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More Than Meets the Eye

by Glenn Gould

Posted: 12:05 February 4, 2009


For the last forty years, work has been progressing exponentially in the field of nanotechnology. At the outset of this epoch, while accolades built to a commotion, scientists, who knew the field well, advised colleagues to proceed with caution. Of course this warning fell on deaf ears, and science in the hands of ‘investors’ plunged headlong into the unknown. With hundreds of nanoproducts already on shelves, it is a worldwide free-for-all that represented $147 billion in 2008 and is projected to surpass a trillion dollars in the next decade. Like the confusion regarding cell phone protocols spawned by our free market capitalism, nanotech is driven by competition more than good-sense. The Hannibal of our persistent obsession with profit is at the very gates, threatening the building blocks of life – DNA. Unfortunately what we see and hear about is but a tiny fraction of what is actually happening. The technology already deployed today is more frightening than ever imagined by Orwell, Huxley, King or Spielberg.

Renowned physicist Richard Feynman was a pioneer in free thinking – in many areas – and was instrumental in promoting enthusiasm for research in nanotechnology in the late 1950s. On December 29,1959, speaking to the American Physical Society at the California Institute of Technology at Pasadena, Feynman suggested that “In the year 2000, when they look back at this age, they will wonder why it was not until the year 1960 that anybody began seriously to move in this direction.” Today, nanotechnology is commonplace, found in at least 800 consumer goods worldwide. The Foresight Institute awards the Richard Feynman Prizes in Nanotechnology. “[In 2008] we honor major advances in both understanding and building of nanoscale structures,” according to Christine Peterson, Foresight’s current President. “This work moves us forward on the path to systems of complex, atomically-precise molecular machinery.” The Institute “is the leading public interest organization in nanotechnology. Foresight was founded in 1986 to promote and accelerate the development of beneficial nanotechnology through education, research prizes, and public policy advocacy. Scientists, industry, governments, and the public turn to Foresight for balanced information provided through its publications, public policy activities, roadmaps, prizes, and conferences.” The ‘grandfather’ of Nanotechnology, Eric Drexler, founded the Institute in 1986, and published Engines of Creation: The Coming Era of Nanotechnology.

In his book, Drexler speculated that this technology could easily overwhelm us. “What if nanobots start building chairs and don’t stop?” he asks. The self-replicating could run amuck annihilating the world by their nanobot products. Gray Goo is the obliteration of life that might result from the uncontrollable spread of self-replicating assemblers. Drexler illustrates how rapidly the damage would escalate from one rogue replicator. “If the first replicator could assemble a copy of itself in one thousand seconds, the two replicators could then build two more in the next thousand seconds, the four build another four, and the eight build another eight. At the end of ten hours, there are not thirty-six new replicators, but over 68 billion. In less than a day, they would weigh a ton; in less than two days, they would outweigh the Earth; in another four hours, they would exceed the mass of the Sun and all the planets combined.” To avoid a Gray Goo Boo-Boo, Drexler established guidelines for developing “safe” molecular assembler devices. Foresight recommends that nano-devices be constructed in such a way that they are dependent on “a single artificial fuel source or artificial ‘vitamins’ that doesn’t exist in any natural environment.” Foresight also suggests that scientists program “terminator” dates into their atomic creations and update their computer virus-protection software regularly. Sounds a bit like Jurassic Park.

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