Taking on Rhys Darby and Nanotech

By Michelle Dickinson 25/03/2014

reasonsI’m going to start with saying that I love Rhys Darby, the man who brought life to Flight of the Conchords, Yes Man and a certain mobile phone company.  However, when I tuned into the Nerdist channel on youtube and watched the video ‘NANOTECH – Rhys Darby’s Reasons to be Scared of the Future‘ I felt like I had to say something.

As a nanotechnologist who uses her science for good, not evil I am often approached by people who have a fear of nanotechnology.  When I ask them what they are scared of they mention nanobots eating their brains!

Sci-Fi movies have a lot to answer for and although the Borg Collective used nanoprobes for assimilation, and Kryten’s nanobots take over the Red Dwarf ship we need to remember that this is science fiction and not science fact!

So I took to twitter and asked Rhys if I could respond in a scientific way to his video and he replied with “please do”.


Figuring the best way to reply to a video was with a video I went managed to get some professional video help and created my response.


There were a few things in Rhys’s video that I feel I need to comment on in more detail:

Minute 2:35 – Rhys states that “researchers at the university of buffalo have developed microscopic gold rods that change how you think”.

The paper that he is referring to is “Nanotechnology approach for drug addiction therapy: Gene silencing using delivery of gold nanorod-siRNA nanoplex in dopaminergic neurons” and involves using gold nanorods to help silence the protein DARPP-32 which is understood to be the central trigger for the cascade of signals that fire in drug addiction.  The research is trying to reduce the physical craving for the drug  by developing a stable nanoparticle that delivers short RNA molecules in the brain to disable the gene that has proven to be responsible for drug addictions.

Firstly there is no “drilling into your brain” as Rhys claims, the research was carried out in vitro which means they were not tested on a person, but the concept of binding nanorods and neuronal cells was carried out in a lab dish.

Minute 3:22 – Rhys states that “Scientists are implanting microchips into microbial lifeforms to create the worlds smallest cyborgs”.

I’m not sure where this came from, but I could find no evidence of papers showing scientists are implanting microchips into bacteria and viruses.  Researchers working on the smallest microchip currently state that theoretically 20 nanometers would be the limit for the smallest microchip it seems quite unlikey at the moment to implant a microchip into a virus which range in size from 20-300nm.

Minute 4:23 – Rhys implies that nanoparticles that were transported to our brains through a virus transport system then jump off and communicate with other nanoparticles to kill off our humanness and cause us to become techno zombies.

BenI love this – this should be a new movie starring Benedict Cumberbatch as the nanobot hunter who solves the mystery for how to disassemble the nanomatrix that is zombifying the brain of Rhys and the rest of the world.

Sadly, this is not possible.  Although self assembly of nanoparticles is achievable in the lab, it required very carefully controlled conditions.  To self assemble a complex nanorobot purely from nanoparticles, is currently not possible if we define a nanorobot to be a self-propelling, functional unit with independently moving parts.

In my video I refer to nanobots, however as they can not self propel through the body but travel via the blood stream flow they too are not really nanobots but classed as functionalised nanoparticles.  Thier specific antibody coating causes them to bind with a specific type of cell (in this case cancer cells) to allow easier visualisation of tumors when imaged with computer tomography (CT scans) and upconversion luminescnece (UCL scans) to help view and fight cancerous tumours.

Minute 5:12 Rhys concludes with “Just because a robot is too small to see, doesn’t mean that its too small to kill you”.

Although true, I’m pretty sure that the number of deaths from natural bacteria and viruses including Ebola, West Nile, the flu, the bubonic plague, tuberculosis and pneumonia, which are also too small to see, are much more likely to kill you than a nano robot.

I don’t want to end this post as the crabby scientist who takes out all of the fun of a comedy sketch – I just want to make sure that in the end the science is correct and hopefully less people will come to me telling me that they think their brain is being eaten by nanobots 🙂

Plus – how else am I going to have a valid excuse to cover myself in chocolate syrup and call it scientific research?



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