1. Introduction

The year is 2045. A 31-year-old woman is brought to the hospital complainingof headaches and fever. The doctors identify a species of equine encephalitis, a mosquito-borne virus, in her blood. In the first two decades of the 21st century, there was not a cure for this type of virus. The treatment was mainly supportive. More particularly, the doctor attempted to maintain the lung function and the heart of the patient while the infection lasted.

Such treatment is far away in the past. In 2045, the doctor injects 15 billion active micron-size virucidal nanorobots into the blood of the patient. Nanorobots are robots operating at a scale similar to the biological cell. The nanorobots injected into the blood of the patient have special sensors that recognize the equine encephalitis and destroy them without harming the body cells.

However, after the completion of their tasks, the nanorobots are affected by a computer virus and start acting autonomously. For example, they destroy biological cells of vital human organs. Thus, the doctors are put in a situation which is as difficult as the treatment of equine encephalitis.

The aforementioned imaginary situation clearly indicates the benefits of nanorobots and the information security threats associated with them. This article discusses two mechanisms for managing such threats, namely security mechanisms (Section 2) and safety mechanisms (Section 3). Finally, a conclusion is drawn (Section 4).

Before proceeding with the next section, it should be noted that the article will discuss security and safety mechanisms related to nanorobots created on the basis of non-biological materials. Such materials may include, for example, carbone nanotubes and metal nanowires. It is worth mentioning that in 2013, a group of Stanford researchers announced that they had constructed a simple working computer from carbon nanotubes.

2. Security mechanisms

The security mechanisms of nanorobots are mechanisms for defending nanorobots from unauthorized access, use, and destruction. Below, three types of security measures are examined, namely, anti-malware programs (Section 2.1), checksums (Section 2.2), and formally proofed systems without backdoors (Section 2.3).

2.1 Anti-malware programs

Computer viruses, worms, and spam may hinder the operation of nanorobots. A nanorobot containing a computer virus may start self-replicating. In this regard, Bill Joy, the chief scientist of Sun Microsytems, noted that autonomous nanorobots may attack the foundations of human life. Richard E. Smalley, a laureate of the Nobel Prize in chemistry, rejects Joy’s concerns. More particularly, Mr. Smalley stated that the manipulating “fingers” of the nanorobots are too sticky. As a result, the atoms of the nanorobots will adhere to the atom that is being moved.

The anti-malware programs installed on nanodevices need to be specifically designed for operation on low-energy consumption devices. For example, a nanodevice invented by scientists in Taiwan converts near-infrared (NIR) light energy under the skin into electrical power measured at 0.32µW. This electric power may not be sufficient to allow a quick operation of a comprehensive anti-malware program.

2.2 Checksums

Checksums will allow the detection of unauthorized changes of information in nanorobots. In order to understand whether such unauthorized changes have occurred, a security administrator needs to identify all information that should remain unchanged in a nanorobot and calculate checksums for them. A checksum can be defined as a mathematically generated number that is calculated on the basis of sequences of values. A checksum algorithm assigns different checksums to different files.

Nanorobots may send checksum information to a receiver by submitting ultrasound messages or magnetic fields. The term “ultrasound” refers to a sound wave having a higher frequency than the upper limit of the human hearing range. Human beings cannot hear ultrasound waves. Ultrasonic imaging is already used in veterinary medicine and human medicine. Nanorobots using magnetic fields will send checksums to a receiver by changing their magnetic frequency.

2.3 Formally proofed systems without backdoors

In order to be well protected from information security attacks, nanorobots will need to implement regular information security measures, including but not limited to firewalls, packet filtering, and secure authentication (e.g. encryption and secure passwords). It is worth mentioning that nanoencryption technologies already exist. For example, the American company NanoGuardian presented a nanoencryption technology for combating counterfeit medicine that can be incorporated in nanoscale features on gelatin capsules, film-coated tablets, and vial caps. The technology can be used by producers of medicine to track and authenticate medicinal products. The main advantage of such nanoscale features is that they do not add additional material or chemicals to the medication.

3. Safety mechanisms

For the purpose of this article, the term “safety mechanisms” refers to precautions assuring that a nanorobot will continue operating well even after the appearance of certain problems. The safety mechanisms need to ensure that the tasks of the nanorobot are divided among a large number of operational units (Section 3.1) and that a major failure of the operation of the nanorobot will deactivate it without harming biological cells (Section 3.2).

3.1 Dividing tasks among a large number of operational units

The creation of a larger number of operational units will ensure the smooth operation of the nanorobot even after a failure of some of those operational units. However, because nanorobots normally range in size from 0.1-10 micrometres, it may be difficult to create a large number of operational units. The parts of the nanorobots will have dimensions ranging between 1 and 100 nanometers. The tiny electromechanical components of the nanorobots will need to be constructed in electronic microscopes with nanoscale precision. Up to the present date, there is not micromanufacturing technology that can construct nanorobots.

3.2 Deactivation in case of a major failure

The deactivation of a nanorobot in case of a major failure may prevent death or serious injury to the organism carrying that particular nanorobot. For example, a death may occur if nanorobots intended for anesthezing the dental pulp discontinue the nerve impulses in the heart. Scientists propose three different approaches to solve this problem.

The first approach is the use of nanoterminators. The function of the nanoterminators will be the elimination of disobedient nanorobots. For example, nanoterminators may eliminate nanorobots that are affected by computer viruses. Nanoterminators can also be an important countermeasure against nanorobots used as weapons for mass destructions. In relation to such weapons, Edward Lyshevski stated:

“Unfortunately, biotechnology and nanobiotechnology may lead to very primitive but very “effective” weapons of mass destruction, and nanobioweaponry is a reality that must be dealt with.”

The second approach is the use of a watchdog timer. It is a counter that shut down a device if it ever reaches zero. However, the watchdog timer never reaches zero as long as the program continues to operate. The watchdog timer is employed in many programmable devices. For example, it is used in mobile phones in order to ensure that the display is turned off if the user does not use the mobile phone. In the context of medical nanorobots, the watchdog timer can be prevented from reaching zero by submitting magnetic or ultrasound messages.

The third approach is the implementation of a mechanism in nanorobots that is similar to apoptosis. Apoptosis is a process of cell self-destruction which may occur in multicellular organisms. Similarly to some biological cells, the nanorobots can be programmed to automatically eliminate themselves after a certain period.

4. Conclusion

Nanorobotics promises a plethora of different solutions to problems which have been plaguing mankind for centuries. While nanorobotics is still a theoretical discipline, the chances of having real nanorobots in the near future should not be underestimated. In this context, Professor Gianfranco Cerofolini, a visiting researcher at the University of Milano-Bicocca, pointed out that:

“At the present stage of knowledge, the hypothesized nanorobot is certainly far from being producible, but it is not an (irrational) dream because most of the critical steps required for its preparation have already been established.”

The success of nanorobotics will depend not only on the ability of scientists to create nanorobots, but also on the ability of scientists to ensure that the nanorobots will operate in a secure and safe manner. Otherwise, science fiction scenarios such as the gray goo and black goo scenarios may come true. Gray goo refers to a scenario where nanorobots convert all organic matter into other nanorobots. Black goo refers to a scenario where terrorists use nanorobots as weapons for mass destruction.

In order to ensure the safety and security of nanorobots, the governments will need to adopt regulatory measures applying to users and manufacturers of nanorobots, physicians, government agencies. The purpose of the measures has to be twofold, namely, (1) the reduction of the possibility of dysfunctional nanorobots as well as (2) environmental pollution caused by nanorobots. Such goals can be achieved only if the legislators have a high level of scientific understanding. In this regard, Jane Henney, a former Commissioner of U.S. Food and Drug Administration, noted:

“Products on the near horizon will no doubt meld all three: nanorobots that can enter the circulatory system, delivering just the right amount of drug or gene product to the right place. Those who make decisions at the FDA about such traditional or complex and high-tech products must be scientifically equal to the intellectual cognitive development that has invented these advanced technologies as we judge which products are ready for the marketplace. If we are not scientifically strong, our decision making will become risk-averse or, what is worse, simply wrong.”

In fact, there are currently extensive debates in the United States and some European Union countries concerning the regulation of nanotechnology. Some participants in the debate argue that nanotechnology should be banned until science clearly understands the implications that nanotechnology may have on the mankind. Other participants argue that a ban of all nanotechnology will be less beneficial than its supporters anticipate. Many on both sides in the debate would probably agree that all countries must draft and sign an international treaty to ban the production of weapons of mass destruction based on nanotechnology.

* The author would like to thank Rasa Juzenaite for her invaluable contribution to this article.


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