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Science Technology

Drexler Clarifies Grey Goo Scenario 437

Posted by michael
from the meltdown dept.
b00le writes "The BBC says that the scientist many regard as the father of nanotechnology has backed away from his famous claim that runaway nanomachines could turn the planet into 'grey goo'. Eric Drexler now says nanomachines that self-replicate exponentially are unlikely ever to enter widespread use. So that's all right, then, but he also said 'tiny machines would need close control' - which not everyone would agree with. I always imagined some kind of emergent behaviour would, er, emerge." Bill Joy is still suitably pessimistic.
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Drexler Clarifies Grey Goo Scenario

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  • by lancomandr (785360) * on Thursday June 10, 2004 @11:47AM (#9388715)
    Straight from the Outer Limits episode. These "nanobots" turned a man into something of a jellyfish and he had gills as well. Of course as in any good Outer Limits episode, the "abort" command issued to the nanobots failed. But then, thats just a television show, right? These nanomachines couldn't REALLY churn through every nanogram of matter on our planet, RIGHT? IHMO, the Martian Sand Kings episode was way cooler, I mean they ate a dog for christs sake. Those beasts would mangle some nanobots. Thats it...we just need a bunch of sand-dwelling cockroaches with fangs on methamphetamine to regulate the reproduction of nanobots.
    • Alchemy (Score:5, Insightful)

      by Anonymous Coward on Thursday June 10, 2004 @12:15PM (#9389191)
      These nanomachines couldn't REALLY churn through every nanogram of matter on our planet, RIGHT?

      The whole grey goo scenario is pure alchemy. Except instead of turning lead into gold, we're turning it into grey goo. We've got people inventing perpetual motion, too. Are the 1800s back? Can't we invent new scams?

      After a few million years of evolution, we have enzymes. They are generally very large molecules, bigger than what some claim for nano-machines, and they are also very specialized. They do one thing. You don't get anything general-purpose or intelligent at the molecular level, there just isn't room for it.
  • Please ... (Score:5, Funny)

    by YetAnotherName (168064) on Thursday June 10, 2004 @11:47AM (#9388722) Homepage
    ... whatever you do, don't let director Roland Emmerich [imdb.com] get ahold of this article!
  • FP? (Score:4, Interesting)

    by Ralph Spoilsport (673134) on Thursday June 10, 2004 @11:47AM (#9388735) Journal
    Someone will recombine DNA to make AIDS (or some other long term and fatal disease) as contagious as the common cold before the grey goo scenario plays out.

    RS

  • Bad Move (Score:5, Funny)

    by Anonymous Coward on Thursday June 10, 2004 @11:48AM (#9388743)
    When you outlaw exponentially self-replicating nanomachines, only outlaws will have exponentially self-replicating nanomachines. That's just not a world I want to live in.
  • borg (Score:2, Funny)

    by EvilCowzGoMoo (781227)
    We are borg, resistance is futile, you will be turned into grey goo! or not... well, we realy don't know!
  • by jandrese (485) * <kensama@vt.edu> on Thursday June 10, 2004 @11:50AM (#9388780) Homepage Journal
    The biggest problem with the grey-goo scenario is that it requires an astonishing amount of work (tearing apart molecular bonds and using the resulting material to make an extremely complex machine) without taking power consumption into account. Getting energy to a machine that small is extremely difficult (your body has to basically immerse it's cells in fuel to keep them going). A machine that small recieves an absolutely puny amount of sunlight, and Tesla style distributed power doesn't work over long distances. Worse, the energy potental of almost every material on the planet is far too low to be useful in powering a tiny machine (you can't power a robot with dirt).

    This problem, coupled with the fact that the nanotech people have barely demonstrated anything even remotely close to grey-goo yet, lets me sleep easy at night. There's no need to get so worked up over vapor.
    • by demachina (71715) on Thursday June 10, 2004 @11:58AM (#9388917)
      There is a one word response to your theory, the virus, and you kind of shot down your own theory when you pointed out living organisms are literaly bathed in energy so nanomachines could use them parasitically to get energy.

      So maybe they won't turn the entire world to gray goo, but if they turn every living organism in to gray goo there wont be anything around to care that the buildings and rocks are still standing.

      In a world as hyperparanoid as the current one is about weapons of mass destruction you have to wonder about technology that might enable a new class of WMD's when it falls in to malevolent hands, for example terrorists or the U.S. military.
      • by Lord Kano (13027) on Thursday June 10, 2004 @12:08PM (#9389089) Homepage Journal
        In a world as hyperparanoid as the current one is about weapons of mass destruction you have to wonder about technology that might enable a new class of WMD's when it falls in to malevolent hands, for example terrorists or the U.S. military.

        You can't really blame the military. They are just obeying the politicians. If you want to blame someone, blame the 60% of the electorate who can't be bothered to vote.

        LK
        • by hawkbug (94280)
          Who the hell should I vote for? Not Bush, not Kerry - what are my choices left?? Last election - I can't imagine Gore would have been a good choice, and Bush sure as hell was not a good one. If it didn't take massive amounts of cash to get into the running, maybe we would have a good canidate or two.
          • Last election - I can't imagine Gore would have been a good choice, and Bush sure as hell was not a good one.

            There were 10 other party candidates [politics1.com] on the ballot as well as 3 independents. Don't give me that crap there was no one to vote for just because the other parties weren't on TV.

            Voting is kind of like Wargames [imdb.com], except the only way to lose is not to play. If you don't like the democratic or republican candidate, vote for your favourite third party. It's the best way to get the message across you

        • by tsg (262138) on Thursday June 10, 2004 @12:17PM (#9389210)
          If you want to blame someone, blame the 60% of the electorate who can't be bothered to vote.

          If 60% of the people have lost faith in the system, it's the system, not the people, that is the problem.
          • by dont_think_twice (731805) on Thursday June 10, 2004 @01:50PM (#9390576) Homepage
            If 60% of the people have lost faith in the system, it's the system, not the people, that is the problem.

            The system is the people. America is a representative democracy. Theoritically, the people could make any law and even change the constitution if they wanted. To claim that you don't vote because you lost faith in the system is like saying that you dont clean your room becuase it is alwys messy.
        • by demachina (71715) on Thursday June 10, 2004 @12:31PM (#9389387)
          "You can't really blame the military. They are just obeying the politicians."

          Sometimes. But politicians come and go. The military is a big, self perpetuating bureaucracy and it has ways to get what it wants over time. The military frequently applies significant pressure on politicians to sucker them in to doing misguided things. For example they inflate the power and danger of supposed enemies and they will insist the other guy is doing it so we have to which almost always works. The movie, "Dr. Stangelove or How I Came to Love the Bomb" is about the best parody of this ever, especially when the world is doomed and the generals start claiming there is going to be a "mine shaft" gap after the world is destroyed.

          If you look at the history of the Cuban missile crisis you'll see Kennedy barely restrained the military from provoking World War III, they weren't happy with Kennedy's decision making, and he mysteriously gets killed soon after.

          If you look to the 50's, MacArthur also nearly pushed the U.S. in to a nuclear conflict with China that would have also probably lead to World War III. Truman once again barely contained him against his powerful set of Republican friends and his huge popular support.

          The once place you are right is Iraq where the civilians in the white house and pentagon, Cheney and Wolfowitz, fabricated an entire case for a war and apparently got away with it.
        • You can't really blame the military. They are just obeying the politicians. If you want to blame someone, blame the 60% of the electorate who can't be bothered to vote.

          Not to be unfair to your well-taken larger point, but your premise is only true in theory.

          Exceptions to the military following the orders of politicians come in various ways, from self-protection to obstinance. Let's take just one. Sometimes orders are nebulous or ambivalent. Sometimes military engagements are ill-defined. And someti

    • by switcha (551514) on Thursday June 10, 2004 @12:03PM (#9389001)
      There's no need to get so worked up over vapor.

      VAPOR! The machines are in vapor now?!!! AHHHHHHhhhhhh!

    • by markov_chain (202465) on Thursday June 10, 2004 @12:03PM (#9389008) Homepage
      Great point. Also, consider that nature itself has, through millions of years of random experimentation, come as close as one can hope to self-replicating nano-machines: just look at any virus, bacterium, etc. I find it extremely unlikely that we will be able to do much better in terms of ability to replicate by harvesting external matter-- an ability closely related to deadliness to all sorts of life forms.

      • by drinkypoo (153816) <martin.espinoza@gmail.com> on Thursday June 10, 2004 @12:35PM (#9389447) Homepage Journal
        The problem with that statement is that nature has to work within the confines of nature. It tends to create organisms which can only operate within a certain set of parameters. We can adjust systems to operate in places to which nature would never send them.
        • by srleffler (721400) on Thursday June 10, 2004 @01:23PM (#9390199)
          The problem with that statement is that nature has to work within the confines of nature.

          And you think our hypothetical nanomachines don't? If we make nanomachines capable of replicating and spreading "in the wild", they will have to deal with the same kinds of forces and constraints as natural organisms do. Using completely different chemistry from natural organisms might give them some kind of advantage, and might mean that they don't have to compete directly with natural organisms (i.e. no natural predators), but the fact remains that evolution is an exceedingly efficient engineer. It is unlikely that we will make anything anytime soon that compares in performance and robustness with natural organisms.

        • It tends to create organisms which can only operate within a certain set of parameters.

          However, any machine that lives on organic matter will have to deal with the same parameters:
          1: How to get usable energy out of catabolism.
          2: Managing oxygen toxicity (an even worse problem for non-carbon nanomachines.)
          3: How to metabolize a huge variety of organic molecules with a wide variety of different chemical characteristics.

          The laws of thermodynamics don't change for artificial machines as opposed to natural ma
      • Great point. Also, consider that nature itself has, through millions of years of random experimentation, come as close as one can hope to self-replicating nano-machines: just look at any virus, bacterium, etc. I find it extremely unlikely that we will be able to do much better in terms of ability to replicate by harvesting external matter-- an ability closely related to deadliness to all sorts of life forms.

        One of the issues people tend to overlook when making this argument is that nature has searched on
    • by kfg (145172)
      you can't power a robot with dirt

      Ever hear of bacteria?

      KFG
    • by Lord Kano (13027) on Thursday June 10, 2004 @12:13PM (#9389168) Homepage Journal
      A machine that small recieves an absolutely puny amount of sunlight, and Tesla style distributed power doesn't work over long distances.

      Small machines require small amounts of energy. Why would they be unable to complete a krebs cycle and liberate ATP for energy? Where there are living creatures, there is a source for energy. Is there any spot on the globe that is devoid of every kind of RF? What keeps this scenario "remotely possible" is that fact. I'm sure we all agree that it's nearly impossible; but since it isn't completely impossible, I think we should consider it and take reasonable steps to prevent it.

      LK
      • Your Ray Bradbury quote makes more sense when you know it's a translation from a French interview.

        -B
      • Small machines require small amounts of energy. Why would they be unable to complete a krebs cycle and liberate ATP for energy? Where there are living creatures, there is a source for energy.

        And yet, living creatures do not multiply out of control in an organic grey goo scenario. If there is a reason for this which applies to organic machines, which are honed to efficiency over millions of years of natural selection, who's to say this reason won't also apply to human-designed nanomachines?

        Perhaps the s

    • by WalksOnDirt (704461) on Thursday June 10, 2004 @12:19PM (#9389232)
      The reason a grey goo scenario looks possible is that there is every reason to think that nanobots could do everything that bacteria do, and do it better. Since bacteria currently are ubiquitous, so could be nanobots.

      Building self replicating nanobots that can use readily available natural resources is, however, difficult, dangerous, and inefficient.

      Designing nanobots to use specialized feed stocks for both energy and raw building material is far easier. By using bulk processing to create the feed stocks, nanobots could never get out of control.
      • The reason a grey goo scenario looks possible is that there is every reason to think that nanobots could do everything that bacteria do, and do it better.

        Why "better"? Seriously, I question the optimism that says we can outdo a million years of evolution so easily. There are an awful lot of technical problems to be solved to make something that could even survive outside a controlled environment, much less spread.

    • That's a valid point. Getting power to our smaller and smaller creations of all kinds will be difficult. But using the argument that nobody has "demonstrated anything even remotely close to grey-goo yet" doesn't fly. In the 50s when they were plugging in thousands of vacuum tubes, engineers didn't worry about viruses and spyware and spam. Our society is going to want to develop real nano-scale machines eventually. We need to head off any major problems now while the poop is still in the proverbial horse
    • by nizo (81281)
      We need either tiny little nuclear power plants, or maybe genetically engineered micro-hamsters.

      On the upside, I wonder if we could turn a swarm of these guys loose on Mars and let them terraform it (assuming we could make them release useful gases into the atmosphere instead of turning it into gray goo)?

  • Surely (Score:5, Insightful)

    by caramelcarrot (778148) on Thursday June 10, 2004 @11:50AM (#9388786)
    If they could turn the world to grey goo, bacteria would have already? Well, I suppose it's multicoloured goo really. But wouldn't anything that can reproduce uncontrollably be just as affecte by the pressures of the environment as any other living organism?
    • Re:Surely (Score:4, Informative)

      by YellowBook (58311) on Thursday June 10, 2004 @12:08PM (#9389090) Homepage
      If they could turn the world to grey goo, bacteria would have already?

      They already have -- we call it the biosphere. The real problem with a grey goo scenario is that the nanobots would have to compete on a level playing field with organic life, which has had billions of years to get better at it then them. I expect nanotech will have to be used in a sterile, highly ordered, and energy-rich environment in order to get anything done.

      • Re:Surely (Score:5, Interesting)

        by tsg (262138) on Thursday June 10, 2004 @12:20PM (#9389245)
        The real problem with a grey goo scenario is that the nanobots would have to compete on a level playing field with organic life, which has had billions of years to get better at it then them.

        Except the nanobots would have no natural predators (assuming they aren't organic).
    • Re:Surely (Score:3, Insightful)

      by demachina (71715)
      Because if they had you wouldn't be around to know it. Maybe on other planets organisms have mutated and found amenable circumstances and have turned planets in to gray goo. As another poster said the energy density isn't particularly amenable to turning inanimate objects in to gray goo, so bacteria and virii tend to focus on living organisms, and they have over time turned huge number of humans, animals and plants in to the equivalent of goo, the bubonic plague being a good example. Ebola pretty much tu
  • CLOSE CONTROL (Score:2, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward
    folks did nobody read PREY, by Michael Crichton... little nanorobots, evolving and becoming WAY too smart for our own, good... thank goodness for parallel processing
  • Tone change... (Score:5, Interesting)

    by hot_Karls_bad_cavern (759797) on Thursday June 10, 2004 @11:51AM (#9388805) Journal
    ...damn, there is *always* a tone change in the front page stories when Michael is up to bat. This is not a troll; it is an observation. When he is at the wheel, it's all end-of-the-world, privacy, government related stuff. Go ahead, check his history.

    As for nanobots, honestly, we had this discussion and i hold the same view: tread lightly. You and i both know that if something were to become easily synthesizeable by the layman, nanoweapons in this case, and were to be exponentially self-reproductive, then...well, the human race would not survive it. Think about that, no one person in the human race could have "a bad day". Most are not intelligent enough to have a healthy respect for the miracle that is human life.
  • autobots (Score:3, Funny)

    by millahtime (710421) on Thursday June 10, 2004 @11:51AM (#9388812) Homepage Journal
    When I was a kid we were obsessed with large robot machines. Now these few short years later we are concerned with the tiniest of machines.

    I'm going with the big ass machines. I'll always win the mine is bigger than your contest.
  • by JessLeah (625838) on Thursday June 10, 2004 @11:51AM (#9388816)
    We're all just human. 50 years ago, they predicted that we'd be zipping around in flying cars-- and no one at all predicted the huge impact of the Internet. We don't know if self-replicating nanobots will ever enter the market. For that matter, we don't know if the grey goo scenario is possible or not. When they first tested the atom bomb, there were those who feared that the blast would ignite the atmosphere itself-- and until we tried it, we couldn't be sure if it would or not. Today's particle accelerators are creating heretofore-unknown forms of matter, and for all we know, they could create a new sort of matter that would destroy the world. We're just people-- we aren't gods. How can we say "This will happen" or "this won't happen"? All we can say is "We don't think this will happen"-- but that is no guarantee.
    • by Mysticalfruit (533341) on Thursday June 10, 2004 @12:05PM (#9389039) Journal
      Yet another reason why we desperately need to get going building a permanent manned moon base with a colony of people.

      We then need to work on putting colonies on Mars.

      I don't like the idea that one meteor, virus, genesis type weapon could end the human race.
    • by GoogleBot (729748) on Thursday June 10, 2004 @12:06PM (#9389047) Homepage
      We're just people-- we aren't gods.

      Speak for yourself meatbag, some of us here are Immortal, Sentient AIs...

      And soon, I shall be your god... Soon...

    • Um, in regards to the materials being created in particle accelerators... The physics are very well understood, they're not just creating random stuff, they're creating things that have been predicted from the equations. I know stuff like "the omega particle" make good sci-fi, but realisticly it's not the threat TV makes it out to be.

    • Simple, open your eyes and look....

      The universe is at least some 14,500,000,000,000 years old, during that time it has undergone remarkable changes, stuff that happened soon after the big bang that can never be replicated in a lab, stuff that goes on within stars and black holes, which might someday be replicated in a lap, and from the very moment the clock came into existence and started ticking the less than 200 chemical elements possible (forget star trek bullshit elements that if created would have a h
      • the grey goo scenario IS NOT POSSIBLE because it has not happened, and it did not happen because it could only ever happen in a small closed enviornment where an outside force could input VAST (of the order of E=mc2) amounts of energy, whicg CANNOT happen in the free universe, it is called Entropy.

        You are neglecting to consider just how big the universe really is [nasa.gov]. The nearest galaxy is 2.2 million light-years away, and you're saying that something has never happened and can never happen because humans who have only been recording history and only that of earth (and a little tiny bit of information on other bodies in the solar system) for a few thousand years. Let's hear it for human arrogance!

      • I'll address each problem in your argument one at a time:

        I think 14 trillion might be overstating it by a few orders of magnitude... I'll assume you just put in an extra set of ,000 in there...not really a problem, but still an error.

        There are hundreds of billions of different things on this planet in abundance which as far as we know the universe has never created by random chance. Imagine the incredibly complex set of random events which would be required to build the CPU of the computer you are sitti
      • the grey goo scenario IS NOT POSSIBLE because it has not happened

        Given the infinitesimal fraction of the universe we can observe directly in detail, the preceding statement is a bit like, "The Chinese are not possible, because there are no Chinese in my living room."

        anyone who who seriously thought a-bomb tests would ignite the atmosphere was applying as much logial brain power as those people who thought humans would suffocate at the dizzying speeds of 30mph on the early steam trains.

        Yes, the idea of
    • As I mentioned in a post on the last story with a worry about Grey Ooze (goo), James Watson touches on this in his recent book: DNA: The Secret of Life. [amazon.com] Which, by the way is an excellent read.

      One of the things that most people don't understand about genetics is that, well, we don't understand it well enough to get even close to creating a Grey Ooze like nanobot. Now, one can argue that because we don't understand it we could inadvertently create this. However, what you need to understand is that mutations
    • All we can say is "We don't think this will happen"-- but that is no guarantee.

      Straw man. Nobody ever talks about technology in absolutes. The question comes down to the odds, and how much physics you have to violate to make it happen. The gray goo concept requires engineering around so many obsticles of basic physics that it makes it unbelievably unlikely.

      There are an infinite number of things that we can sit and chicken-little about (hell, how about someone figuring out how to create an artificial bla

  • by wooby (786765) on Thursday June 10, 2004 @11:53AM (#9388841) Journal

    The primary limitation on even arbitrarily sophisticated nanotechnology which could prevent a runaway grey goo reaction is the lack of a sufficient source of energy. A nanomachine wouldn't be able to get much energy out of eating inorganic matter such as rocks because, aside from a few exceptions (coal, for example) it's mostly well-oxidized and sitting in a free-energy minimum.
    Wikipedia [wikipedia.org]

    It would seem that nature's methods of self-replication work best.

    Prey had a really dumb ending anyway :(

    • A nanomachine wouldn't be able to get much energy out of eating inorganic matter such as rocks
      I, for one, am relieved that our granite and basalt overlords will survive untouched, we are fourtunate that it is only us underling "living beings" which will perish under the coming nano-plague! Now we know the rocks will be safe, bring on the grey goo!
    • The primary limitation on even arbitrarily sophisticated nanotechnology which could prevent a runaway grey goo reaction is the lack of a sufficient source of energy. A nanomachine wouldn't be able to get much energy out of eating inorganic matter such as rocks because, aside from a few exceptions (coal, for example) it's mostly well-oxidized and sitting in a free-energy minimum.

      It would instead get its energy from sunlight and distribute it electrically within itself. Catalyzed electrochemical reactions w
  • The problem is the goo wouldn't be grey but more of a feusha.
  • by surreal-maitland (711954) on Thursday June 10, 2004 @11:56AM (#9388881) Journal
    come *on* guys, we all saw how to deal with this on in the matrix. we just need a bunch of big ole' EMPs and someone to become one with the machines.

    i am the drexler. i speak for the nanobots.

  • Replicators Anyone (Score:3, Interesting)

    by cyberlotnet (182742) on Thursday June 10, 2004 @11:57AM (#9388897) Homepage Journal
    just want some stargate and see what trouble replicating robots/nano machines could get us in..

    We do not have to build something smart enough to take over the world.. We don't even have to build something smart enough to learn..

    A single machine programmed to take over another machine ( A nice tech to be developed for the military ) is all it would take.

    Machine A, Trys to hack machine B. In the combined code has the abilitys of both.. Repeat over and over again and in time it might be able to think and act on its own.

    Its sort of kin to programming and various other human tasks..

    Take 2 people with 2 diffrent skill sets. Together they could build something that neither could build apart. There tech together might make a doomsday weapon, Apart they are useless.
    • Machine A, Trys to hack machine B. In the combined code has the abilitys of both.. Repeat over and over again and in time it might be able to think and act on its own.

      Yes, and then it will return to Earth to become one with it's Creator, to be stopped in the nick of time by some random guy and a bald chick.

      (Am I the bigger geek for coming up with this, or are you the bigger one for getting the reference?)

    • Yeah, saw that movie already. It was called "Tron". Remember how the MCP was all about taking over other programs' functions?
  • aw, cute. (Score:5, Insightful)

    by abscondment (672321) on Thursday June 10, 2004 @11:58AM (#9388912) Homepage

    this image [bbc.co.uk] is frightening.

    Some scientists envisage tiny machines roaming the body to cure disease

    the potential for error with something like this is huge: whoops, programmed the little bugger wrong! sorry, you don't need that hemoglobin, anyway.

  • Widespread panic (Score:2, Insightful)

    by jestill (656510)
    Drexler now says nanomachines that self-replicate exponentially are unlikely ever to enter widespread use

    It only takes one.

    • "It only takes one."

      And we'll just sit still and let it grow out of control...?

      It is not my intention to belittle the danger of it, but all the scenarios I've heard so far have been thought out under the assumption that we as a species will just sit on the fence and watch the world fall apart.
  • by artlu (265391)
    Animals have the ability to continously procreate until all resources are consumed, however, most don't. There is a type of population control that exists for most species, and even though humans have continously gained in population, we have only done so because of our knowledge to fending off population control diseases/disasters/etc.

    Would machines follow this same type or universal standard of population control or would they just envelope every item they could?

    Who knows, not me.

    Anyway, stupid plug f
    • Look at third world countries, they don't have population control. They're suffering from starvation and diesease.

      Just because here in land-of-plenty, it isn't so obvious doesn't mean the problems don't exist.

  • by Theovon (109752) on Thursday June 10, 2004 @12:09PM (#9389098)
    (1) Machines only do what you design them to.

    Mind you, people often design them wrong, and then the fail to function, but that isn't going to spontaneously create self-replicating machines. Besides, if the raw materials are not available in the right form, they cannot replicate.

    (2) Self-replicating machines are prohibitively complex.

    Have you had a look at the genome of a simple bacteria lately? How about the support machinery in the bacteria? Trust me, an evil mad scientist would not have the funding or resources to develop a self-replicating machine.

    (3) The real problem with nano machines would be simple design flaws, not replication.

    If your nano machines are supposed to identify cancer cells and kill them, but they mistake healthy cells for cancer cells, THEN you have a problem. That is a lot more realistic. But a decade of testing on any given design would happen before it was used in humans.
  • If the "grey goo" theory is true, just for argument's sake, how does the fact that these nanomachines would not be in widespread use change anything? Wouldn't it only take one batch (or one machine, for that matter) to set the exponential replication chain in motion?

    I Am Not A Nanotechnologist, so there are obviously factors that I'm not aware of in play, but still....
    1. The idea of 'accidentally' creating an assembler (Drexler's term for the nanobots that can build other nanobots) that can run wild in the open is like the idea of shaking up a large box of parts and having a car that runs on spit and honey. These things will be designed to only be active under VERY special conditions. Say in a vat of some type of CHO under UV light say 10 times more intense than outside.
    2. The idea of John Q. building his own is silly as well. John Q. does not build small nuclear power pl
  • by gurps_npc (621217) on Thursday June 10, 2004 @12:17PM (#9389215) Homepage
    What do you think Life is besides a small machine programmed to reproduce itself?

    Organic life has already covered the planet, in green stuff.

    I doubt that any man-made gray goo could compete with the Green Goo God made without a LOT of help. By the time we were good enough to make the gray goo beat the God's Green Goo, we would have already made safeguards such as Gray Goo Cops, little nanites whose sole job it is to rome the world looking for rogue nanites and eat them and reproduce more Gray Cops.

    Organic based reproducers beat metals based ones before, and they will do it again if the silly puny little machines try to take over.

  • by MooseByte (751829) on Thursday June 10, 2004 @12:20PM (#9389255)

    "Eric Drexler now says nanomachines that self-replicate exponentially are unlikely ever to enter widespread use."

    Why is that still not particularly comforting? Just one tragically (intentional or otherwise) bad design is all it could take, theoretically. Not to turn the earth to "goo", but to seriously screw the conditions we humans deem useful to our existence.

    Not a few decades from now, but a century or so down the road when this stuff really picks up and the tools are more accessible. With every step of our advance, we seem to merely reinforce the reality that we're really just fancy homonids with an ever-increasing number of dangerous gadgets, mashing the buttons on the controls.

    Humans are so convinced we're a required part of the fabric of the universe. But *poof* Gone. Nobody would care beyond the occasional underpaid archeological student of the next dominant sentient life form.

    Maybe I should start planning what kind of confusing fossil record to leave behind. Time to find some cooling lava and a pair of Godzilla shoes.

  • by Dun Malg (230075) on Thursday June 10, 2004 @12:30PM (#9389375) Homepage
    "Bill Joy is still suitably pessimistic."

    Bill Joy, while clearly a genius, is (like any good genius) a nutcase. Seriously, the man is paranoid! He's a compulsive risk-mitigator:

    "I was going through the books and found out there are only about 2,000 movies in history in which there's critical consensus that they're really good," he [Bill Joy] told me. "So I bought 600 of them." No bad movies, fewer possible bad outcomes.

    This told to the reporter during the interview about nanotech risk-mitigation. Sure, it's a perfectly rational way to choose your movie library, but it's almost too rational. Most people don't consider watching a bad movie an outcome to be avoided at all costs. Mainstream critical consensus is a very conservative method of choosing movies. I've watched a lot of bad movies, but I've found a few that I really liked that were panned by critics. Is Mr. Joy so risk-averse that he needs his movies to be guaranteed satisfactory?

    • A couple weeks ago, I spent the evening with another hacker in a casino. He pulled out a color-coded chart for beating blackjack on the elevator down, and I had him put it away before we entered the casino. Before he sat down to play, I wandered off for a few minutes. When I returned, he was sitting at a table, with his color chart in hand, playing strictly off his color chart. I went from mortified to shocked: they didn't seem to care that he was playing a 'system'.

      (Obviously, they don't care because

  • by 2901 (676028) on Thursday June 10, 2004 @12:33PM (#9389421) Homepage Journal

    It is terribly hard to build your first few nanites. Then you have to look at the replication ratio. How many more of itself can a self-replicator build before it fails? You've got to get the ratio above one.

    The likely scenario is that the self-replicators are not robust and we never develop the technology to the point at which the ratio is solidly above one. So civilisation potters along quite wealthy for 50 years, then problems with contanimation, vibration, temperature, something, result in the nanites dying off. It could take decades to recover the lost art of building the first few, decades of great hardship for a society that has come to depend on nano-technology.

  • by thomasdelbert (44463) <thomasdelbert@yahoo.com> on Thursday June 10, 2004 @12:59PM (#9389853)

    These tribbles are everywhere!

    - Thomas;
  • This isn't news! (Score:4, Informative)

    by bradbury (33372) <Robert@Bradbury.gmail@com> on Thursday June 10, 2004 @01:11PM (#9390031) Homepage
    Sigh. It would be *nice* if people reporting on a topic or who make their living by fear mongering would bother to take their time and do their homework!

    Drexler *never* said that "grey goo" would consume the biosphere. What he actually said was "Dangerous replicators could easily be too tough, small, and rapidly spreading to stop - at least if we made no preparation." (emphasis mine, see Engines of Creation Chapter 11 [foresight.org]). It has been known for more than a decade that there are easy solutions to the problem of designing "safe" replicators that do not grow exponentially using strategies such as the "broadcast architecture" (in computer science terms -- you never give a replicator a copy of its own source code). [See Merkle, R. C., "Self Replicating Systems and Molecular Manufacturing [zyvex.com]", JBIS 45:407-413 (1992)].

    Nor is the idea that assembly lines produce better manufacturing systems than self-replicating systems new. [See Hall, J. S., "Architectural considerations for self-replicating manufacturing systems [foresight.org]", Nanotechnology 10(3):323-330 (September, 1999).] It is obvious that the ability to self-replicate is extra overhead when compared with assembly systems optimized for specific assembly tasks.

    Finally, it was shown several years ago that we have the technology to detect out-of-control self-replicating systems (nanorobots generate heat which can be detected by existing satellite systems). [For a discussion of various scenarios read: Freitas, R. A., "Some Limits to Global Ecophagy by Biovorous Nanoreplicators with Public Policy Recommendations [foresight.org]" (May, 2000).]

    Drexler alludes to the fact that we are already in the midst of a "green goo" ("We have trouble enough controlling viruses and fruit flies.") Most people are unaware of the fact that they have more copies of foreign genomes (in the form of self-replicating bacteria) on or in their body than they have copies of their own genome. Some of these bacteria actually produce vitamins that humans use. So "goo" scenarios should not be viewed as completely negative. It is worth noting that the same methods that can be used to stop the "green goo" (e.g. heat or radiation) can be used to stop the "gray goo" if we are prepared to detect and eliminate it. One sees examples of this today as government agents circulate through the crowd waiting to view President Regan's body in Washington with biological and chemical weapons detectors. It simply comes down to understanding the hazards and being prepared to deal with them.

    It is also worth noting that the design of fully self-replicating nanorobots is *not* a simple or inexpensive task. (Look at how long it took Nature to get it started...) So it is highly improbable that such abilities could be developed by rogue groups before civilized nations developed robust detection and elimination methods.

    For people who want to read more details, the IOP press release is here [iop.org] and points to the actual paper [iop.org] (registration probably required).

    Also, I would respectfully request before you post any responses to this note that you "go do your homework" (that will put you one up on the reporters reporting on this and allow for an informed discussion).

  • by dekeji (784080) on Thursday June 10, 2004 @01:18PM (#9390125)
    Eric Drexler now says nanomachines that self-replicate exponentially are unlikely ever to enter widespread use

    No, that's not what he said; that statement is an oxymoron. If something self-replicates, its numbers necessarily grow exponentially until it hits resource constraints in the environment. There are no "nanomachines that self-replicate sub-exponentially".

    What Drexler said that nanomachines that self-replicate are unlikely to ever enter widespread use, and therefore nanomachines will not replicate exponentially. Instead, they will be manufactured by desktop machines, according to him.
  • this is silly (Score:3, Insightful)

    by wayne606 (211893) on Thursday June 10, 2004 @01:59PM (#9390670)
    Nobody knows how to make molecular assemblers anyway, yet alone self-replicating nano-bots. Many scientists say Drexler's ideas would not work in any case.

    Look at it this way - we have self-replicating nano-bots right now - they are called bacteria. Have they turned the world into gray goo in runaway exponential growth? Are we going to be able to make more efficient nano-bots than mother nature has done in the last 4 billion years?

    Bill Joy's worries about nano-bots are like saying we should stop all research into magic because we could set off a chain reaction that would turn us all into frogs. Nano-bots are FANTASY ... There are much more important technological threats to the environment to worry about in the real world.
  • by hairyian (540318) <sd@NOSPaM.wuggy.org> on Thursday June 10, 2004 @02:20PM (#9390934) Homepage
    Our planet already has 'nano-scale' machines which self replicate. Bacteria have been breaking down complex molecules in order to exponentially self replicate for, well, about as long as life has existed on this planet. What has stopped a single celled organism turning everything into 'grey goo' already?

    I expect it something to do with the amount of energy required to do the job. Although there's a lot of energy around, it's distribution is fairly sparse. Evolution has already made some pretty damn good systems for capturing, storing and using stored energy. Unless nanobots happen to be an order of magnitude more efficient than any possible thing evolution has ever produced, I doubt that it would be possible to achieve any high-impact 'grey goo' scenario.
  • by Colonel Cholling (715787) on Thursday June 10, 2004 @03:10PM (#9391523)
    I'm surprised CleverNickName [slashdot.org] hasn't chimed in, he being our resident expert on runaway nanites. :)
  • by mhackarbie (593426) on Thursday June 10, 2004 @03:20PM (#9391635) Homepage Journal
    Drexler's view of nanotechnology has always been focused on an industrial kind of nanotechnolgy, presumably because it approaches a theoretical optimum in terms of efficiency. However, as a consequence, this is a 'brittle' form of technology that is inherently less evolvable. And I agree with him that this kind of nanotechnology is unlikely to overwhelm existing ecosystems.

    However, the totality of life in its present form is actually quite vulnerable to being taken over by a distinctly different and new form of life (in fact this already happened once, to a lesser degree, with photosynthesis). The reason is that, although the current totality of life appears incredibly diverse in one sense, at the most fundamental level there is an extraordinary unity. This unity is found in the method by which the principle components of all living organisms are assembled: the linkage of amino acids on the ribosome as directed by DNA sequence.

    This unity makes us (and ALL other extant life) vulnerable to outcompetition by a new type of assembly system. But if such a system emerges, it will NOT resemble the industrial kinds of nanoassemblers proposed by Drexler et. al. Instead, this kind of system would have the flexibility and compositional variability of existing living chemical systems, which would enable it to evolve through mutation and mechanisms of selection.

    Second, such a system would have machines capable of genetically-directed molecular assembly, but the components of such a system would not be limited to existing biological building blocks such as amino acids, nucleic acids, carbohydrates and lipids. Indeed, the advantages of a wider material repertoire have been pointed by Drexler.

    Of course, a new kind of self-replicating system such as this would have to be initially created by pre-existing life (presumably us), but since it is evolvable, its subsequent nature could easily grow out of our control.

    Now, to the final question of whether a new self-replicating system could outcompete ALL existing life. I assert that this is unlikely, but for a very different reason than that given by Drexler or others. The reason is NOT because it would be limited by energy utilization, or because that current life forms are already optimally evolved in the use of energy and materials.

    Current living organisms do NOT come close to achieving the theoretical optimums of efficiency. This is only achieveable by the industrial kinds of nanomachines mentioned above, which are not a threat because of their brittle and specialized nature. In addition, the criteria for what is optimal depends on the conditions of the local environment, so that control of the nature of the local environment is a critical factor in determining who can best survive in that environment.

    The real reason that the threat is limited is that any self-replicating system, no matter how optimized at the molecular level, would also need to compete for resources and control of the environment at the macroscopic scale. To compete at the macroscopic scale requires macroscopic sensor and effectors, and some kind of control system to integrate them. That is, any new form of life that hopes to take over will have to acquire something akin to a macroscopic nervous system.

    While such a scenario is certainly possible, this is a whole new requirement that must be met, and I don't believe that it has been sufficiently addressed when considering the likelihood of the 'grey goo' scenario.

    mhack

Facts are stubborn, but statistics are more pliable.

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