The ongoing debate about nanotechnology
February 1, 2004 1:53 PM   Subscribe

The Washington Post has one of the better articles about nanotechnology that I've seen, providing both a view of the billions of dollars of investment in the technology, and the concerns of environmentalists and consumer health advocates. The article predicts upcoming regulatory battles over how and when this technology should be released. Perhaps one of the brighter points of light is that concerns have shifted away from the superlative grey goo (IMHO: if a grey goo was chemically possible, bacteria would have done it already) towards the possible risks of disease due to exposure. Rice University has a page devoted to current information on research regarding nanotechnology and health.
posted by KirkJobSluder (18 comments total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
and if wheels were possible, animals would have them already, right?
posted by andrew cooke at 2:18 PM on February 1, 2004

Personally, if I'm gonna die, being broken down into my constituent molecules by a horde of nanobots sounds like and alright way to go.
posted by signal at 2:50 PM on February 1, 2004

not much reassuring in that article--and i can't believe that some have been released into the environment already. I'll wait (if i can).
posted by amberglow at 3:12 PM on February 1, 2004

and if wheels were possible, animals would have them already, right?

Actually, bacteria do have rotary engines.

The biggest problem with the grey goo claim is one of energy. Carbon occupies the energy sweet-spot as the basic building block for life on earth. It is the Goldilocks atom. It's chemical bonds are strong enough to be stable, but not so strong that those bonds can't be broken when needed. That second row on the periodic table has other elements that share similar characteristics.

Bacteria are exactly the kinds of machines that would be expected to create a grey goo: machines that replicate themselves from inorganic substrates and energy atom by atom, molecule by molecule. It is the last requirement that reveals why the grey goo has not happened and probably could never happen. It takes huge quantities of energy on a microscopic scale to liberate a single atom of iron, aluminum or silicon.

Replication is a highly endothermic process, even when you are working with the Goldilocks element. Evolution favors the strategy that results in the most copies (children). If it was thermodynamically possible to eat everything on the planet, something would have done it already. Pretty much everything that can be used as an energy source for a microscopic machine is already being used by a microscopic machine.

I am really trying to find an informed article that takes grey goo seriously but I just can't find one that is not from a science fiction fanboy.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 3:26 PM on February 1, 2004

Grey goo though is just an extreme scenario. nanomachines don't have to take over the planet before they begin to pose serious problems. What happens if we end-up with a small engineered, well-designed, virus?
posted by vacapinta at 3:32 PM on February 1, 2004

and if wheels were possible, animals would have them already, right?

Man, andrew cooke, I think that's really a red herring. In the case of wheels, you're talking about a very specific feature. (A feature that, by the way, isn't much use on the macroscale without roads, and that has evolved on the nanoscale--there are proteins with wheel-like structures.)

On the other hand, in the case of "the grey goo scenario", you're talking about a very general concept: the idea that self-replicating entities will reproduce indefinitely and without limit. This is exactly how biology works, and bacteria are, as KirkJobSlider pointed out, the perfect example. Bacterial will multiply exponentially until they exhaust their supply of nutritional resources or poison their environment with wastes. If, from a basic thermodynamic point of view, it were possible for microorganisms to replicate indefinitely while avoiding these limits, it seems likely that bacteria would have already exploited this possibility. In reality, however, any self-replicating system is faced with resource limitation. For microscale systems, which cannot move to fresh pastures very quickly, this limitation translates into a strict limit on the systems' achievable geographic extent. The faster a system consumes resources, the more limited it will be.
posted by mr_roboto at 3:33 PM on February 1, 2004

Well the thing that gets me about this sort of stuff is that very few people are ever sensible. We get Joe Scientist who is not only fascinated by this stuff but is making a good living off of it vs. Joe Hippy that demands that the Science! Stops! Now! So JS isn't liable to look favorably upon any safeguards, and JH doesn't want safeguards so much as the halt of any and all progress. In my opinion, the possible benefits from nanotechnology are more than worth the risk, assuming adequate oversight.

It's pretty frustrating.

andrew - name the human-built engine capable of powering some sort of device that could, say, operate a garbage truck on collection day for many hours off of a bowl of cereal and some coffee. I dare you. Especially when it comes to chemistry, life has gotten very very good at what it does. Many of our most amazing chemical feats are possible because we use bacteria or some other biological component somewhere along in the process.
posted by kavasa at 3:36 PM on February 1, 2004

Well the thing that gets me about this sort of stuff is that very few people are ever sensible. We get Joe Scientist who is not only fascinated by this stuff but is making a good living off of it vs. Joe Hippy that demands that the Science! Stops! Now!

I don't see the issue as much as JS vs. JH. The calls for regulation seem to have quite a few scientist arguing that we don't know how animal immune systems will react to nanotechnology.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 3:42 PM on February 1, 2004

I'm not a bio-chem type so excuse my potential ignorance. But all these arguments about how bacteria could have done this or that strike me as incomplete.

Hasn't the adaptive landscape changed significantly in just the last 100 years that there are all sorts of new niches for nanobots to exploit as sources of energy? What about eating oil? Living off all the wasted energy around combustion engines? In other words, deriving energy from all the excess energy we humans leave lying around. it seems to me that such an engineered nanobot could indeed replicate significantly. And bacteria, like most life, might eventually get there, but not so quickly as something that is designed. bacteria with the rudiments of a brain (or a collective brain)
posted by vacapinta at 3:56 PM on February 1, 2004

What about eating oil?

There already appear to be bacteria that eat oil. There you have the problem of how to break it apart into digestible gobs.

Living off all the wasted energy around combustion engines? In other words, deriving energy from all the excess energy we humans leave lying around.

The waste energy of combustion engines is heat. There is not much you can do with heat on a microscopic scale, and heat is difficult to harness on a macroscopic scale. It is not as if that energy is just lying around waiting to be harnessed, it is leaking out into the universe contributing to the heat death of entropy. This heat is too little, to difuse to do much on the chemical level.

Heat is not a viable energy source on the microscopic level because it is very hard to construct a thermal gradient. Engines work by tapping off some of the mechanical energy that results when a hot substance tries transfer its heat to a cooler environment. However, because one end of a microscopic thing is not that much warmer than the other end, there is not much of a gradient to work with.

At small scales you need a high energy gradient in a small space. You get this from glucose, hydrocarbons, a handful of inorganic molecules, and photo-sensitive compounds at one end, and an energy sink such as C02 and H2O at the other end.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 4:22 PM on February 1, 2004

I think another problem with the "if it were possible, the bacteria would have done it already" argument is that bacteria evolves very slowly, and so gives the things that would be harmed by bacteria eating it a chance to evolve an immune system in response. "Grey goo" is talking about introducing a completely alien agent into the wild.
posted by zixyer at 7:05 PM on February 1, 2004

Two words: Garbage mining.

Gonna be big. Trust me.
posted by alumshubby at 8:17 PM on February 1, 2004

In the immediate few days following the September 11th 2001 terrorist attacks, Jeff "Skunk" Baxter, ex Steely Dan guitarist turned weapons expert, recommended the use of nanorobots to re-engineer the attitudes of those in the Mideast hostile to the US.

"Several days after the destruction of the World Trade Center, speaking at a seminar on terrorism before Department of Defense members, defense contractors, and military analysts at a Washington D.C. think-tank, the "Potomac Institute for Policy Studies", former lead guitarist for the rock group Steely Dan, Jeff "Skunk" Baxter, made a visionary proposal for a radically new, cutting edge strategy to counter the seething hatred of the United States in the Middle east, reports David Corn writing for

Acknowledging that the U.S. needs to fight a PR war on terrorism, The rock guitar legend, who has refashioned himself as an expert on the SDI initiative, the "Star Wars" Defense scheme first initiated during the Reagan years, suggested that the U.S. needed to use advertising, nanotechnology and Valium to " reengineer the perceptions of our enemies."

Dealing with the deep hatreds which led to the fiery destruction of the World Trade Center would be difficult, the rock legend noted, because "You live in a dirt-poor place, but if you blow yourself up in the name of Allah, you'll get 73 virgins, all the dope you can smoke, backstage passes to Bruce Springsteen ... How do we nullify and negate that threat?"

Answering his question Baxter, who refuses to acknowledge the origin of his nickname, noted that "The way to keep a kamikaze pilot out of aircraft ... is to deal with it at the source" and suggested a "Manhattan Project" for "perception engineering", a propaganda campaign run by the finest advertising talent money can buy - the elite ad execs of Detroit who were "selling Chevrolets when they were crap with the 'heart beat of America' "

Applying his keen grasp of futuristic technologies, Baxter suggested that the United States could develop specialized types of microscopic robots - called "nanobots" - to infect the brains of those who hate the US and re-engineer their thought patterns away from "Great Satan" sentiments and towards a deep love of Coca-Cola , the World Trade Organization, and the American way. Showering poor, U.S. hating, fundamentalist middle eastern neighborhoods with free packages of Valium or even Prozac might do the trick too.

According to Baxter, "it's an information war.... a war fought with the ideas...I can give you a Valium and make you feel good. I can give you a musical score and engineer your perceptions. All this is doable." -- (from Troutfishing Times, Sept. 14, 2001)

All this is doable - And so is faster-than-light speed travel, fusion reactors, telepathy on command , teleportation, telekinesis, and moving sidewalks installed in suburbs everywhere.
posted by troutfishing at 9:06 PM on February 1, 2004

I posted this on my site:

"The article captures a lot of the uneasiness I feel around what we might call nanopolitique. On the one hand - and this despite my resistance to lazy, technological fixes for problems that should be dealt with at the social and policy levels - nothing offers quite as much hope to undo the accumulated damage of the twentieth century as this suite of techniques, tools and practices. Sometimes I imagine nano disassembling landfills, Superfund sites and similar "national sacrifice zones" (to say nothing of architectural mistakes) a molecule at a time, converting each to something useful, or harmless. And I smile.

On the other hand, well, "do no harm" is still the wisest course to pursue, especially when the stakes are so terribly high. Do we really want to bet the ecosphere on something that amounts to an educated guess? The social history of comparable innovations doesn't give me much hope for thoughtful regulation.

In his eminently readable The Botany of Desire, which I highly recommend, Michael Pollan relates the tale of Monsanto's NewLeaf genetically-modified potato. The NewLeaf was engineered to produce in its every cell a bacterial toxin called Bt, as a sort of onboard pesticide. Organic farmers have used sprayed Bt to protect their crops from blight for quite some time, and Monsanto clearly supposed this use would insulate them from criticism.

But Bt sprayed is what chemical-warfare folks, at least, call a nonpersistent agent; it breaks down readily in the presence of everyday doses of solar UV. Cellular Bt, by contrast, does no such thing. It bioaccumulates, building up in soil and tissue both. All the consequences of this one fact are not known, although it is understood by all, including Monsanto, that widepread use and bioaccumulation will eventually lead to the emergence of Bt-resistant strains of blight. At this point, Monsanto's consumers would have been switched to some newer line of GM potato - and organic growers dependent on Bt would have been shit out of luck.

So the vulnerability of the Phytophthora infestans fungus to Bt - a clear public good of long (!) standing, of which any grower anywhere could avail themselves - would have been "spent" in a decade or less, all so that one company could sell one line of novelty potato. And as the Canadian document linked above clearly shows, the regulators entrusted with protecting the public interest would have let this come to pass.

That it didn't happen to work out that way is testament to the canny and proper use of the market by anti-GM activists, who so managed to conflate the NewLeaf with uncertainty that demand for the line plummeted. Monsanto, previously so interested in the potato, curiously decided that the crop constituted a "niche market" and withdrew, before either the NewLeaf or the environmental build-up of its passenger toxin could do much damage.

Of course, the same cannot be said of DDT, of hormones, of antibiotics or mercury - Google 'em, you'll see what I mean. The ripples from DDT are still being felt, and we thought we had dealt with that decades ago. Consider: the workings of our biosphere are so very subtle; as policymakers, the human species is still not terribly well-adapted to the downstream nonlinear (and therefore "unpredictable") consequences of our actions. Taken together, this counsels at the very least a high degree of caution with a technology that, while it probably won't give rise to semi-sentient nanoscale killbots with a yen for human flesh, could still do a great deal of deep, widespread, irreparable damage in short order.

Anyway, read the article, follow some of the links, draw your own conclusions...and begin to discuss them, with me, with each other. This is one of the national debates we should be having, if we had anything like real leadership, and not some empty yammering about protecting the sanctity of marriage or somesuch."

So I'm glad this appeared in the WaPo. I hope it reaches a reasonably wide audience.
posted by adamgreenfield at 9:20 PM on February 1, 2004

I think another problem with the "if it were possible, the bacteria would have done it already" argument is that bacteria evolves very slowly, and so gives the things that would be harmed by bacteria eating it a chance to evolve an immune system in response. "Grey goo" is talking about introducing a completely alien agent into the wild.

Completely irrelevant. To start with, the grey goo is supposed to devour everything, including things that don't have an immune system. The second problem is that there are fundamental ecological and thermodynamic constraints that prevent a grey goo that converts an entire planet into nanobots from happening.

Any self-replicating object needs three things to replicate its self. It needs materials, it needs energy, and it needs the right environment.

If, as is proposed, this nanobot is derived from semiconductor technology, then it is likely that germanium will place fundamental limits on its ability to replicate its self. There is only so much germanium out there, and much less of it in aquatic environments than in the earth's crust. Such a nanobot will not be able to replicate given substrates that lack germanium.

And then there is the energy problem. Replication is a strongly endothermic process. The grey goo as proposed is a type of perpetual motion machine, something that does more work (by replicating its self exponentially) than there is available energy for work.

The environment factor is another limitation. All machines or organisms have limits on the kinds of environments that they can operate in. A grey goo would have to have superlative tolerance for wide ranges of temperature, pressure, radiation and humidity.

Such superbugs that burst out into a population that are completely defenseless do happen on a regular basis. (Bacteria, with a generation time measured in hours, evolve quite quickly.) Examples include Ebola, HIV, flesh eating Streptococci, Dutch Elm disease, prion diseases and the bubonic plague. What we find is that high virulence and mortality does not pay off as a long-term strategy. Virulent bugs quickly burn out on available resources and die off. The sweet spot for a bug is to be just bad enough that you get from spot to spot, but not so bad the population burns out and crashes.

Seriously folks, this is basic ecology here. The same laws that govern bacteria and rabbits apply to any self-replicating entity including nanobots and computer programs. Although ecology has been presented as cute little owls in logging land, the real theory is counting the joules of energy and moles of matter as they get passed from organism to organism.

Now it might be possible for a nanotechnology to find a niche and survive out there in the wild. It might be possible for a nanotechnology to out compete another species for a given niche. But this idea that someone could just drop a beaker and destroy the earth with a horde of nanobots that eat everything in their path is just fantasy.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 9:43 PM on February 1, 2004

adamgreenfield: I agree that sane caution should be warranted. You mentioned DDT, there are two other examples of "miracle" technologies that turned around to bite us on the ass: Asbestos and PCBs. I think that the "proven safe" approach will be cheaper in the long run. Not only are these miracle-become-nightmare technologies costing us billions of dollars in cleanup, but there was a huge cost in redesigning the thousands of products that depended on Asbestos and PCBs.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 9:48 PM on February 1, 2004

The most obvious problem with the "if it were possible, bacteria would have done it" argument is that they did. If nanotech-based life rearranges the planet to the same extent that biological life has, we are done for.
posted by Ptrin at 10:30 PM on February 1, 2004

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