[Paleopsych] CRN: Gray Goo is a Small Issue

Premise Checker checker at panix.com
Sat Jan 22 15:42:04 UTC 2005

Gray Goo is a Small Issue
Center for Responsible Nanotechnology
2003.12.14 (note date_

    Fear of runaway nanobots, or "gray goo", is more of a public issue
    than a scientific problem. Gray goo as a result of out of control
    nanotechnology played a starring role in an article titled "[15]The
    Gray Goo Problem" by Lawrence Osborne in today's [16]New York Times
    Magazine. This article and other recent fictional portrayals of gray
    goo, as well as statements by scientists such as [17]Richard Smalley,
    are signs of significant public concern. But although biosphere-eating
    goo is a gripping story, current [18]molecular manufacturing proposals
    contain nothing even similar to gray goo. The idea that nanotechnology
    manufacturing systems could run amok is based on outdated information.
    The earliest proposals for molecular manufacturing technologies echoed
    biological systems. Huge numbers of tiny robots called
    "[19]assemblers" would self-replicate, then work together to build
    large products, much like termites building a termite mound. Such
    systems appeared to run the risk of going out of control, perhaps even
    "eating" large portions of the biosphere. Eric Drexler warned in 1986,
    "We cannot afford certain kinds of accidents with replicating
    Since then, however, Drexler and others have developed models for
    making safer and more efficient machine-like systems that resemble an
    assembly line in a factory more than anything biological. These
    mechanical designs were described in detail in Drexler's 1992 seminal
    reference work, [20]Nanosystems, which does not even mention
    free-floating autonomous assemblers.
    Replicating assemblers will not be used for manufacturing. Factory
    designs using integrated nanotechnology will be much more efficient at
    building products, and a [21]nanofactory is nothing like a gray goo
    nanobot. A stationary tabletop factory using only preprocessed
    chemicals would be both safer and easier to build. Like a drill press
    or a lathe, such a system could not run wild. Systems like this are
    the basis for responsible molecular manufacturing proposals. To
    evaluate Eric Drexler's technical ideas on the basis of gray goo is to
    miss the far more important policy issues created by general-purpose
    nanoscale manufacturing.
    A gray goo robot would face a much harder task than merely replicating
    itself. It would also have to survive in the environment, move around,
    and convert what it finds into raw materials and power. This would
    require sophisticated chemistry. None of these functions would be part
    of a molecular manufacturing system. A gray goo robot would also
    require a relatively large computer to store and process the full
    blueprint of such a complex device. A nanobot or nanomachine missing
    any part of this functionality could not function as gray goo.
    Development and use of molecular manufacturing will create nothing
    like gray goo, so it poses no risk of producing gray goo by accident
    at any point. However, goo type systems do not appear to be ruled out
    by the laws of physics, and we can't ignore the possibility that
    someone could deliberately combine all the requirements listed above.
    Drexler's 1986 statement can therefore be updated: We cannot afford
    criminally irresponsible misuse of powerful technologies. Having lived
    with the threat of nuclear weapons for half a century, we already know
    Gray goo eventually may become a concern requiring special policy.
    However, goo would be extremely difficult to design and build, and its
    replication would be inefficient. Worse and more imminent dangers may
    come from non-replicating nano-weaponry. Since there are [22]numerous
    greater risks from molecular manufacturing that may happen almost
    immediately after the technology is developed, gray goo should not be
    a primary concern. Focusing on gray goo allows more urgent technology
    and security issues to remain unexplored.

    UPDATE: The August 2004 issue of the [23]Institute of Physics journal
    Nanotechnology includes an article on "Safe Exponential
    Manufacturing", co-authored by Chris Phoenix and Eric Drexler. They
    conclude that:

      Nanotechnology-based fabrication can be thoroughly non-biological
      and inherently safe: such systems need have no ability to move
      about, use natural resources, or undergo incremental mutation.
      Moreover, self-replication is unnecessary: the development and use
      of highly productive systems of nanomachinery (nanofactories) need
      not involve the construction of autonomous self-replicating
      nanomachines. Accordingly, the construction of anything resembling
      a dangerous self-replicating nanomachine can and should be
      prohibited. Although advanced nanotechnologies could (with great
      difficulty and little incentive) be used to build such devices,
      other concerns present greater problems. Since weapon systems will
      be both easier to build and more likely to draw investment, the
      potential for dangerous systems is best considered in the context
      of military competition and arms control.

    For more information, or to download a PDF of this important paper,
    [24]click here.


   15. http://www.nytimes.com/2003/12/14/magazine/14GRAY.html
   16. http://www.nytimes.com/pages/magazine/index.html
   17. http://www.crnano.org/Debate.htm
   18. http://www.crnano.org/crnglossary.htm#Molecular
   19. http://www.crnano.org/crnglossary.htm#Assembler
   20. http://www.foresight.org/Nanosystems/toc.html
   21. http://www.crnano.org/bootstrap.htm
   22. http://www.crnano.org/dangers.htm
   23. http://www.iop.org/
   24. http://www.crnano.org/papers.htm#Goo

More information about the paleopsych mailing list