"The principles of physics, as far as I can see, do not speak against the possibility of maneuvering things atom by atom. It is not an attempt to violate any laws; it is something, in principle, that can be done; but in practice, it has not been done because we are too big." – Richard Feynman
In Metal Gear Solid 4, an advanced battlefield control network called "Sons of the Patriots" monitors and enhances the performance of soldiers deployed in combat via nanomachines injected in their body. Octo-camo, a form of smart camouflage, can replicate both the pattern and texture of any surface it comes in contact with. Even with the rapid development of modern nanotechnology, it all sounds little bit far-fetched doesn't it? What if I told you it wasn't?
Something big (or rather small) took place at Caltech University on December 29th, 1959. Physicist Richard Feynman spoke for the first time about the manipulation of matter on a very small scale. He discussed the possibility of handling individual atoms in a highly controlled manner, which inspired the beginnings of a new and fascinating field of study known as nanotechnology.
Simply put nanotechnology deals with things that are very small. To put it into context, nano-sized particles are 50,000 times smaller than a human hair. The nano-scale is home to microscopic particles such as viruses, DNA, and proteins. For the last 20 years or so, scientists have been busy producing synthetic nanoparticles for a wide variety of applications, and can now found in over 500 consumer products, ranging from socks to makeup. Nanotechnology is quickly becoming an inescapable part of modern everyday life.
Due to the growing awareness of nanotechnology by the general public, nanomaterials are becoming more common in popular works of fiction as well. Nanotechnology is often incorporated to explain unrealistic events and promote the suspension of disbelief, appearing in a number of books, television, film and more recently in videogames. Of all the videogames dealing with nanotechnology, Hideo Kojima's Metal Gear Solid 4 is the undisputed king.
"It is a staggeringly small world that is below. In the year 2000, when they look back at this age, they will wonder why it was not until the year 1960 that anybody began seriously to move in this direction." – Richard Feynman
Metal Gear Solid 4 (MGS4) takes place in 2014, following the development of a worldwide war economy, fought by private military companies. Elite units of soldiers are injected with nanomachines that grant them enhanced abilities and combat effectiveness. These nanomachines carry out a wide range of functions, forming an integrated battlefield control network called "Sons of the Patriots". As the player progresses through the game, they learn a little bit more about the military technologies of the near future and discover that they rely heavily on nanotechnology. Although frequently mentioned, the story does not explicitly describe how the nanomachines theoretically work. Let's take a look at some of the current research going on in the field and see which applications of nanotechnology in Metal Gear are fantasy, and which are not so far-fetched.
One of the most successful applications of nanotechnology in modern medicine is the use of nanoparticles in drug delivery. Nano-sized drug carriers can be carefully designed to deliver their payload to a specific target. For example, nanoparticles can be loaded with anti-cancer drugs (chemotherapeutics) and targeted to a tumor using antibodies that specifically recognize the cancer cells. This provides preferential drug delivery to cancer cells over non-cancer cells, reducing side effects. Alternatively, temperature and pH sensitive nanocarriers are beginning to make their way through the drug development pipe line. Such nanocarriers could respond to changes in the microenvironment and release their cargo on demand.
In Metal Gear, the injected nanomachines are described as being able to supply and administer adrenalin, benzedrine, nutrients, and nootropics (aka "smart drugs") to enhance combat effectiveness. Nanomachines are also able to recharge the battery of embedded communication devices (Codec). Energy providing molecules or substrates could be released to power the Codec. Even hydrogen atoms can be stably packaged into nanocarriers (fullerenes more specifically), which is an increasingly attractive avenue for the storage of energy. In theory, nanocarriers could be specifically designed to release cargo given the proper biological cues, as described in Metal Gear. Although we aren't quite there yet, these applications of nanotechnology are well within the realm of possibility.
In Metal Gear, The Sons of the Patriots system is basically like a network of computers that allow commanders and members of a unit to rapidly share combat information and work more efficiently as a team. The network performs a number of important functions on the battlefield. For example, SOP provides detailed, real time monitoring of soldiers engaged in combat, including physiological factors such as body temperature, heart rate, blood pressure, respiration rate and chemical balance. Detailed information such as this would allow commanders to make more informed decisions based on a better knowledge of soldiers' combat readiness.
In a real world setting, the monitoring of these physiological parameters can be easily accomplished using implanted epidermal electronic devices (EED). While much too large to be considered nanotechnology, microelectronic devices have been successfully used to measure brain, heart and muscle activity. The idea is not new - technological predecessors of these devices have been used clinically since the 60's. On the future battlefield, several monitoring devices could be implanted into the solider just under the skin, from which readings would be sent wirelessly, forming a connection between soldiers and the control network. Due to the complex nature of these electronic devices, it would be extremely difficult to scale them down to the nano-size.
The next question is how could The Sons of the Patriots network remotely control nanomachines present in the soldiers? Surprisingly, the answer comes from research in the cancer field.
Although it is tempting to start with a question like, "What would a modern battlefield be like with molecular manufacturing," this question is meaningless. It is as pointless as trying to imagine a modern battlefield without electricity." - Chris Phoenix
In 2010, Sungho Jin and colleagues at UC San Diego attempted to find a way to remotely release drugs from nanocarriers. They took hollow silica nanoparticles and packed them full of anti-cancer drugs. Also packaged within the nanoparticles were magnetic iron nanoparticles, which acted as signal receivers. When a radio frequency was received by the silica nanoparticles, the iron nanoparticles heated up inside of the silica shell, causing the shell to become leaky, releasing the anti-cancer cargo. The researchers found that the integrity of the particle was maintained so that the radio signal could be repeatedly switched on and off, allowing for controlled drug release.
Similarly, nanocarriers could be remotely triggered to induce an artificial "combat high" through the controlled release of adrenaline or amphetamine, sharpening the senses and improving the alertness of soldiers. Sense of pain is subject to the same treatment -the controlled release of endorphins could prevent injuries from incapacitating a soldier during combat. Reduced blood pressure due to bleeding could trigger the release of blood clotting agents such as thrombin, or antibacterial drugs that accelerate the wound healing process. All these factors could be remotely monitored and controlled by the The Sons of the Patriots network. In this case, the application of nanotechnology in Metal Gear is still fantasy, but there is a concrete theoretical basis currently being explored.
It is no secret that many governments and research agencies have heavily funded nanotechnology programs. Although we remain far away from some of the possibilities imagined for nanotechnology by science fiction, it is inspiring nonetheless to see such creativity and ingenuity in video games such as Metal Gear Sold. With one foot in science, and the other foot in science fiction, videogame developers have the opportunity to create a truly authentic and immersive experience for the player that can both educate and inspire them. In my opinion, these are the hallmarks that separate a good game, from a great game.
Kevin Neibert is nanotech researcher at McGill University and Science Media Consultant at Thwacke! Consulting. Follow him @ThwackeMontreal and Thwacke.com