Avoiding the Grey Goo

One of the earliest proposed risks of molecular manufacturing (nanotechnology used to build products from the atom up) was “grey goo“, coined by Eric Drexler in his phenomenal 1986 book Engines of Creation. Self-replicating nanobots could escape into the environment and start devouring everything around them to reproduce, resulting in a runaway exponential destruction of the planet Earth and all its inhabitants. This horrific scenario has been repeatedly sited as a reason to curb the development of nanotechnology for molecular manufacturing, and has also been a staple of science fiction about the technology.

Eric Drexler, along with Chris Phoenix, have revisited this idea and concluded that molecular manufacturing is possible without making use of self-replicating agents. The opinion paper has been published in the latest issue of the journal Nanotechnology (the paper is available for 30 days at the Institute of Physics Publishing website, but requires a free registration to download). They conclude that simpler non-self-replicating devices would be more efficient, easier to create, and much more desirable then self-replicating nanobots. They are careful to state, however, that even stationary manufacturing systems are risky in a climate of political unrest and economic uncertainty. Such technology would have a profound and immediate effect on the world’s societies and economies.

In the United States, the nearly one billion dollars committed by the federal government for nanotechnology research is being directed primarily to developing nanoparticles for unique purposes, rather than the development of nanodevices for manufacturing. Naysayers say molecular manufacturing is simply not possible, despite the fact that nature has demonstrated the development of molecular manufacturing devices through evolution in the form of the nanobots DNA and RNA (as well as the other biological molecular machines at work in our bodies right now). Eric Drexler formed the Foresight Institute to promote molecular manufacturing. His ideas for nanotechnology form one of the major pillars of the Technological Singularity meme.

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Richard Leis

Richard Leis is a writer and poet. His first published poem, "Roadside Freak Show," arrives on August 21, 2017 in Impossible Archetype.  His essays about fairy tales and technology have been published on Tiny Donkey. Richard is also the Downlink Lead for the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) team at the University of Arizona. He monitors images of the Martian surface taken by the HiRISE camera located on board the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter in orbit around Mars and helps ensure they process successfully and are validated for quick release to the science community and public. Once upon a time, Richard wrote and edited the science and technology news and commentary website Frontier Channel, hosted the RADIO Frontier Channel podcast, and organized transhumanist clubs. Follow Richard on his website (richardleis.com), on Goodreads (richardleis), Twitter (@richardleisjr), and Facebook (richardleisjr).