"Industrial Grade Nano-Paste, Planet's most valuable commodity, can also be one of its most dangerous. Simply pour out several canisters, slide in a programming transponder, and step well away while the stuff cooks. In under an hour the nano will use available materials to assemble a small factory, a hovertank, or enough impact rifles to equip a regiment."
In Latin, nanus means "dwarf". In science, the prefix nano- means "one billionth" of something. Nanotechnology is technology on a scale of 1-100 nanometers (1 nanometer being one billionth of a meter.)
Nanotechnology has become an all-purpose magic substitute for soft science fiction and sci-fi-flavored fantasy. Nano is the latest Sci Fi Name Buzzword; it is the new pseudo-Greek for phlebotinum. Nanotech supplies a myriad of exciting powers with a satisfying patina of plausibility.
In an apparent contradiction, nanotechnology leads to interesting plots and settings in hard science fiction. If one could make a tiny robot at the nanometer scalenote A hydrogen atom is about 0.1 nanometers across, visible light has a wavelength of 400-800 nanometers and a human hair is about 100,000 nanometers wide and that little robot created another, and those two robots made four...
Once you have a vast mass of these robots, all ready to accept orders and shuffle stuff around at the molecular level, they can potentially do anything nature does and much, much more. Real-life nanomachine research is being done in areas such as medicine, manufacturing, and chemical engineering.
More often fiction delights in taking nanotech way, way beyond the plausible. Nanomachines, "nanites" or "nanobots" are a writer's best friend. Writers are not expected to show the nanomachines doing whatever it is that they do, all they have to do are the results. And the results can be anything. Nanomachines can be depicted as masses of cloud/liquid in external "colonies", Voluntary ShapeshiftingBlobs, or syringes of stuff to be injected into humans and have fantasticresults, usually in the form of superpowers, but sometimes in the form of a Baleful Polymorph or Harmful Healing.
Note that real-life physics puts constraints on what nanomachines could accomplish; for instance, without some source of energy, they will just sit there being molecules, or at best work veeeery slowly using ambient energy. But most writers rarely study the subject in any detail; it's easier to just use them as Green Rocks that can do anything the plot requires.
One reasonably common science-fiction scenario involves nanomachines being programmed to build copies of themselves using materials in their environment. If not stopped, such nanobots could theoretically grow exponentially, turning all available material on Earth into more nanobots and ending life as we know it — this is known as the "Grey Goo" scenario. Some scientists (and noted homeopathy fan, HRH The Prince of Wales) have expressed concern that this scenario could actually happen in real life, although most consider it extremely unlikely.
Because it is so powerful, in settings where science is inherently bad expect nanotech to be right up there on the Scale of Scientific Sins.
Nanotech is a fairly common cause for the drastic scenario called The Singularity. The concepts of supply and demand change utterly when humanity becomes capable of mass-producing machinery that can turn anything into anything, ensuring supply is as close to infinite as is possible. And our basic nature is thrown up into the air once we direct nanites to work on us.
Nanites themselves will usually either be dumb as bricks, or networked into a fully sentient mass. Some works may invoke Mechanical Evolution to make the nanomachines smarter/better/deadlier.
An important note, though: While many of the listed examples, and indeed fiction in general, may lead you to think otherwise, nanotechnology does not only involve Nanomachines. It's actually a lot broader than that, and severalapplications don't actually need nanomachines to be realized (though nanomachine usage would certainly improve them considerably).
In the Sonic the Hedgehogcomic series, some of Eggman's creations resulted in a hivemind mass of nanites that collected into a "city" in the forest. When an AI system of Eggman's was eliminated, NICOLE, the AI from Sally's computer, took over the dormant nanites herself and reconfigured them into a modified replica of Mobotropolis, giving her friends a new home. Nicole has been shown to occasionally modify the city structure through the nanites, though if her attention is divided she may have trouble maintaining everything at once.
NICOLE also occasionally uses those nanites to create a physical form for herself, though she just as often uses holograms instead.
In the fourth volume of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles comic book, it is revealed that Baxter Stockman had infected April O'Neil with "NanoBaxterBots", which were slowly killing her. As a response, utrom Glurin and Professor Honeycutt devise NanoTurtleBots—nanomachines that draw their fighting skills from the turtles' memories, which they then insert into April.
Iron Man - Tony Stark once killed The Mandarin with nanomachines, also his "Extremis" Armour is supposedly this.
Iron Man's new bleeding edge armor is made completely out of nanites and liquid metal.
His original suit was powered by "tiny transistors," the predecessor to today's nanomachines in terms of function and origin.
By the unspecified future of Transmetropolitan, "Makers", which use nanomachines to create food, clothing, and most other necessities, are commonplace. Spider Jerusalem sarcastically reminisces about his youth, where virtually everything he ate, wore, or owned was made from reprocessed lizard.
One filler issue has an interview with a man who lost his legs stopping a Grey Goo outbreak — and who was then fired for not following the standard procedure of letting Blue Goo devour the entire endangered block and everyone still in it.
In Adam Warren's version of the Dirty Pair, nanotechnology is strictly regulated to the point of being outlawed, after a Grey Goo outbreak called the "Nanoclysm" destroyed the Earth years ago. One villain uses nanobots to grant himself a Healing Factor; the Angels beat him up so much that the waste heat from the repairs does as much damage as the beating.
Valiant Comics and the successor Acclaim Comics have multiple nanite-powered heroes. Valiant's Bloodshot has nanite-infused blood that, in the Valiant Comics incarnation, survives as the "Blood of Heroes" well into the 41st Century.
Acclaim's Bloodshot's nanites may not be that long-lived, but were capable of healing any injury provided they had enough raw material to work with, reshaping his appearance, and making a modem jack in his neck for free internet access. Acclaim's version of Magnus Robot Fighter was never explicitly stated to have nanites, but his blood was metallic and capable of healing wounds. You do the math.
The Flash - Flash's enemy Abra Kadabra is a time traveler who uses technology to simulate magic. At least one recent story described most of his tricks as being based on nanotech.
In the Harry Potter fic Draco Malfoy and the Sins of the Father, Draco tried to commit suicide after his mother was raped and killed as a punishment for his father's foul-ups, but was saved and transported to St. Mungo's where he was faced with becoming a quadruple amputee. Rather than have a crippled heir, his father had nanomachines injected into him, making him stronger, smarter and utterly incapable of committing permanent self-harm.
The second Terminator is often explained within fandom as being able to change shape because it is made of nanomachines, even though that explanation is not in the movie.
The villain of Terminator 3is made of nanomachines on top of an android skeleton, allowing for some Magical Computer effects, as well as not suffering from the T-1000's inability to create complex tools from its substance.
In Virtuosity an evil AI named Sid 6.7 enters the real life by creating itself an avatar using nanotech. He/It absorbs glass to heal.
When used as directed, the nanobots on the salvage ship in Jason X can heal wounds and restore tissue damaged by cryogenic freezing. If malfunctioning, they can be used to rebuild a shot-to-living-hell psycho killer into a Nigh Invulnerable cyborg.
Nanomachines are used in the I, Robot movie to "execute" problem robots.
Star Trek: First Contact was the first time the Borg were shown using nanotech as an assimilation tool (see below under Live Action TV).
The MacGuffin in Ballistic: Ecks vs. Sever is nanotech used as an assassination weapon. Roger Ebert wrote in his review: "A miniaturized assassination robot small enough to slip through the bloodstream would cost how much? Millions? And it is delivered by dart? How is this for an idea: use a poison dart, and spend the surplus on school lunches."
One of the plots in the unproduced Plastic Man movie explained the technology which gave the titular character's powers. It involves the use of a experimental chemical liquid that rubberized anything that comes in contact with... But to stabilize the transformation, the test subject has to have a nanomachine (inside its body) as a catalyst to render the liquid product safe in its organism. If the nanomachine isn't used in the process, the liquid continues to rubberize the subject until it decomposes from the liquid's grey goo attributes. According to the script's text, it described the nanomachine that it has the shape of a snowflake
What the major antagonists are made up of in Ben 10: Alien Swarm. An interesting thing is that they're inert initially but this is a ploy by the hive queen to keep the heroes guessing while she prepares an invasion.
Pretty much the reason a Vanguard is a superior fighter against… soldiers, tanks, spider tanks and helicopters: Somehow, they make them superstrong, fast, agile etc.. They are also, however, harmful to the body, which is why Vanguards of the newer generations are euthanized after a certain period of time, being a military asset and damn expensive. A bunch of little machines pushing you to your limits, possibly straining the immune system, wearing you down… yep, sounds like Deconstruction.
In Magic: The Gathering, of all things. The phyrexian "glistening oil" was heavily implied to be made from nanomachines, and so was the black cloud Yawgmoth manifested as.
Cyberpunk 2020 has a variety of nanotech, to go along with its various cyberware. Things get more interesting in Cybergeneration, its sequel. Cybergeneration introduces the 'Carbon Plague,' a nanite-based disease of uncertain origin. (How uncertain? The writers intentionally made incompatible statements to fans). At first, the Carbon Plague horrifically deforms and kills people, but later, kids, then adults, start to survive. Some of the kids aren't quite the same after, now possessing one of several super-powers; morphing limbs, wireless net-hacking, electrical blasts, pseudo-telepathy (via brainwave scanning), matter manipulation, or whatever power a Game Master can figure out a way to justify with the little hexite-manufacturing and manipulating nanobots that is the Carbon Plague.
Flowstone, the rocklike substance that made up most of the artificial world of Rath in Magic: The Gathering, is made of Dungeon Punk-style nanomachines that can be controlled by the mind, usually by Rath's ruler, the evincar. It can be shaped into semi-sentient beasts or unleashed as a viscous tidal wave. Flowstone is not self-replicating, though; it was produced in a factory in the now-destroyed stronghold, the evincar's fortress at the center of the plane.
GURPS tech level progression is explicitly based on the idea that nanotechnology will take off between TL 9 and TL 10.
Eden Games' Conspiracy X supplement Atlantis Rising. The Atlanteans (immortal aliens) use nanotechnology for everything, including altering themselves.
Ubiquitous in Eclipse Phase, Nanofabricators are used to produce most goods, nanoware (most healing medichines) are an entire category of implants, and non-self-replicating nanoswarms are used for a variety of purposes. The TITANS also made frequent use of sentient Grey Goo.
Surprisingly not used in an overblown or incredibly dark play on this trope, the usage of nanobots in Tabletop Game/Warhammer40000 isn't really used outside of the tabletop RPGs, and it only comes in the form of the Autosanguine/Black Blood implant, which injects nanobots into the bloodstream and allow someone to heal quite quickly, though it can't gloss over lost limbs or permanent scarring.
Actually, the trope in play might just have gotten ugly. Formerly the method of choice in Exterminatus, virus bombs release a virus that rapidly spreads over a planet, breaking down every last bit of living or dead organic matter into a combustible organic gruel. How it works is almost always backed up by Hollywood Science, but one or two sources have taken a more logical take on the weapon, and implied that it actually delivers a payload of voracious nanobots to do their thing.
A nanotech Living Weapon called the Bloodtide was featured in some of the novels when Chaos got a hold of it.
Nanotechnology is uncommon but exists in Shadowrun, or at least it did in Fourth Edition; most nanotech-built structures inexplicably collapsed at the end of Fourth Edition's metaplot, from guns to aircraft to entire office towers.
BIONICLE: very small subversion, the inhabitants of Mata Nui can be considered this. Given that Mata Nui is a 40,000 foot tall Humongous Mecha, the inhabitants would be like nanobots to him. Also, in a more literal sense, the microscopic Rahi, Protodites, could be seen as nanobots. Zaktan's body is entirely composed of them after a unfortunate encounter with the Shadowed One.
Angels and Aliens is based on a secret group of humans given nanotechnology-based abilities such as speed, strength and healing by mysterious aliens. Drawbacks include rapid depletion of energy and oxygen while using the abilities, and the one-size-fits-all female template for the transformed humans - even if the recipient was originally male.
Alien Dice has healing nanites, one use ones used for repairing a particular injury, after which they deactivate, and ones that provide a permanent Healing Factor, as well as the "relays" which are nanotechinologcal communications devices which implant themselves in your brain, they basically function as a form of machine assisted telepathy.
Both used and subverted in Triquetra Cats, nanites are a miracle cure for most any medical condition however each use increases your chances of contracting a disease called NCDS (nanite cellular disintegration syndrome) where the nanite user's cells can no longer support themselves and break down.
In the Blade of Toshubi a nano-virus was used in World War IV to rid the Earth's surface of Humans & is believed to have caused the mutation of animals to a sentient, humanoid form.
At least two types of nanomachines showed up during the Crossover Wars, mini-gnomes from Magical Misfits were sent to the Evil Overlords headquarter to sabotage things and nanite versions of Mindmistress were left there to monitor things.
In Umlaut House 2, nanites first appear when Sissy steals some assemblers from Dr. Lyse to build her fortress. Later it seems that nanotech is used for home replicators and when Peggy Seus asks the Dragon what it is it tells her to "ask Dr. Lyse about foglets". And now it seems that Lyse has replaced every cell in his body with foglets and the Dragon tried to take over his body.
Nanotech is a big part of everyday life in Orion's Arm, sometimes to the extent of replacing all natural microbes in an environment. One thing it's not very good for is combat, unless the group using it has the element of surprise.
Diamond, a Powered Armor heroine from the Global Guardians PBEM Universe uses as a means of situational adaptiveness. Her armor (which is thinly plated diamond over a liquid layer of nanites) can be redesigned and rebuilt in seconds, depending on the precise function she needs from the armor.
The Journal Entries seem to use nanotechnology mostly for medical purposes. Pendorians owe their enhanced health and immortality to being, effectively, nanotech cyborgs, but don't exhibit much in the way of actual 'superpowers'; they're mostly depicted as regular folks with an occasionally odd-seeming outlook on things and seriously extended lifespans.
Sam Everheart is walking around in the Whateley Universe because Sam interrupted an attempt to steal a nanotechnology experiment and ended up getting the nanotech, which then did a whole-body alteration. Luckily, Sam survived it.
Nanotechnology, while not able to give people super powers and destroy the planet, still has some very promising prospective applications. None of these are practicalyet, but someday we hope they will.
It's a common mistake to conflate nanomachines with nanotechnology. While nanomachines are not yet practical, nanotechnology has been in common use for a long time now. For example, CDs use pits around 100nm deep for storing data, while the transistors in microchips are now as small as 22nm and have been sub-100nm since 2002.
Nanofactories: A small, printer-sized device which isn't limited to shooting ink onto paper, (though it could if you want it to). If you have the raw material for it, you could print out entire electronic integrated circuits or other complex things.
Nanomaterials: Super strong, very tough, and incredibly light, carbon nanomaterials. They are the Flying Brick of materials, in a sense. Variants include nanotubes, nanobuds, graphene sheets, etc.
Nanomedicine: While we have no idea how to make ourselves immortal, superpowered badasses yet, doctors hope nanotechnology has the promise of eventually being able to cure the common cold. And HIV. And Cancer. The tricky part is actually getting the nanites to know what they should attack. This is being worked on mighty well. Nanites engineered to precisely exploit abnormally swollen pores in cancer tissue are in development. Ultra-tiny nanotube-based radio devices are also in development, which would allow for remote-controlled nanites, but those are somewhat farther away.
Non-Newtonian liquid suspensions: Basically, funny-shaped particles made by nanoengineering, floating in thick oil. Flexible when subjected to the force of human muscles, but turn ultra-rigid when compressed by something faster. Like a bullet. Body armor that can stop a rifle round that also allows one to do crunches like it wasn't there. It's basically a man-made enhancement of the forces that allow John Tickle to walk on custard.
The self replication thing commonly associated with nanobots is being researched to with some success, though generally the better a nanobot is at self replicating, the worse it is at doing anything other than that. The reason why self replicating is so crucial is because nanobots are really tiny so you need to build a lot of them to do just about anything on the scale required by humans. In fact, each nanobot has to be much less than a penny per unit, otherwise the cost ramps up dramatically. To give an example, say you use nanobots to replace red blood cells. A healthy human male has 4-6 million per drop of blood. You're looking at $40,000 at best.
Monoclonal antibodies already meet most of the criteria for medical nanomachines. Cultivate some that adhere to tumors, stick a radioactive isotope on each one, and turn 'em loose in the body to hunt down their prey like itty bitty Terminators.
Another impressive example of an existing natural nanomachine is ATP synthase, which makes both the electric motor note specifically, a proton-motive electrostatic motor, complete with armature and statorand the reciprocating enginenote the ATP-producing end is basically a 3-cylinder radial engine.
Another remarkable example of a natural nanomachine capable of manufacturing stuff is a Ribosome. These are the things that actually assemble proteins according to their encoding in DNA/RNA and are a vital component of all natural replicators such as bacteria or eukaryotic cells. They self-assemble from their component proteins, so they can trivially replicate themselves. They're also hackable; viruses propagate by injecting their own DNA or RNA into cells, and awaiting the ribosome-based production line to unwittingly start making copies.
Given these examples the Cell in a biological system is a complete nanite in the classical sense. Able to consume external resources, duplicate seemingly endlessly, massive data storage (via DNA), the ability to manufacture anything on its to do list etc. Some of the closest stuff to grey goo is bacterium while most large multicelluar organisms (us for example) are large nanite colonies with hundreds of different types of nanite working in harmony from a single instruction set.
This video, depicting claytronics. This is just a simulation, but it is running off actual software. Using a sort of nanobot programming language, a CAD file gets read in, and the nanobots reshape themselves to match it. The program is supposedly only a couple of pages long. For now this is just software, nothing to worry about — but the guy who made this video thinks that he will have the hardware to do this in real life within the decade.
Modifying retroviruses for beneficial uses such as gene therapy can be thought of a bio-nanotechnology. A normal virus injects its DNA into a cell to hijack its protein production. The cell then starts making viruses instead, which repeat the process. A retrovirus however, uses RNA to modify the host cell's DNA permanently. The cell may still undergo normal functions, with the addition of making viruses. This way, when the cell undergoes division, it also creates a cell with the same infected DNA. Biologists even speculate that 5%-8% of modern human DNA is actually retrovirus injections. But in any case, there have been successful trials for using retroviruses in beneficial ways.
This partly why HIV is so hard to get rid of. By the time it manifests itself as AIDS, countless cells already contain it's DNA signature.