The Grey Goo guys gain ground.
August 19, 2002 11:49 AM   Subscribe

The Grey Goo guys gain ground.
"The controversy involves the potential perils of making molecule-size objects and devices - a field known as nanotechnology ... The ultimate nightmare was the so-called Gray Goo catastrophe, in which self-replicating microscopic robots the size of bacteria fill the world and wipe out humanity."

While 'gain ground' may not be wholly accurate (it was alliterative), the theory is being given lots of play in scientific circles as nano-devices approach practical status.
posted by o2b (26 comments total)
For a great novel describing the "Grey Goo" apocalypse, see Blood Music by one of my favorite hard sci-fi authors, Greg Bear.
posted by Tubes at 11:58 AM on August 19, 2002

Hmm, scary prospect. How did Kirk and the gang stop the tribbles again?
posted by Hildago at 12:08 PM on August 19, 2002

Ya looking for blackmarket gray goo? You should see the slime in my shower!
posted by DenOfSizer at 12:10 PM on August 19, 2002

Wouldn't such nanotech have similar limitations as bacteria and other biological organisms do? I.e. long before they filled the atmosphere with gray goo, they'd run out of fuel or raw materials.

Stephenson's The Diamond Age is a cool scifi book with a lot of nanotech stuff in it.
posted by callmejay at 12:15 PM on August 19, 2002

Grey Goo is an old idea. It seems as likely this time around as it did the last.
posted by bonehead at 12:16 PM on August 19, 2002

Bit o' trivia: the first* "customer review" on was for the Diamond Age. The author was Jeff Bezos, he included his personal email address, and he urged readers to contact him directly to let him know about any other good books about nanotechnology. Needless to say, when the company took off the personal email address was surreptiously removed.

* Okay, I can't swear it was "the first," but it was definitely one of the first.
posted by Shadowkeeper at 12:34 PM on August 19, 2002

I'll be very interested to observe the development of nano-technology over the course of my lifetime. However, I should point out that the predictions of futurists and the fears of those worrying about a "Gray Goo catastrophe" are strictly based on science fiction, not science. I wouldn't be surprised if much of it comes to pass one day, I will be surprised if it comes to pass in this century.

Champions of nano-technology trumpet sucess each time someone manages to build something smaller. Those acheivements are great when it comes to manufacturing "products such as sunscreens, stain-resistant khakis and wound dressings." However, the romance of nano-technology is based on the idea of "self-replicating microscopic robots the size of bacteria" which can build anything, or in the case of Grag Bear's novel, take over the world.

The problem with that scenario is - building a bacteria size robot is the easiest part of the project. (Not that we've even accomplished that yet.) Consider
a) "self-replicating" This is key to the endeavor, because you can't get the millions of micro-robots you need otherwise. Problem is, we haven't got a clue about how to build a self-replicating robot even at the macroscopic level (where we understand the rules of engineering much better.)
b) Programming - once you've got your millions of micro-robots, you need to have them work in unison to accomplish whatever their task is. Problem is, we don't have a clue how to do that kind of programming. We will someday, I'm sure. Just not any time soon.
c)Even once you learn how to build self-replicating robots and program them to work collectively and build them as small as a bacteria - the rules of engineering change completely at the nano level. Your micro robots can't just crawl over to their worksite and start building stuff - factors like brownian motion affect how they can move. In order to make them work at the nano level, we'll need a much greater understanding of how biological systems build stuff - and we may find built in limitations based on those methods.

Of course, long before we work out how to do any of that stuff, nano-technology will be earning its keep in much less glamorous applications. (Just as computers still earn their keep despite not having evolved into true "thinking machines" with their own plans for world domination.) Just remember that science-fiction writers are not good predictors of the future. Anyone remember Asimov's 3 Laws of Robotics?
posted by tdismukes at 12:39 PM on August 19, 2002

callmejay: I think the idea is that nanotech uses subatomic particles as its raw materials; thus they could concievably deconstruct anything, such as air, that surrounds them to use for a different purpose.
posted by transient at 12:41 PM on August 19, 2002

Remember how scientists at the Trinity site weren't sure if the atomic bomb they just built would cause a chain reaction with the earth's atmosphere, resulting in a planet wide fire that would destroy all life on the planet?

Yeah. They blew it up anyway.
posted by linux at 12:44 PM on August 19, 2002

I think the Grey-Goo scenario is one of the reasons we need the Foresight Institute. Lot's of great Nano-Stuff on that sight as well.
posted by Fantt at 12:49 PM on August 19, 2002

Aristoi by Walter Jon Williams is a brilliant Space Opera that involves a grey goo catastrophe some time in the past, extensive use of nanotech, and some freaky social engineering. I urge you all to check it out. Best bet to find it is your local library as it is out of print at the moment.
posted by Grod at 2:14 PM on August 19, 2002

I think the so-called "grey goo" scenario is far less of an immediate threat than its biological/genetic engineering counterpart. Jeez, didn't you people see XXX???

no link because oddly enough, the damn thing doesn't have a website.
posted by Sinner at 3:14 PM on August 19, 2002

no link because oddly enough, the damn thing doesn't have a website.

Did you try searching Google for "XXX"?
posted by Shadowkeeper at 3:23 PM on August 19, 2002

posted by o2b at 3:35 PM on August 19, 2002

tdismukes, it's been awhile since i read the foundation i had to cheat (scroll down)

1. A robot may not injure a human being, or, through inaction, allow a
human being to come to harm.

2. A robot must obey the orders given it by human beings except where
such orders would conflict with the First Law.

3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does
not conflict with the First or Second Law.

From Handbook of Robotics, 56th Edition, 2058 A.D., as quoted in _I,_Robot_.

In _Robots_and_Empire_ (ch. 63), the "Zeroth Law" is extrapolated, and the
other Three Laws modified accordingly:

0. A robot may not injure humanity or, through inaction, allow humanity
to come to harm.

i still don't think these would actually work because it's impossible to NOT hurt someone as life is a zero net sum.
posted by NGnerd at 3:41 PM on August 19, 2002

Oh, wait. There it is.
posted by Sinner at 3:51 PM on August 19, 2002

Duh. Thanks O2B.
posted by Sinner at 3:51 PM on August 19, 2002

Of course seanbaby has proven to us that we are not building robots to adhere to Asimov's Robotic Laws.
This will, inevitably lead to our doom at the hands of SkyNet's army of mechanical chrome skeletons.

If only Cleo were still around to help us.
posted by quin at 3:58 PM on August 19, 2002

NGNerd - I don't know if I agree that life is a zero-sum game. Definitely not, if you limit your consideration to humans and don't worry about harm to other species. My point on the 3 laws was a) no AI researcher on the planet knows how they could be implemented in a robots programming and b) a knowledge of human nature would allow you to predict that we wouldn't program robots that way if we knew how. The military wants robots that can inflict harm. Private industry doesn't want their robots obeying just any human who wanders by, etc.
posted by tdismukes at 4:23 PM on August 19, 2002

Needless to say, when the company took off the personal email address was surreptiously removed.

Actually, Amazon some time ago removed all names and e-mail addresses that they did not have explicit permission to use, about the time that they let you choose how you wanted your name to appear on their site. Since nobody who had already posted a review had had the opportunity to choose, they set old reviews' names to "A reader" and deleted the e-mail addresses... nice of them, actually.

I doubt they made that much of a special exception for Bezos. :)
posted by kindall at 4:37 PM on August 19, 2002

Please explain "surreptitious" removal of e-mail addresses as opposed to the non-surreptitious method. Or did Amazon's web team work in a glass house at the time?

And of course Asimov was creating a set of rules for his story universe, not predicting how future robots would be constructed. Even inside that universe it was technically possible to create non-positronic robots that were capable of violating the laws; and many of the times it was invoked were to show a contradiction or conflict between the laws. It's widely agreed, though, that they would be good, ideal principles, which is something else entirely: these were robots with sufficient AI to identify a human and distinguish one from other objects with which it was authorized to work. If you don't have that, you don't have the Three Laws -- nohow. But again -- regardless of AI, good "first, do no harm" design principles.
posted by dhartung at 4:48 PM on August 19, 2002

I, for one, welcome our new......oh, never mind........
posted by briank at 6:30 PM on August 19, 2002

Ah c'mon you guys, I never get to use the word "surreptitious" ...
posted by Shadowkeeper at 7:25 PM on August 19, 2002

One of the ways the world ends in the Invisibles comic book series is when nanotech grey goo attacks the earth on December 22, 2012, tying together a couple different apocalypse theories rather well.
posted by drezdn at 8:09 PM on August 19, 2002

Shades of Ice-9...
posted by Phatty Lumpkin at 8:28 PM on August 19, 2002

I recently read Blood Music... hot damn that was one of the most beautiful sci-fi novels I have read to date. Exhilarating.
posted by spidre at 12:29 PM on August 22, 2002

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