Everything Is Going to Kill Everybody: The Terrifyingly Real Ways the World Wants You Dead - Robert Brockway (2010)


Great leaps in human technological advancement are often initiated by the rise of a single, new, unforeseen field of invention. The forging of metals brought us solidly into the age of construction; the printing press brought us into the age of literacy; and the modern factory system brought us into the industrial revolution. The next big leap in technological advancement is, according to all sources, just over the horizon: nanotechnology. If industrialization made consumer products easier, cheaper, and more readily available, nanotech is going to make consumerism practically rain from the sky. Nanoparticles, the term for inert, nonmachine molecules reduced to the nanoscale, could theoretically do anything from eliminating cancer to creating self-mending clothes, while nanobots, the more complicated microscopic machines, could rearrange the building blocks of matter itself, essentially creating something out of nothing. It’s going to be like having a million tiny robot butlers at your beck and call who live inside your body, and whose only desire in life is to fetch you as much awesome as you can hold.

This is the world of nanotech, and it’ll be the best thing that ever happened to you … if it doesn’t kill you first.

Chapter 9. GREEN GOO

COMPUTERS ARE reaching their saturation point in our everyday life—cell phones, iPods, digital cameras. They’re getting more ubiquitous by the day and smaller by the minute. They provide most anything, from serious applications like military command and genome sequencing to the more trivial tasks like supplying online journals or easy access to obscure fetish porn. And it’s no wonder they’re so omnipresent; what other device could fill all those niches at once? What else could simultaneously function as an efficient soldier, run complex laboratory data, allow you to express your innermost feelings, and show you people fucking in cartoon coyote suits? Computers have thoroughly inundated modern life, so why not take it a step further and inundate your life, quite literally?

Well, nanobiotechnology—the term for nanotechnology applied to biological systems—proposes to do exactly that … and a lot sooner than you may think. You see, scientists are already implementing the first wave of human-altering nanomachines, and they expect to have the first legal, commercial applications available within the next decade. But the technology may be moving faster than we’re able to fully understand it, and some issues that are already cropping up are, to put it politely, so terrifying that the fear shit you take will inexplicably shit itself in terror.

This effect is similar to the theory of “trickle-down economics,” except that instead of hoping that the superrich accidentally drizzle money over the poor like monetary salad dressing, in this case it’s human-augmenting robots trickling into the ecosystem through waste by-products. Basically you’re pooping superpowers into the swamp.

The “Green Goo” scenario is a theory stating that the true danger of nanotechnology lies not within the mites themselves, but in the creatures they modify. Much like the concerns surrounding genetically modified foods, the idea here is that any introduced trait that turns out to be beneficial will enter the gene flow and start to carry over naturally. It addresses such concerns as what might happen to an ecosystem if a strain of nanobots or nanoparticles accidentally improves, even marginally, something like the eyesight or immune system of a top predator. Furthermore, what could happen to the predator if its prey suddenly possesses, say, heightened endurance? These sorts of scenarios can’t be fully tested in labs, because they deal expressly with nonlaboratory conditions taking place solely in wild ecosystems. And the effect is cumulative, so what may start with a harmless frog leaping just an inch higher could well end up with a sky eternally darkened by sinister patrols of helicopter sharks.

And as usual, it all starts very small, and with only the best of intentions: Researchers at the University of California have recently developed nanomites equipped with small doses of chemotherapy drugs. These simple nanobots actively target cancer that is attempting to spread, and then attach to a protein found on cancerous blood vessels that supplies tumors with their oxygen and other nutrients. They then inject their payload of drugs into the vessels, which causes them to deny the tumors sustenance, thus preventing the cancer from metastasizing and spreading to other organs, which is really what kills most cancer patients. The drugs don’t eliminate the tumor; they just contain the cancer and starve it until somebody can come along and kill it. To put it more succinctly: They function like a million tiny Auschwitzes … inside your blood.

This development is important because the cancer drug used—doxorubicin—is also a highly toxic poison, one that causes fatal heart attacks in a significant portion of the people it’s administered to. But the nanobots are able to administer the drug so precisely that the amount needed for treatment is drastically reduced, and the side effects are almost nonexistent. It’s a technology that could save your life one day, and a damn good reason to have these things inside your blood and be quite happy about it. Just try to avoid thinking about the submolecular genocide raging inside your veins. And I wouldn’t mention the fact that the poisonous robots living inside your blood are the only thing keeping you alive, if I were you. (There are nice, padded places the police tend to bring you to if you say things like that out loud.) Oh, and definitely don’t dwell on the somewhat worrying prospect that if too many of these poisonous-drug-administering nanomachines were introduced into your body, just waiting for the cue to activate, you’d be basically walking around pre-murdered, just waiting for somebody to take a whack at the robot-filled poison piñata that is your body. So that Auschwitz-in-the-blood analogy from earlier still holds true. It’s just that this time, you’re the one in the showers.

Historical Tradeoffs That May Not Have Been Worth It

·        Indians swapping Manhattan for beads

·        The Chinese allowing British occupation in exchange for opium trade

·        Curing cancer by injecting poisonous robots

But hey, don’t start getting freaked out yet! This wasn’t even the part intended to scare you; it was just an example of some of the wonderful things that nanotechnology can do for you (in this case, injectable anticancer Nazi robots).

It’s very unlikely that the burgeoning field of nanobiotechnology will be reserved solely for medical uses. There’s a pretty standard, preestablished pattern of dissemination in place for new technology. At first, new tech is alwaysreserved for serious uses, but before long it’s so commonplace that you have it everywhere. Take the internet, for example: It was exclusively a military network just over forty years ago, and now half the line at Starbucks is tapping into said former military network to check out grammatically impaired cats while waiting for their Grande Frappucino. So sure, nanobiotech is just for cancer treatment now, but maybe tomorrow it’s a flu vaccine and maybe a week from now it’s a pain reliever, or a subdermal sunblock, or maintenance-free contact lenses. But if it’s that commonplace, then why not go further? Why not a customizable, morphing tattoo? Or a permanent cell phone in your ear? How about a remote control installed in your brain? The potential uses are tempting, and the appeal is easy to see.

We’ve established that it will be inside everybody eventually. Then what? Even supposing that nobody abuses the technology, its very nature makes even the most benevolent intent potentially lethal. Take the respirocytes proposed by nanoexpert Robert Freita: They’re a harmless application, just a kind of artificial red blood cell that pumps oxygen more efficiently and more stably than the natural equivalent—236 times more efficiently, to be precise. Because of this dramatically heightened performance, they would be invaluable in treating disorders such as anemia and asthma, or simply to oxygenate the blood for better endurance and performance in sporting events. In other words, they’re blood-borne nerd fixers.

However, with higher doses of these nanobots, their hosts could also be able to do things like hold their breath for several hours and run at a dead sprint for nearly twenty minutes. And that’s great! How many of you would want to be able to do that? Now, how many of you want anybody else to be able to do that? Go ahead; raise your hand if you want sociopaths who breathe underwater, sprinting rapists, and serial killers who never tire.*

*Put your hands down, aspiring serial killers and rapists. Your vote does not count here.

Not to mention the worrying fact that these machines are by no means human-specific. The respirocytes take a kind of frat-boy approach to blood: If it’s warm, it needs to be pumped. No further distinctions need to be made. Also of concern is the fact that their durable outer shell and self-sustaining programming make them seriously hardy devices, easily capable of surviving and functioning outside of their intended environment for long durations. And when you factor in how easily they could spread—their transferability by blood and other bodily fluids—you start to get a worrisome picture. One bad accident at the local zoo with somebody hosting these nanobots and next thing you know, you’ve got untiring, superspeed pythons racing through the streets and a terrifying new version of sea lion roaring at the bottom of your pool. In an instant, the food chain is drastically reordered. Though the chief concern for now is just the effect a modified species could have on its local ecosystem, any supercharge in the efficiency of predators is the last thing we need.

After all, humans are only at the top of our food chain because we’re smart enough to compensate for our insane physical incompetence as a species. So … maybe you should start studying. Because pretty soon, a billion tiny robots might be seriously hot-rodding up some grizzly bears, and you? Well, let’s just say you’re going to have to get a hell of a lot smarter in a big hurry if you plan on making it back from the store with both arms.