely evil. All people of every profession have some redeeming qualities, although some people have to leave their environments to find those qualities.

              "Complete Evil" is a complete absence and denial of goodness. Science IS NOT evil, nor are scientists. That was the point of my paragraph about the Bible. On the other hand, SOME USES of science ARE evil, even though they appear good at first.
  • by Medievalist ( 16032 ) on Monday January 14, 2002 @04:19PM (#2837919)
    The article specified weak radio signals as the method of inter-nodal communication, but propagation of radio frequencies [] through water that isn't nano-pure really sucks.
    Sonar seems more feasible, particularly in salt water where radio doesn't work worth a damn. Of course then you'd have to worry about noise pollution... hey, wait, even if the radio signals work you are going to be really messing with electrically sensitive organisms (electric eels being the obvious example, but they aren't the only ones).
    • What if you have a billion of your robots that do not simply spread around like maniacs but actually following well defined patterns of behaviour? What if all robots are positioned within a radio range between themselves (one robot sends signal to the next and so on, until the signal reaches your receiver. The robots must follow a well defined pattern so that they can actually simulate behaviour of such objects as a receiever dish (let's say the signal is sent over the satellite every 24 hours that asks the robots to transmit back information collected in that period of time, then 1 hour before the signal, the robots all reposition themselves into an structure that will have an accumulative effect equal to a receiver/transmitter microwave dish.
  • by kalyptein ( 313110 ) on Monday January 14, 2002 @04:20PM (#2837926)
    There have been a number of posts asking about the effect of dumping these nanobots into the water, both on the marine ecology and anyone who might drink them. Well, first off, if you drink untreated salt water you have bigger problems than nanobots.

    But yes, the effect needs to be addressed. Although, these aren't self-replicators it should be noted. The density of the bots will be crucial. Assuming they don't build up to a measurable level of "silt", I don't see an immediate problem. Organisms can cope with drinking grains of sand, and these will be comparable to that, or smaller. From what I can gather from the article, they are planning to use inorganic materials for the most part (metals, silicon). If that's the case, I would expect them to be treated much like any other piece of grit. Its the organic compounds that really stick with you.

    I like this idea in general, but I'm a little dubious about how well it will work, regardless of side-effects. If you want to use antibodies, you'd better get the binding affinity just right, or you'll end up with a lot of false positives (low affinity) or a bot with all its sensors permanently clogged up (high affinity). Passing through fish digestive systems, getting sucked up by filter-feeders, and generally tossed about in a well-lit, ion-rich solution doesn't do much for long term operation. Are we planning to pump these things into the ocean nonstop?

    Still, good luck to them. I'd love to see something like this made to work.

  • Tiny robots, in the wine,
    Make me feel nervous, swimming in my spine,
    Tiny robots make my skin crawl all over
    With a feeling that our race is running out of time.

    So here's to the golden circuitry,
    And here's to our silvery seas,
    But most of all a toast to USC.
  • there is somthing... (Score:3, Interesting)

    by geekoid ( 135745 ) <dadinportland&yahoo,com> on Monday January 14, 2002 @04:38PM (#2838021) Homepage Journal
    ... that allready does this. They're called frogs.
  • Now if only I can procure some for the coffee machine at work!
  • available here []. The applications of the general techniques they are developing are pretty interesting. Even the further development of SPM's into three dimensional probing is pretty remarkable. Not to mention the greater ends of nanotechniques on manufacture.
  • Once this technology is developed it can also be used to monitor for other things. Send a swarm of nanobots into the sewer system looking for traces of illegal substances in waste for example. Just have the little buggers "backtrace" through the sewer network to find your house.

    Have a nice day.
  • by kirkb ( 158552 )
    What a coincidence -- my slashdot main page was also generated by a swarm of tiny robots (honest!). They sure are versatile.
  • If we have a bunch of robots out there in the ocean, why just use them to monitor pollution levels? Why couldn't they also monitor shipping and submarines?

    So we spread out a network of nano-robots throughout the oceans, and the US military then knows exactly where every submarine in the world is located. Whether scary privacy invasion or good intelligence, it's probably just about as doable as the stated objective.
  • Fully 1/3rd of the comments posted on this thread should be moderated down as "Redundant".

    And that's just of the +2 level ones I see. I'm sure the percentage is even higher downstairs.
  • I assume that the effective distance for communication between these things is relatively short. Given the rather large body of water they'll be released into, wouldn't a prohibitively large number of these things be required?
  • Perhaps I am missing something here, but from the short description, it sounds as if the concept is to put millions of "free floating" tiny robots into the ocean, where they would communicate amongst each other and thence to the outside world. Each robot would have negligably little computational power, but in combination, the robots could have a great impact.

    However, it is easy to see that if the robots are indeed freely floating, and are allowed to drift around for long periods of time, they will become separated. Indeed, given enough time, the equilibrium density of robots reached will simply be the number of robots over the entire oceanic volume! The robots will have become so far removed from their neighbors that they will have become useless. Unless the robots are physically tethered together, it is difficult for me to see how they will remain close to one another for any significant duration. And if they are physically tethered, in esseence to form a larger body, why bother with all of the nanoscale complexity? Why not just monitor using conventional silicon technology attached to floating buoys?

    It seems like the grant will be pushing nanoscale technology further, which is great for everyone, but I have serious reservations as to their chosen application. It would seem to me that an application where the probes would be fixed in location (in human tissue, for instance) would be a better application

  • Sounds a great deal like Roger Meyers Sr.'s movie, "Scratchtasia". I can just see billions of axe-wielding, mouse-shaped nanobots hacking away at each individual cell in our bodies, causing rapid decay into dust.
  • This kind of unscientific bullshitting by unqualified people just kills me. There are many fundamental flaws in this project. Here's a few

    • Power, how will these nanobots power themselves and their radio transmitters?
    • Underwater radio, to put it bluntly, high frequency underwater radio transmission doesn't work.
    • Telemetry, so how are these beasties going to figure out where they are? Or what direction their getting radio signals from?
    • Propulsion, the smaller you get, the harder it is to move around (especially in water). This objection can be offset by stating that the nanobots will rely on diffusion to spread. This leads to another problem.
    • Organization, how are they going to maintain integrity and or coherency in communication? AFAIK, no one has built/simulated large numbers (>10^6) of cooperative robotic groups. I hope I'm wrong though.

    Here's an example of the kind of rigorous though that has gone into this research proposal. Here we have "David Caron, professor of biological sciences and a co-investigator on the project" stating:

    ocean robots needn't be terribly complicated or powerful to be useful. A single robot might sense only whether the water is fresh or saline and communicate by a faint radio signal only with other robots closest to it, which would then relay the information to other robots in the network linked to the Internet by still more robots.

    Oh is that all it is? And who says that a robot that can do all of that isn't complicated or powerful? And pray, do you know how well radio signals travel in water? Here's a hint, the US Navy subs only use it for extremely short range communication and extremely long range communication (with frequencies in the 10's of Hz range). Oh and did you know that your antenna needs to be proportional to the wavelength you are going to transmit and recieve? Your nano-bots are going to be how big? How are you going to figure out where the signal is coming from? direction finding? GPS?

    And pray tell, how are you going to power these microscopic wonders (which need to transmit radio waves mind you)? Remember volume shrinks by the cube.

    This is the one that really had me rolling on the floor

    The USC researchers will first build small robots that will move, sense and communicate while tethered in a tank of water in a laboratory. They will gradually progress to building and controlling increasingly larger numbers of increasingly smaller freely moving robots. The end goal of the project will be to create robots that are as small as the microorganisms that they seek to monitor.

    Is that all? So, we just need to duplicate the functionality of bateria without the self-duplication but with added radio communication, telemetry (to figure out where signals are coming from), and data acquisition. Oh and social/aggregate organization. Piece o' cake. Is next Tuesday good for you?

    • <===== Beowulf Cluster pictured here.
  • ...if that's not a reason to quit drinking sea water, I don't know what is!

All laws are simulations of reality. -- John C. Lilly