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"The point sticks in your head: physics rules. Virtue does not triumph unless the physics allows it."
- Larry Niven

Nanomachine Swarm (Black Cloud)  
  A cloud of tiny machines, able to work together autonomously.  

A huge black cloud seems to attack an airship. The ship's sensors report that the cloud seems to be made of iron. How could such a thing exist?

"What is the nature of this cloud? What is your opinion?" he asked without any introductory remarks.

"It is made up of tiny metal particles. A remote-controlled emulsion, as it were, with uniform center," answered Jazon.

Further speculation is made upon the gathering of additional evidence.

"Two types of systems were successful in this evolutionary pattern: first, those that made the greatest progress in miniaturization and then those that became settled in a definite place. The first type were the beginning of these 'black clouds.' I believe them to be very tiny pseudo insects that, if necessary, and for their common good, can unite to form a superordinate system. This is the course taken by the evolution of the mobile mechanisms."
From The Invincible, by Stanislaw Lem.
Published by Poland in 1954
Additional resources -

It is difficult to believe that a large mass of machines can operate without a central command mechanism:

"...do you believe, then, that the clouds have some kind of command center at either the surface or the interior of this planet?"

"No, I don't think it's anything like that. It could be that these microorganisms themselves form such a center when they combine in a certain manner - a kind of inanimate brain. They exist in loose swarms, which permits them to be constantly exposed to the sunlight, or even to chase after thunderclouds, for they probably obtain energy from these atmospheric discharges."

The earliest take on this idea that I know about is the living metal cubes from the 1920 story The Metal Monster by Abraham Merritt.

See a more structured version of this idea, the Robot Cells (Crystal-Shaped Modules) from work by Michael P. Kube-McDowell.

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Additional resources:
  More Ideas and Technology from The Invincible
  More Ideas and Technology by Stanislaw Lem
  Tech news articles related to The Invincible
  Tech news articles related to works by Stanislaw Lem

Nanomachine Swarm (Black Cloud)-related news articles:
  - Swarm-Bots Take Small Children Away
  - Smart Dew Sensor Monitoring
  - Nanowire Transistors For Smallest Computers
  - Directing Microrobot Swarms
  - Robot Swarm Obeys Commands

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