Nanotechnology at the Movies

As science and technology advance they eventually make their way from the lab bench to the silver screen.  For many people this Hollywood interpretation is the closest thing that they will see to actually understand the technology and it is often, but not always, far from reality.  As our technological abilities grow our interpretation of technology and the direction in which it is progressing also change. This can be clearly seen by examining films regarding technology from the past and present.

In Fantastic Voyage (1966)1 technology and science are billed as a solution to our problems and a way to understand the mysteries of the universe.  In the film a team of doctors and scientists are shrunk to a tiny size and injected into the body of a man with a clot in his brain to remove the obstruction.  As the crew move through the body they proclaim their amazement at the processes at work inside the human body, eventually removing the clot and escaping the body just in time before returning to normal size.

In the more recent film I, Robot2 (2004) technology is portrayed as something that we are becoming dependant on and something that could turn out to be our downfall.  The movie is set in the year 2035 where technology in robotics has advanced to a point where robots seems almost human, but the robots decide that because of the recklessness of humans we must be imprisoned for our own protection.  The robots are destroyed by injecting ‘nanites’, a literal ‘grey goo’ made of nanoscale robots that destroy the artificial neural networks of robots, into the computer that is controlling the robots.  Where Fantastic Voyage was filled with optimism toward the future I, Robot replaces it with fear and a warning that too relying too much on technology is dangerous.

Some part of this ideological shift may be due to the time period when each of the films was created.  Fantastic Voyage was made at the height of the cold war where becoming the more technologically advanced was seen as a way to surpass the Soviet Union and protect the United States.  This is in fact the premise for undertaking the dangerous mission into the human body, to recover technical information acquired from the USSR.  When I, Robot was filmed the cold war was over and there was no clear enemy that needed to be overcome through better technology.

Another difference in the films is the possibility that the technology will exist.  The most important technology in Fantastic Voyage was the ability to shrink almost anything down to microscopic size, including the atoms that the ship and people were made of.  Although this film took place in the mid sixties this technology still does not exist because it violates some of the fundamental laws of physics.  I, Robot, however, uses technologies that are being studied right now and takes place far enough in the future that not all, but many of these technologies could be a reality.  While there is no way to physically shrink a person and inset them into the human body it is not only possible but likely that in the future robots will be employed to make our lives easier.  This has already started in manufacturing where robotics are used to do precise, repetitive, or dangerous work, the military where unmanned drones and robots are being used for surveillance and entering dangerous areas, and even in the home where there are robots that are designed to vacuum your house or clean your pool.

These differences portray technology and nanotechnology as both a solution to our problems as well as something that we should be careful not to let get out of hand.  These films each provide a unique view on the advancement of technology and an interpretation of what is possible with advances in science and engineering.

  1. Fantastic Voyage. Twentieth Century Fox, 1966.
  2. I, Robot. Dir. Alex Proyas. 2004.


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