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Ibrahim B. Syed, Ph. D., D. Sc.

Clinical Professor of Medicine

University of Louisville School of Medicine, and
President, Islamic Research Foundation International, Inc.

7102 W. Shefford Lane

Louisville, KY 40242, U.S.A.


Islam encourages the use of science and the scientific method. Acquisition of knowledge is obligatory on every Muslim, male and female. In Islam, science and technology should be used for moral ends and serve all legitimate needs of mankind. Moreover, both are viewed as yet another means to understand and see the power and glory of God.

"He it is Who created for you all that is in the earth." [Qur'an 2:29]

"It is your Lord, the Most Bounteous, Who taught by the pen, taught man that which he knew not..." [Qur'an 96:2-5]

"We shell show them our Signs on the horizons and within themselves until it will be manifest unto them that it is the Truth..." [Qur'an 41:53]

Michael Crichton, the author of Jurassic Park, Timeline, 'The Andromeda Strain', 'Invasion of the body snatchers' and other novels has lately authored a terrific novel titled PREY. This is the most compelling novel that tells the story of a mechanical plague and the desperate efforts of a handful of scientists to stop it. In PREY Michael Crichton utilizes the latest scientific facts and takes us into the emerging realms of nanotechnology and artificial distributed intelligence -- in a story of breathtaking suspense.  In this novel, he takes three emerging technologies - genetics, distributed intelligence and nanotechnology and brews up a terrifying tale of science gone well skewed.

The main character in the novel is Jack Forman who is in charge of PREDPREY, a program that makes cameras the size of atoms swarm together and act like they are hunting something. The story starts off with software expert, Jack living the life of a house-husband after being fired from a shady Silicon Valley firm (Xymos Corporation). He suspects that his wife Julia (a high-powered computer executive) is having an affair. She is spending more and more time at her firm's (Xymos Corporation) experimental fabrication plant in the barren desert of Nevada.  Xymos is having a few problems with its prototype nano-device and so Jack is hired to investigate.  It turns out that since he's been gone, people have made changes to the codes, and they haven't been good changes. To make matters worse, Forman has learned that they've allowed a swarm to get outside. They can't get it back to the lab, since it won't respond to their communications. A cloud of nanoparticles -- micro-robots -- has escaped from the laboratory. Jack discovers his wife's firm has created self-replicating nanotechnology--a literal swarm of microscopic machines. Originally meant to serve as a military eye in the sky (spy cameras), the swarm has now escaped into the environment and is seemingly intent on killing the scientists trapped in the facility.  This cloud is self-sustaining and self-reproducing. It is intelligent and learns from experience. Jack discovers even worse news when he finds that the rapidly evolving swarms are carnivorous and reproducing because they were created using organic materials.  For all practical purposes, it is alive. It has been programmed as a predator. It is evolving swiftly, becoming more deadly with each passing hour. Every attempt to destroy it has failed.  So the people in the lab have become the Prey. The fact that they can kill now makes a risky situation even worse, and then to top it off, they are adaptable, learning and evolving at a rate that far surpasses anything in human technology. Forman also learns that his wife isn't what she seems.  Crichton then pits man against the swarm of nano-particles in a time-constrained thriller. 

The film version of Prey is now in development at Twentieth Century Fox. No details yet.  The shooting of the movie film was finished on July 21, ahead of schedule. Director Dick Donner's film for Paramount is now in post-production, with a release date planned for 2003


Human beings have advanced their lives with technology. Man has built huge dams, bridges and jet aircraft as well as microscopically small things, like the computer chips, which are affecting nearly every aspect of our lives, and the genetically modified bacteria that create new drugs for us.


In the 21st century, we are plunging forward into a new era of technological power, one that offers enormous promise for the future and enormous dangers as well.


Scientists are planning to create tiny computers, smaller than specks of dust, programmed to travel in a cloud over a country like Iraq and send back pictures. Unlike robot aircraft, this camera can’t be shot down; bullets will pass right through it.

Such tiny computers will weaken in time, however they can be programmed to be self-reproducing, to replenish themselves.  The risk is these tiny computers begin to evolve, and the aggregate cloud becomes a death-dealing swarm that threatens mankind – in effect, a mechanical plague.

What is Nanotechnology ?

In its most basic form, nanotechnology refers to the manipulation of materials at the atomic or molecular level. The name derives from the nanometer, a scientific measurement unit representing a billionth of a meter, or three to four toms wide. Scientists are learning how to connect atoms and molecules together to create nano-scale mechanisms that create switches or transistors, or even small machines that can perform complex tasks.
To use an oft-quoted comparison, a human hair is between 100,000 and 200,000 nanometers thick, while a typical virus can be just 100 nanometers wide. Atoms themselves are typically between one-tenth and half of a nanometer wide. Because of the difficulties involved in working at this scale, activities involving manipulation of items as “large” as 100 nanometers are generally included in the concept of nanotechnology.

Nanotechnology gives scientists the ability to create new materials, atom by atom. With increasingly more powerful microscopes, scientists can see molecules mere nanometers -
or billionths of a meter - in size (a pinhead is one million nanometers across). The field intertwines nearly all fields of science.

Most discussions about nanotechnology deal with the futuristic concept of nanomachines or nanobots: microscopic devices that can themselves carry out tasks at the atomic or sub-atomic level. Nanotechnology, also called molecular manufacturing, is "a branch of engineering that deals with the design and manufacture of extremely small electronic circuits and mechanical devices built at the molecular level of matter."  The goal of nanotechnology is to be able to manipulate materials at the atomic level to build the smallest possible electromechanical devices, given the physical limitations of matter. Much of the mechanical systems we know how to build will be transferred to the molecular level as some atomic analogy. 

The 21st century gives a typical vision: “Nanotechnologists will be building our cars one molecule at a time, invading our bloodstream to declog our arteries, and replicating themselves thousands of times over.”


Nanorobot is a computer-controlled robotic device constructed of nanometer-scale components to molecular precision, usually microscopic in size (often abbreviated as "nanobot"). This reminds one of the 1966 film Fantastic Voyage, in which a team of scientists (including Raquel Welch) are miniaturized, placed in a tiny submarine and injected into a sick man’s bloodstream.   Nanotechnology invariably involves work on a much smaller scale than the average blood cell.

If you can construct objects at the molecular level, you can theoretically build anything, since all objects are made up of molecules.

Translating from concept to practice is trickier. While many plans have been drawn up for simple nanomachines such as gears and motors, actually building them is still fiendishly difficult and rather expensive. The most famous “working” nanomachine is probably the nanoguitar constructed by Cornell University researchers in 1997. Just 10,000 nanometers wide, the nanoguitar has six strings, each just 50 nanometers wide. Of course, without a nano-ear to listen to its 10MHz output, the guitar is fairly useless, but it demonstrates that simple machines can be constructed on a nanometric scale.

Producing nanomachines on a commercial basis will undoubtedly prove more challenging, since atomic manipulation, while not theoretically contrary to the laws of physics, is still extremely slow and costly.

The most widely discussed long-term solution is to make the nanomachines self-replicating. Control mechanisms for such systems (how does a machine know how to build a copy of itself, and how does it know when to stop doing so?) are still in their very early stages, and once again theory is a fair way ahead of practical reality.

Charles Vest, the president of MIT, observed recently. “The gathering nanotechnology revolution will eventually make possible a huge leap in computing power, vastly stronger yet much lighter materials, advances in medical technologies, as well as devices and processes with much lower energy and environmental costs.

Nanotechnology may well rival the development of the transistor or telecommunications in its ultimate impact.”

Many of the more recent practical applications of nanotechnology has been in the area of materials research, but scientists believe that transistors could also eventually be built in this way, paving the way for computational technologies which don’t depend on silicon and which can pack even more circuitry into microscopic spaces.

Nanoshells 2

Nanoshells are tiny particles that can manipulate light, and can be used to transform medical procedures ranging from cancer therapy to medical testing and drug delivery.

Nanoshells are ideal for biotechnology applications because they are biocompatible, can be altered and modified and absorb light strongly in the near-infrared region, where human tissue is most transparent.

Nanoshells can be tagged and delivered specifically to tumor cells but leave healthy cells undamaged. Nanoshells can reduce the amount of time it takes to conduct medical tests from several days into a matter of seconds and nanoshells incorporated into temperature-sensitive polymers can be triggered to release a chemical using infrared light, providing a patient with the ability to control the release of medicine that requires periodic dispensing.


A new bandage 3

A new bandage that imitates nature's own healing is used for minor cuts to gunshot wounds. The bandage, a flannel-like material, stops bleeding immediately and can be left in place to be absorbed by the body.  This new material is developed by spinning a compound naturally found in blood into a bandage that can minimize blood loss and be absorbed by the body, according to an article in the Feb. 12 issue of Nano Letters, a journal of the American Chemical Society.

"We've taken an old technique - electrospinning – and applied it to natural fibers," said Gary Bowlin, associate professor of biomedical engineering at Virginia Commonwealth University.

When a person bleeds from a cut or wound, a blood clot forms and netting made of a substance called fibrin develops over the clot. Fibrinogen, the compound in blood
that comprises the "natural" bandage, is a fibrin precursor, researchers added, and can come from human, bovine or genetically engineered bacterial sources.

The goal is to pack the bandage like gauze so it can be used to handle trauma patients, Bowlin said. 

Science fiction into reality 4

Imagine a world in which cars can be assembled molecule-by-molecule, garbage can be disassembled and turned into beef steaks, and people can be operated on and healed by cell-sized robots. Sound like science fiction? Well, with current semiconductor chip manufacturing encroaching upon the nanometer scale and the ability to move individual atoms at the IBM Almaden laboratory, we are fast approaching the technological ability to fabricate productive machines and devices that can manipulate things at the atomic level. From this ability we will be able to develop molecular-sized computers and robots, which would give us unprecedented control over matter and the ability to shape the physical world as we see fit.

Nanofabrication techniques with applications in fiber optics, biotechnology, microelectromechanical systems (MEMS), "tiny mechanical devices such as sensors, valves, gears, mirrors, and actuators embedded in semiconductor chips", are particularly interesting because they are but a mere step away from the molecular machines envisioned by nanotechnology. MEMS are already being used in automobile airbag systems as accelerometers to detect collisions and will become an increasing part of our everyday technology. In 1986, a researcher from MIT named K. Eric Drexler already foresaw the advent of molecular machines and published a book, Engines of Creation, in which he outlined the possibilities and consequences of this emerging field, which he called nanotechnology.  Drexler has written numerous other books on the subject, such as Unbounding the Future, and has founded the Foresight Institute, which is a nonprofit organization dedicated to the responsible development of nanotechnology. It hosts conferences and competitions to raise the awareness of nanotechnology and the ethical issues involved in its development.

Today, nanotechnology research and development is quite wide spread in numerous universities. The U.S. government has created an organization, the National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI), to monitor and guide research and development in this field.


As envisioned by Drexler, as well as many others, this would lead to nanocomputers, no bigger than bacteria and nanomachines, also known as nanites (from Star Trek: The Next Generation), which could be used as a molecular assemblers and disassemblers to build, repair, or tear down any physical or biological objects.

In essence, the purpose of developing nanotechnology is to have tools to work on the molecular level analogous to the tools we have at the macroworld level. Like the robots we use to build cars and the construction equipment we use to build skyscrapers, nanomachines will enable us to create a plethora of goods and increase our engineering abilities to the limits of the physical world.

Potential Benefits

It would not take much of a leap, then, to imagine disassemblers dismantling garbage to be recycled at the molecular level, and then given to assemblers for them to build atomically perfect engines. Stretching this vision a bit, you can imagine a Star Trek type replicator, which could reassemble matter in the form of a juicy steak, given the correct blueprints and organization of these nanomachines.

A  laboratory-scale "in vivo nanoscope" capable of providing atomic resolution, real time movies of happenings inside living cells in intact living animals. This nanoscope is a hybrid of conventional technology and early (pre-assembler) nanotechnology, yet provides an enormous leap in the ability of biologists to understand the workings of cells and develop medical therapies.

Just given the basic premises of nanotechnology, you can imagine the vast potential of this technology. Some of it's more prominent benefits would be: Precision Manufacturing, Material Reuse, Miniaturization.

The medical applications are: Pharmaceutical Creation, Disease Treatment, and Nanomachine-assisted Surgery.

Environmental applications are in Toxin Cleanup, Recycling and Resource Consumption Reduction.



Nanomedicine deals with (1) the comprehensive monitoring, control, construction, repair, defense, and improvement of all human biological systems, working from the molecular level, using engineered nanodevices and nanostructures; (2) the science and technology of diagnosing, treating, and preventing disease and traumatic injury, of relieving pain, and of preserving and improving human health, using molecular tools and molecular knowledge of the human body; (3) the employment of molecular machine systems to address medical problems, using molecular knowledge to maintain and improve human health at the molecular scale. Cosmetic nanosurgery done with simple nanomachines (no on-board computers, for example) could change hair color, cause hair to grow or not to grow in specific locations, keep teeth clean and skin smooth, etc., all far more effectively than with current day treatments. Looking somewhat further in the future at more radical modifications of the human body through nanotechnology, Edward Reifman describes dentistry with assembler-fabricated teeth, and even with teeth and jaws made of diamond.

“In the long term, we hope to be able to build small nanorobots which can search out and destroy cancerous tumors when they comprise just one or two cells “Or small drilling machines which dissolve clots.”

Viruses, which are natural nanomachines, could better be fought, as the body’s own immune system has some handicaps: it tends to forget the shape of it’s enemies, it sometimes has problems identifying malignant cells and it suffers from a certain delay until the immune reaction is fully developed, therefore nanomachines could serve as support to the immune system. Nanomachines could route bacteria, they could excise tumors and reconstruct damaged tissue, and furthermore they could make a huge contribution to the treatment of ageing.

Along with all the obvious manufacturing benefits, there are also many potential medical and environmental benefits. With nanomachines, we could better design and synthesize pharmaceuticals; we could directly treat diseased cells like cancer; we could better monitor the life signs of a patient; or we could use nanomachines to make microscopic repairs in hard-to-operate-on areas of the body. With regard to the environment, we could use nanomachines to clean up toxins or oil spills, recycle all garbage, and eliminate landfills, thus reducing our natural resource consumption.

Potential Dangers

The downside to these benefits is the possibility of assemblers and disassemblers being used to create weapons, be used as weapons themselves, or for them to run wild and wreak havoc. Other, less invasive, but equally perilous uses of nanotechnology would be in electronic surveillance.

Weapons are an obvious negative use of nanotechnology. Simply extending today's weapon capabilities by miniaturizing guns, explosives, and electronic components of missiles would be deadly enough. However, with nanotechnology, armies could also develop disassemblers to attack physical structures or even biological organism at the molecular level. A similar hazard would be if general-purpose disassemblers got loose in the environment and started disassembling every molecule they encountered. This is known as "The Gray Goo Scenario." Furthermore, if nanomachines were created to be self-replicating and there were a problem with their limiting mechanism, they would multiply endlessly like viruses. Even without considering the extreme disaster scenarios of nanotechnology, we can find plenty of potentially harmful uses for it. It could be used to erode our freedom and privacy; people could use molecular sized microphones, cameras, and homing beacons to monitor and track others.

Ethical Issues & Analysis

With such awesome potential dangers inherent in nanotechnology, we must seriously examine its potential consequences. Granted, nanotechnology may never become as powerful and prolific as envisioned by its evangelists, but as with any potential, near-horizon technology, we should go through the exercise of formulating solutions to potential ethical issues before the technology is irreversibly adopted by society. We must examine the ethics of developing nanotechnology and create policies that will aid in its development so as to eliminate or at least minimize its damaging effects on society.

Nanosensors 5

Nanosensor -- a chemical or physical sensor constructed using nanoscale components, usually microscopic or submicroscopic in size.

Nano brings science fiction into everyday life 6


The more immediate future of nanotechnology lies in its application in sensors, such as electronic ‘noses’ with the ability to detect the presence of individual protein molecules in a blood sample, for example. This involves a chip the size of your little fingernail with thousands of sensors, each set to detect a specific substance. It may even be possible to make them so small that they fit on a needle. Then there would be no need for a blood test – a prick in the finger would be sufficient to allow a full blood analysis.

Nanosensors will also be of great value in the production of new medicines since they can effectively find active substances. So far it has been possible to build this type of sensor one by one, but the difficulty lies in integrating perhaps 100, 000 on one chip.

Nanotechnology will have great significance in the materials field. There are already self-washing windows that repel dirt thanks to their nanostructured surface.

Aging process can be delayed by repairing human cells one by one. Unlimited computer power obtained  from improved microchip performance. Global warming can be reduced by cleaning greenhouse gases out of the atmosphere with nanoparticles; and pesticides that kill insects without harmful byproducts. Creation of artificial muscles and sensors, as well as a nanocoating for metal that could increase the efficiency of power plants and potentially save millions of dollars a year for electricity generators.

Such molecules could be used in computers thousands of times smaller than current semiconductors with immense  memory capability or light-activated medicines. One of the universities is trying to improve upon imaging with the atomic force microscope, one of the tools used to observe life at the nanoscale.


Nanofluids 7
On the medical front, researchers at Virginia Polytechnic Institute are developing magnetic nanofluids. Magnetic  particles attached to medicines, like those used in
chemotherapy, can be concentrated to one part of the body  by using external magnets on patients, they speculate

Always clean clothing 8, 9

Imagine textiles that you can neither stain nor wrinkle, but maintain the look and feel of fabrics made from natural fibers. Imagine materials that are 100 times stronger than
steel, but weigh only one sixth as much. Nanofibers could be used in astronauts' suits, moving with them as they work to give them greater flexibility in space, or to allow the disabled greater mobility by acting as extra muscles, Kim speculates.

 Imagine batteries that take up less than one cubic millimeter, but that can supply a medical implant with power for years. Imagine sensors, smaller than a pinpoint, that can detect anything in extremely low concentrations, from specific antibodies to toxic chemicals.


Nanotechnology encompasses life sciences, chemistry, physics, and engineering. Through nanotechnology, nano-developers manipulate single atoms and molecules to create new structures to achieve previously unheard of results.


When a big splash of coffee would have left an unmistakable stain on ordinary trousers, can simply be brushed off without leaving a trace on a pair of trousers made of nanotextile.   A titanium frying pan and the laser in a fairly modern CD player are both based on nanotechnology.    Nanoparticles can be added to wall paint, which then automatically sterilizes an operating theatre, or that filters based on nanotechnology used in water purifiers can automatically kill undesirable bacteria, hence nano-technology is and will increasingly become part of our everyday lives, sometimes without us even noticing.

Roofing tiles that convert solar light to household electricity, to reinforced, self-repairing houses immune to all natural disasters "short of a large incoming meteor.10

Michael Crichton 11

Dr Michael Crichton says "These organisms (self-reproducing tiny computers) will be created by nanotechnology, perhaps the most radical technology in human history: the quest to build man-made machines of extremely small size, on the order of 100 nanometers, or 100/billionths of a meter. Such machines would be 1000 times smaller than the diameter of a human hair. Experts predict that these tiny machines will provide everything from miniaturized computer components to new medical treatments to new military weapons. In the 21st. century, they will change our world totally."


"The potential benefits are spectacular: Tiny robots may crawl through your arteries, cutting away atherosclerotic plaque; powerful drugs will be delivered to individual cancer cells, leaving other cells undamaged; teeth will be self-repairing. Cosmetically, you will change your hair color with an injection of nanomachines that circulate through the body, moving melanocytes in hair follicles. Other nanomachines will lighten or darken skin color at will, removing blemishes, birthmarks and liver spots in the process; still others could cleanse the mouth and eliminate bad breath. Nonsurgical nanoprocesses could even perform liposuction and body reshaping. They also will repair knees and spines."


"Living spaces will be transformed, with self-cleaning dishes and carpets and permanently clean bathrooms. Windows will lighten or darken at will; programmable paint will change color. You can walk through the walls of your house, since they are composed of particle clouds. Your personal computer and your watch will be painted on your arm. Temperature-sensitive clothing will loosen when it gets hot, insulate when it gets cold."



In the future, roving nanomachines will convert trash dumps to energy; solar nanomachines will be coated on the houses to generate electricity; flexible nanomachines will provide earthquake protection. It may be possible to move a house on the backs of millions of nanomachines, across the lawn.


In 1959 in a speech titled “There’s Plenty of Room at the Bottom” delivered at the Annual Meeting of the American Physical Society by Caltech physicist Richard Feynman predicted the advent of nanomachines. In 2003, nanotechnology is still very much in its infancy, however major corporations such as IBM, Fujitsu and Intel are funding nanotechnology research. U.S. Government investment in nanotechnology has gone from virtually nothing only a few years ago to well over $600,000,000 per year by 2003.


At the present, nonotechniques already are being used to make sunscreens, stain resistant fabrics and composite materials in cars. Soon they will be used to make computers and storage devices of extremely small size.  One company is now making self-cleaning window glass; another is making nanocrystal wound dressing with antibiotic and anti-inflammatory properties. Currently, nanotechnology is principally a materials technology. 


Most experts predict that self-reproducing machines are only a decade away. There are man-made, self-reproducing entities released in the environment. The first of these, of course, were computer viruses. The first viruses were created as a game – “core wars,” a 1960’s battle between mainframe programmers, each releasing a program into the other’s mainframe computer. The game was limited to specialists, but hackers began to experiment as well. The growth of computer networking made rapid worldwide transmission possible.  Computers viruses, worms on the Internet have become an international threat to information and global business.


Scientists are witnessing some of the problems of self-replicating biotechnology agents.


For example a recent report indicates that modified maize genes are now appearing in native maize in Mexico – despite laws against it and efforts to prevent it. It is only the start of what we may expect to be a long journey to control this new technology. Laws have been passed to put hackers in jail. Delinquent biotechnologists will soon join them.


It is important to have international controls to deal with self-reproducing technologies.  At the moment, there are essentially no laws dealing with this subject.







3. Richmond, Va., Feb 11, 2003



6. Nano into everyday life  by Nino Simic (a Swedish journalist living in Lund).

7. Ryan Randazzo, RENO GAZETTE-JOURNAL, 6/15/2002 



11.  Michael Crichton, " Could Tiny Machines Rule the World?", Parade    Magazine, November 24, 2002, pages 6-8.


Some nanotechnology links:
A search engine that compiles various sources and articles.

Professor Jim Tour's research home page.

Professor Naomi Halas' research home page.

The National Science and Technology Council's site for nanoscale technology, including information on federal initiatives.




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