John Robert Marlow’s novel Nano and a subsequent interview with the author have generated considerable discussion over at the sci.nanotech group, as well as numerous comments here on our blog. We think it’s good that people are talking about the potential consequences of advanced nanotechnology. Sure, Marlow takes some creative liberties and exaggerates the technology a bit for dramatic purposes—but it’s a science fiction story, after all, and one purpose of storytelling is to make people think about and talk about important issues.
The discussion of how fast (or slow) gray goo could spread is important. Clearly it warrants further study. But other issues beyond gray goo must be studied—some quite urgently.
Here’s what CRN Director of Research Chris Phoenix says:
A gray goo will be very hard to build. It'll need a metabolism, a fabricator, a control computer with full blueprints, and an environmental shell with chemical/mechanical interfaces... all in a very small package. Note that this means that there's no way a nanofactory can accidentally mutate into a gray goo. If gray goo happens, it will be deliberate.
Long before goo is designable, it'll be possible to design UAV's (unmanned aerial vehicles; think cruise missiles) that can spread it very quickly. But why bother spreading goo? With much simpler robotics/avionics, you can just kill the person (or city) you want to kill; no need to destroy the world in the process.
If we ever get to the point where script kiddies can release dangerous gray goo, we're probably doomed—since it'll surely be harder to stop goo than to stop slow-moving, slow-thinking meat robots from pushing the wrong buttons. But we will have much more severe dangers to deal with before that point. Like nano-arms races with weapons much more rapidly destructive than gray goo—and much more controllable, hence easier to justify using.
In any event, the book actually scared me—and I've been thinking about this stuff for a long time, and I know all about doing the math on physical limitations, and I spotted lots of places where things couldn't work the way he wrote them. But the strength of the story is that it doesn't really depend on the technological details. Make a powerful enough technology—and diamondoid molecular manufacturing certainly qualifies—and you're opening the door to all sorts of human-invoked destruction.
The position of CRN is that gray goo eventually may become a concern requiring special policy. However, worse and more imminent dangers may come from non-replicating nano-weaponry. Since there are 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.