Friday night topic: Nanotech nightmare

— 6:09 PM on January 18, 2002

This essay by Bill Joy famously raised some troubling questions about where evolving technologies might take us. One of the more chilling prospects involves a takeover by self-replicating nanotechnology. Joy quotes Eric Drexler's explanation of the problem:

Tough omnivorous "bacteria" could out-compete real bacteria: They could spread like blowing pollen, replicate swiftly, and reduce the biosphere to dust in a matter of days. Dangerous replicators could easily be too tough, small, and rapidly spreading to stop - at least if we make no preparation. We have trouble enough controlling viruses and fruit flies.

Among the cognoscenti of nanotechnology, this threat has become known as the "gray goo problem." Though masses of uncontrolled replicators need not be gray or gooey, the term "gray goo" emphasizes that replicators able to obliterate life might be less inspiring than a single species of crabgrass. They might be superior in an evolutionary sense, but this need not make them valuable.

The gray goo threat makes one thing perfectly clear: We cannot afford certain kinds of accidents with replicating assemblers.

So we're all gonna die, right? Discuss.
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