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Peter Cochrane's Uncommon Sense: Grey Goo
The next big panic?

All of them were to wreak havoc and reduce us to mutants or kill thousands in uncontrollable pandemics across the planet: test tube babies, fertility drugs, animal cloning, contraceptive induced thrombosis, mad cow disease, human cloning, stem cell research, brain-cooking mobile phones, GM crops, anthrax, West Nile Virus, Sars - the list seems endless and continues to expand by the week.

What actually happened? Relatively speaking, nothing. The real killers are still malaria, cancer, heart disease, influenza and accidents in the home or while driving.

Now nanotechnology is in the spotlight with stories about turning the planet into grey goo. Why do we seem to have an insatiable desire to focus on non-problems and waste vast resources worrying about the insignificant? Is grey goo - one fear of where nanotechnology might take us - just one more in a very long line of scare stories? Is it just the need for sensationalism on the part of the media? How about a search for something to be worried about - when nothing is actually wrong - by the populous? Or is there more to it?

There seem to be at least four key mechanisms at work: those seeking visibility, including those educated and uneducated in a subject or discipline; those seeking sensationalism for monetary gain; those who are so ignorant that they are scared of their own shadow; and those with an anti-science/progress agenda of their own making.

In the middle, of course, we have the poor old public trying to make sense of the war of words on both sides. At no time do we ever seem to get an unbiased, reasoned and quantified argument presented by, or in, the media - just more opinionated and anecdotal shouting matches. Debate no longer seems to occur, or to be even tenable, and perhaps could now be deleted from the dictionary.

What could be done? In a democracy, a presentation of the true facts would be a good start.

It is also worth noting that Mother Nature has spent the last 2,000,000,000 years trying to conjure up killer bugs and self-destruct scenarios and has, so far, been far more successful at it than we have. For the most part our (human) efforts are focused on creating beneficial technologies and outcomes to counteract these natural efforts.

And we have been moderately successful. Without modern medicine 90 per cent of you reading these words would not be here, we would have been terminated before the age of 10 years by some bug we are now immunised against or have drugs to combat.

The upside of all our technologies to date has been enormous compared to the downside and on a par with the invention of the hammer. The benefit of the hammer as a tool for good far outweighs its occasional use as a murder weapon.

So the latest technology to fall under the gaze of the media and technophobes is nanotechnology and the spectre of grey goo. Here, we are warned, is a technology of micro-machines smaller than bacteria likely to be capable of eating the planet's resources and turning everything into a grey goo - consuming all life and artefacts into their manufacturing process atom by atom.

Where did all this come from? In 1959 Nobel Laureate Richard Feynman gave a now famously titled lecture: There is Plenty of Room at The Bottom. He explained with graphic simplicity how the world of the atomically small might be exploited to engineer better systems.

He started disarmingly by asking: how do we write small? He went on to describe how we could easily write the Encyclopaedia Britannica on to the head of a pin, and quickly demonstrated that all the books in the world could be contained in a memory cube of only 0.13mm in dimension. This was followed by the conjecture that we could build machines at an atomic level, only hundreds of atoms across - nanotechnology - capable of accurate replication.

In 1959 Feynman's ideas seemed fanciful and far-fetched but a mere 30 years on they became a reality, and 43 years on they have become fashionable scare stories and all things nano are being questioned by the media and protest groups.

Where did a physicist like Feynman get such ideas? A truly exceptional scientist, Feynman had taken a sojourn in the realm of biology and made some stunning observations that overturned established thinking and accepted wisdom. I think his realisation was a simple one - if nature can do it so can we. And as we now know, we can - and with increasing ingenuity and accuracy. But even more importantly, we can award much of the wasteful trial an error necessary in evolutionary systems.

Today nanotechnology, as defined by Feynman is an extremely small percentage of the overall R&D effort. It is now taken to mean anything to do with the extremely small - in the realm of 1/1,000,000,000m across. This area of science, technology and engineering now involves paints, coatings, metals, plastics, ceramics, cloths, semiconductors, computing, storage, optical devices and much more, including, of course, those much feared nano-robotics and machines.

What good might we expect from all this technology? As of today we know we can produce steel 5-10 times stronger than conventional processes and plastics that are even stronger and lighter. So too data storage devices, 100,000,000 denser than today; light bulbs that are 10 times more efficient with an almost infinite life; flexible and far more light efficient displays; clothes and surfaces that are self cleaning; revolutionary energy generation and storage devices; replacements for electric motors and mechanical manipulators that are five times more efficient and 60 per cent lighter; plus a host of medical advanced to numerous to detail. The list of benefits is almost endless.

Then of course we come to the self-replicating machines and grey goo!

We can thank Eric Drexler of MIT for the term nanotechnology which he coined in 1981, and the concept of grey goo in 1986 - though not the disproportionate attention and hysteria. Bill Joy of Sun Microsystems triggered with the great goo panic article in Wired magazine in April 2000.

Without the benefit of any meaningful analysis, or deep thinking, people have now established anti-crusades on a par, or even in excess, of everything else we have witnessed in the last decades. Science is not about belief and irrational fears, it is about asking questions, examining the evidence, hypothesis, experimentation, theories and models - making the best judgement based on facts available on a continual basis. Here we have a 43 year old science just starting to reveal a cornucopia of riches that stretch well beyond the human imagination, and the protest groups want to call a halt. I think they need to take a wider perspective as the benefits outweigh the miniscule risks.

What is my take on all this? I think we are probably looking at the very technology that will at last break down the barriers between chemistry, biology, physics and engineering. I suspect that we are about to discover what Mother Nature has already discovered through a vast number of experiments: it is next to impossible to create a doomsday bug, be it biological or mechanical, but in contrast the potential to create a richness of new opportunity is almost endless.

I reckon that within a decade nanotech will look like just another hammer and the protesters will have moved on to panic about something else - like the new forms of life being created.

This column was typed on my Apple laptop in my garden during a heat wave that saw temperatures of 35C - pretty exceptional for the UK - and despatched to within an hour from my home via Wi-Fi network.