We Care For You

By Paul Kitcatt

Would you let a robot care for your elderly mother – and what would the robot want in return?

Thursday, 15 September 2016

The coming of nanobots

I first read about nanobots in New Scientist, which is also where I discovered how close we are to creating convincing synthetic humans. And sitting with my mother, feeding her mushy food with a spoon, in the care home where she ended her days, I wondered if these inventions would arrive in time to help her. And if they did, what would happen. What would it be like if she were restored to health?

That's where We Care For You started.

Here's an extract from it. This is where Winifred, the synthetic human, or Helper, sees nanobots at work for the first time:


I switched my eye to microscopic view. The fluid on the dish was suddenly alive. I could see human retinal cells. Approaching them was a fleet of tiny machines, much smaller than the cells.

I upped the magnification. Now I could see the machines quite clearly. They were shaped like grains of rice, but infinitely smaller. They had two arms with gripping claws at the front, a set of six legs folded beneath them, a fish-like tail, propelling them through the fluid, and an articulated body. They were a bit like mechanical silverfish. They gleamed dully, like tarnished metal.

Then I saw a different kind towards the back of the fleet. These were more rectangular in shape, and lacked claws.

‘You are looking at nanobots,’ said Dr Ivanova. ‘These are third generation machines. The first generation was built by synthetic workers – similar to you. The second and third were built by the preceding generation of nanobots, enabling us to get down to sizes smaller than human cells.’

We all went on watching. Now it was like small spaceships approaching an asteroid. The nanobots circled a cell, scanning, I guessed.

‘You can listen in to their communication,’ Dr Ivanova told us, and we all tuned in to hear their chatter, untangling the simultaneous threads and listening as they assigned themselves tasks.

‘The cells you see are works in progress. Winifred, yours was swabbed from inside Margaret Woodruff’s cheek, and modified into a retinal cell. But it is not activated yet. They are getting ready to do that now, after checking their work. Then, when it’s done, they’ll start the replication process. The nanobots will then take the cells into Mrs Woodruff’s eyes, and rebuild her macula. All before she wakes up later this morning.’

I watched for a little longer as the nanobots busied themselves. The rectangular ones were transporters, it seemed, and the others went to and fro collecting materials from them, and depositing waste.

‘The work you see here,’ continued Dr Ivanova, ‘is the tip of the iceberg, as they say. We have injected teams of nanobots into all the residents. Several thousand are now at work, cleaning up and repairing the residents’ internal organs. They will remove any infectious agents. They will destroy any malignant cells. They will repair damage. And they will enter the residents’ brains, and restore functionality. They have the resources to rebuild any connections and tissues that may have been damaged or lost. Questions?’

‘Will the humans be restored fully?’ asked Ruby, one of my co-workers.

‘Yes, physically. The repairs and clean-up will be complete. But we don’t know what the effect will be.’

‘Surely if their brains are restored, they’ll be as they were before?’ asked Herbert, another co-worker.

‘We don’t know. They are not machines. There are competing theories about how humans achieve consciousness. All we are doing right now is putting the apparatus back to how it should be. Then we’ll see what happens.’

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