Paul Davies, Wil McCarthy and Alien Nanotech Probes

Late-night viewing of some “morphing UFO” footage has brought me back to a concept that’s always fascinated me: a Universe swarming with nano-scale ET intelligence.? This could mean anything from tiny spaceships, to Earth itself being a high-tech, alien-scripted “stage” where what we perceive as dead matter is anything but.

“The tiny probes I’m talking about will be so inconspicuous that it’s no surprise that we haven’t come across one. It’s not the sort of thing that you’re going to trip over in your back yard. So if that is the way technology develops, namely, smaller, faster, cheaper and if other civilizations have gone this route, then we could be surrounded by surveillance devices.”

That’s Paul Davies, thinking out loud along the same lines. (For more excellent brainfood from Davies, check out his recent 2007 Scientific American article, Are Aliens Among Us? — which is focused on microbial and nanoscale lifeforms, not shapeshifters posing as human.)

Although it remains mostly experimental and speculative, humans have worked out the mechnics of nanoscale engineering to a remarkable degree.? Decades ago, the concept of matter being able to change it’s fundamental properties instantly could only be attributed to magic and sorcery, but now it’s downright normal.? From the visionary Wil McCarthy’s classic article, Ultimate Alchemy:

Electrons that are part of an atom will arrange themselves into orbitals, which constrain and define their positions around the positively charged nucleus. These orbitals, and the electrons that partially or completely fill them, are what determine the chemical properties of an atom – such as what other sorts of atoms it can react with, and how strongly.

This point bears repeating: The electrons trapped in a quantum dot will arrange themselves as though they were part of an atom, even though there’s no atomic nucleus for them to surround. Which atom they resemble depends on the number of excess electrons trapped inside. What’s more, the electrons in two adjacent quantum dots will interact just as they would in two real atoms placed at the equivalent distance, meaning the two dots can share electrons between them – they can form connections equivalent to chemical bonds. Not virtual or simulated bonds, but real ones.

Now we’ll take it a step further: Quantum dots needn’t be formed by etching blocks out of a quantum well. Instead, the electrons can be confined electrostatically by electrodes whose voltage can be varied on demand, like a miniature electric fence around a corral. In fact, this is the preferred method, since it permits the dots’ characteristics to be adjusted without any physical modification of the underlying material. We can pump electrons in and out simply by varying the voltage on the fence.

This type of nanostructure is called an artificial or designer atom, because it can be manipulated to resemble any atom on the periodic table. It’s not a science-fictional device, but a routine piece of experimental hardware used in laboratories throughout the world.

Also check out the “free multimedia edition” of Wil McCarthy’s book-length (and excellent) expansion on this topic, Hacking Matter.


  1. A number of people have commented that, should we develop nano-assembler technology, the first thing we need to do is work out a “nano-immune system” for the Earth to prevent accidental or intentional nano-catastrophe. Others have speculated that when we finally get down to that level, we may find that someone has been there before us.

  2. Justin Boland

    September 29, 2008 at 4:11 pm

    Or perhaps we already have a nano-immune system, and our existing biological defenses will just adapt to the new challenges, threats and food sources? Hopefully soon we’d have enough data on protein systems, cellular structure, the role of hormones…and there’s even more than that going into my all-time favorite scientific keyword, “psychoneuroimmunology.”

    I also wonder if nanotech could rapidly have to deal with novel threats, like fungus or bacterium that specifically target nanotech! I think the barrier to entry for human-made nano will turn out to be very steep and Earth, as a system, really holds us down in terms of biostasis…for instance, the Ebola outbreak I thought would be inevitable at age 12, has yet to happen.

    Maybe I’m just being optimistic, too.

  3. Justin Boland

    October 1, 2008 at 2:44 pm

    The next day it turns out that NASA is considering the same strategy for the exploration of Mars and other solar planets:

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