Reading about this story, I am immediately reminded of Prey by Michael Crichton. He talks about this very issue, and while it seems a little far-fetched in the novel, we’re actually a lot closer to bringing this to reality than you might think. A group of nanotech scientists at the University of Glasgow are working on a system wherein a cloud of dust-sized computers could be used to explore other planets. Each piece of “dust” would measure about a millimeter across and contain a processor, sensors, a generator for energy, and something for digital communication. Navigation would be made possible through a shape-shifting plastic sheath that will guide the computerized dust through planetary winds.
Each one of these pieces of dust won’t be all that useful on their own, but when you combine thousands of them into a dust storm, you can take the data that each one receives and amalgamate it together into something meaningful. At this time, they don’t have any sensors that are small enough to be outfitted on the smart dust particles, but they hope to have it ready “in the next few decades.”
Let’s just hope the AI in the dust doesn’t get too smart and turn on us… like Terminator style.