Nanotechnology's predatory porridge

PUBLISHED : Monday, 27 October, 2003, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 27 October, 2003, 12:00am

Apparently governed by the law that less is more, computers keep shrinking. Consider their progress from the massive (mid-20th century vacuum tube devices) to the minimal (laptops and notebooks) to the minuscule (quantum computers).

The same pattern may ultimately apply to robots. Why should they typically be clunky or chunky?

Imagine if science became so sophisticated that robots could be scaled down to one tenth of a nanometre across. That is small. But a robot that size really could materialise, according to a curious quartet consisting of author Michael Crichton, Prince Charles, Silicon Valley high priest Bill Joy and sci-fi guru Eric Drexler.

The last alerted us first in his 1986 book Engines of Creation: The Coming Era of Nanotechnology, written when this field of molecular-scale engineering scarcely existed.

Dr Drexler predicted the emergence of a nanomachine a thousand times thinner than a human hair that could replicate itself in a thousand seconds. In the next thousand, the two machines would build two more, and so on.

In the time it takes to say 'technophobia' billions of these so-called 'nanobots' would supposedly overrun society.

Ultimately since, according to Drexler, the dinky devices would be designed to eat everyday stuff to keep breeding, they would 'reduce the biosphere to dust in a matter of days'.

The ill-named Bill Joy corroborated Drexler's gloomy prediction in a 2000 edition of Wired. 'A bomb is blown up only once - but one bot can become many, and quickly get out of control,' he wrote.

According to an April article in Britain's Mail on Sunday headlined 'Charles: 'Grey goo' threat to the world', Britain's king-in-waiting is just as edgy.

He takes the prospect of a nanobot plague so seriously that he plans to convene a summit of experts at his home to discuss the issue, which has been inflamed by Michael Crichton's latest sci-fi parable, Prey.

In Prey, a predatory swarm of microscopic machines escapes from a top-secret research complex. The first confirmed kills are animals: a coyote, some desert rats.

'Nobody is going to get worked up about a dead coyote. Trust me,' says a honcho named Growly.

Inevitably, Growly is proved wrong, and the varmints turn out to be far harder to exterminate than anybody would have guessed. (well, anybody who's never seen a sci-fi flick).

Indeed, grey goo may well belong purely to the realm of fiction.

Chris Binns, a physics professor at the University of Leicester in Britain's Midlands, suggests that the phenomenon scarcely even merits coverage, complaining that the publicity surrounding it has diverted attention away from 'enormously beneficial aspects of nanotechnology'.

He mentions much greater miniaturisation of electronic devices that could come into play 'in the next few years'.

Unlike grey goo. 'My personal opinion is that this kind of technology, if ever feasible, is centuries away,' he says.

Other analysts argue that it will never materialise.

The American chemist Richard Smalley remarked in a 2001 Scientific American article that we just do not have the 'fingers' to perform the delicate process of building any kind of nanobot.

Peter Cochrane, Britain's first professor for the public understanding of science and technology, is even more scathing. In a column on the website, he dismisses grey goo as just the latest scare, and lumps it in the same category as 'test-tube babies, fertility drugs, animal cloning, contraceptive-induced thrombosis, mad cow disease, human cloning, stem cell research, brain-cooking mobile phones, genetically modified crops, anthrax, West Nile Virus, Sars .?.?.'

Grey goo may be a dark and terrifying concept but do not expect to see it appear on the horizon soon, or, indeed, ever. Less may be more but there is apparently a limit to how tiny you can go.

Even if this predatory porridge does materialise, it may fail to swamp the planet.

'Future dangers from new technologies may appear alarming when considered in the context of today's unprepared world,' writes Ray Kurzweil in latest edition of CIO magazine.

'The reality,' he adds 'is that the sophistication and power of our defensive technologies and knowledge will grow along with the dangers.'

Mr Kurzweil predicts the rise of a high-technology defensive counterpart he calls 'blue goo', which effectively means 'nano-police'. The futuristic fuzz will supposedly eradicate the 'nano-criminals' from the mean and sticky streets.

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