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Grey Goo-lash

The scientist who first warned that human-made self-replicating nanobots could theoretically run amok and turn the planet and everything on it into a ‘grey goo’, has recently tried to calm public fears of robotic Armageddon. Writing in the journal Nanotechnology, Eric Drexler reassures us that ‘all risk of accidental runaway replication can be avoided’.

The grey goo scenario was first posited by Drexler in his seminal book on nanotechnology, Engines of Creation, in which he describes how small nano-scale robots could be built to replicate themselves using any organic material. Drexler warned that these self-replicating nanobots could ‘leak’ into the wild and pretty soon we’d all be up to our knees in grey sludge competing for the remainder of the planet’s resources with microscopic earth-munching robot swarms.

Drexler regrets having mentioned the grey goo scenario since for some strange reason this put many investors off nanotechnology and prompted politicians to put the brakes on some research. He also reassuringly points out that grey goo really is less of a concern than other potential problems with the technology such as nanoterrorism and nanoviruses. Reassured yet?

Not waiting to find out if the goo will really be grey or more of a neutral mauve, a group called PERMANENT (Projects to Employ Resources of the Moon and Asteroids Near Earth in the Near Term) is building a ‘space ark’ to escape impending technological doom. ‘When will we achieve this level of technology? Perhaps in 20 years. How can we assure the survival of mankind (sic) and our children? Only by space colonization – getting out of the Earth’s biosphere.’

But robotics guru Hans Moravec thinks that’s just silly. ‘We will turn into robots. It’s both inevitable and desirable,’ he said. Moravec views this transformation as a natural part of the evolutionary process. ‘It’s bigger than we are. We are merely components within it.’

New Internationalist issue 370 magazine cover This article is from the August 2004 issue of New Internationalist.
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