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


Chapter 10. GRAY GOO

IF YOU’RE TALKING about nanotechnology at a party, two things are assured:

1.    Nobody is going to have sex with you in the foreseeable future, and …

2.    Somebody will bring up the Gray Goo Scenario.

The term “Gray Goo,” for those of you probably too busy boning right now to read this, describes the danger of self-replicating nanomachines running amok, forgoing any meaningful objectives in favor of just endlessly reproducing themselves like tiny little robotic Irish Catholics. The term was originally coined by a man named Eric Drexler in 1986, in his book Engines of Creation. He called it this partly because nanotech was just being recognized as the next industrial wave of the future, and also because the far more awesome title, “Engines of Destruction,” was already taken by three Swedish metal bands, two monster trucks, and one particularly shitty mechanic.

In his book, Drexler writes of Gray Goo as something akin to the Midas touch, the simple wish that everything you touch turns to gold, which leads to you dying of starvation, because you cannot eat gold. Here the simple wish is that you didn’t have to build every single goddamned microscopic robot by hand, which leads to your limbs being eaten by robots. Because if you encourage incredibly simple nanobots to build more of themselves, the danger is that they won’t know when to stop pulling apart matter for its raw building materials, then using those appropriated materials to build more robots, which, in turn, will do the same thing. If left unchecked, the nanobots would eventually break down everything into its core elements, effectively restructuring the entire planet into robots. While the idea of an entire planet turning into a robot may indeed make a sweet-ass plot for the next Transformers movie, the unfortunate consequence would be the end of all life as we know it. Not exactly worth the trade-off, in my opinion.

Hindsight Is 20/20

“I guess we shouldn’t have ‘encouraged’ those robots to eat people in order to build more people eating robots.”

—Early nanotech scientist

The terrifying notion of microscopic organisms pulling apart base matter and assembling more dangerous creatures isn’t exactly new. It was originally inspired by DNA, small molecules that break down raw materials and build more complex molecules from them. They gave structure to all life on Earth, and all a self-replicating nanobot does is follow this same concept, with the limiters pulled off. If you did the same thing to human beings, the results would be similar; we’re basically just destructive machines tearing up shit to build more of ourselves until there is nothing left on Earth but a mass of writhing bodies engaged in a gargantuan, planetary-scale accidental orgy.

Luckily Eric Drexler wrote another essay years later that tells us that Gray Goo is just not ever going to happen. He assures us that there is simply no practical need for nanobots to be self-teplicating, because it would make far more sense to build tiny “nanofactories” that manufacture completely nonreplicating robots. The factories themselves wouldn’t be autonomous; they’d be immobile and dependent on human resupply, so there would be absolutely no danger of infinite reproduction. Indeed, it would actually be much harder to engineer a single Gray Goo nanobot than it would these simple nanofactories. The factories themselves needn’t be microscopic, after all; they’re actually more likely to be somewhat large in scale—probably around the size of a photocopier. (You may want to keep this fact handy for future reference, lest ten years from now you find yourself at an office Christmas party, drunkenly attempting to photocopy your ass, but instead find that its base matter has been reappropriated into microscopic robots. The normal apocalypse is bad enough. We don’t need one made entirely out of drunken cubicle jockeys’ former butt cheeks.)

Earnest Question

Then why did you invent the entire concept, Eric Drexler?

So it’s easier to build a factory to do the microscale work for you and, of course, there would also be less programming needed for the factory produced nanobots, because unlike the Gray Goo ’bots, they don’t need to procreate, just work. So while that kind of sucks for the little robots (no robot sex for you little guys; there is only work until death), it is pretty good for us; no disintegrating, just magic invisible construction workers! I know that’s a great concept, but do try to avoid saying that phrase out loud until this is common knowledge. It will only generate more odd stares at the person already laughing at a book about the apocalypse. You don’t need the help.

Potential Names for This Rear-End Apocalypse

·        Asspocalypse

·        Catasstrophe

But all these construction concerns pale in comparison to the fundamentals necessary for a Gray Goo ’bot to even function. Every nanobot would need to have five important capabilities, any one of which, if absent, would render the whole scenario impossible. First of all, to even acquire those building materials (read: your flesh) they would have to be mobile, and that’s a heftier task than you might imagine. Second, power is an issue: How do you power the microscopic nanobot, much less its even smaller nanoengine? It’s not like you pour thimbles of gas into its tiny fuel tank, as adorable as that would be; it needs an entirely new fuel source, and how do you come up with something like that that remains nontoxic to the human body?

Handy Tips to Stop a Nanotech Infestation in Your Body

·        Live in a cave forever.

·        Swing your arms about wildly, as if swatting invisible insects.

·        Hide your blood.

Horrifyingly, that’s how!

Scientists recently broke this fuel barrier when they started powering medical nanobots with the reengineered tails of human sperm. It’s quite an elegant solution, really: Sperm are perfectly functioning, natural motors that power themselves solely on glucose, a chemical already naturally present in the human body. And this system also knocks down another barrier of the fundamental capabilities needed for a Goo-bot to function, which is combating the human metabolism. Glucose is a perfect fuel for any use within the human body, so these natural engines could be used on any biological robot, from cancer-fighting nanobots to system-enhancing modifications. Researchers are looking into using these things for anything from curing paralysis to reducing asthma. So on the plus side, there might just be a new weapon in the battle against disease. On the downside, that weapon is basically cum in your blood. Hey, at least homophobia will die off pretty quickly, when all bigots refuse treatment because their organs “ain’t no queers.”

Potential Upsides to a Gray Goo Infestation in Your Body

·        You’ll never be alone again.

·        It probably tickles.

·        Parts of you will live forever! (Or at least long enough to disassemble your loved ones.)

The third element a self-replicating nanobot would require to function would be an incredibly sturdy shell. Microscopic machines not only have to endure the intense atmospheric pressures of the body and atmosphere, but also need to fight off interference from sunlight, bacteria, temperature—basically everything. Sure, it’s a hard-knock life, nanobots, but that’s what you get for being a doomsday scenario. What did you expect, pity? You want to turn our stomachs into your children, nanobots; we have no sympathy for you here.

The fourth fundamental is control, because what’s the point of having a roving, armored nanobot if it just wanders around aimlessly with no clear goal in mind, stumbling awkwardly through your blood with absolutely no purpose in life, like a tiny little robotic teenager?

And finally, the last fundamental is that of fabrication: A nanobot would need to constantly carry around all the tools it needs to build more of itself, in addition to the tools needed for whatever job it was engineered for. These things are smaller than bacteria, so there’s not exactly room for a carry-on.

All of this adds up to a simple realization: There’s just no call for a self-replicating nanobot. It is not only impractical, but actively dangerous. Why go through that if there’s an easier, cheaper, safer solution?

See? Everything’s cool.

No, really, buck up, friends! Those little robot fiends are impotent! Aside from tiny feelings of cybernetic frustration, a gaggle of wee unsatisfied female robots, and some itty-bitty inklings of machine inadequacy, there are no negative consequences!

Nobody dies today!

Why, Eric Drexler himself states that Gray Goo has become a scaremongering scenario that only takes away from more pressing concerns regarding nanotech. Chris Phoenix, Director of Research at the Center for Responsible Nanotechnology, also states quite clearly that it is a nonissue:

Runaway replication would only be the product of a deliberate and difficult engineering process, not an accident. Far more serious, however, is the possibility that a large-scale and convenient manufacturing capacity could be used to make powerful nonreplicating weapons in unprecedented quantity, leading to an arms race or war. Policy investigation into the effects of molecular nanotechnology should consider deliberate abuse as a primary concern, and runaway replication as a more distant issue.

So that’s … comforting, I guess? He’s saying that Gray Goo won’t ever happen on accident! Admittedly, it would be slightly more comforting if he didn’t also say, practically in the same breath, that you shouldn’t worry about Gray Goo happening on accident, because it’s only going to happen on purpose, and even then only if far more terrifying things do not happen first. Jesus, hopefully nobody’s turning to cry on Phoenix’s shoulder, because he certainly didn’t get his doctorate in compassion.

Better Names for Gray Goo

·        Steel Pudding

·        Robot Death Buffet

·        Reverse Voltron Disorder.

However, who would ever want to engineer it on purpose? Gray Goo wouldn’t be appealing for military purposes because it’s so hard to control and so wantonly destructive. When other nanotech weapons can be used far more effectively to kill with control, who would want something that just randomly destroys life and sows chaos? Only psychopaths and terrorists want that kind of stuff.

Oh, wait; we have a whole bunch of those around, don’t we?

In light of this fact, the Center for Responsible Nanotechnology realized that they couldn’t scratch Gray Goo off their list of concerns just yet, but did add that it was a low-priority threat because there were “far more dangerous and imminent issues with nanotechnology.”

There were far more dangerous issues than sperm-powered blood robots eating the Earth.

That’s what they said.

They think that’s comforting.

“I’m so sorry, sir. You have terminal cancer. But don’t worry; it’s all going to be OK! You won’t be dying from the cancer … because I am going to shoot you in the face right now. Isn’t that reassuring?”

No, Center for Responsible Nanotechnology, that is not comforting. I would suggest you offer hugs instead of these horrifying press releases, but judging by your previous “consolation” track record, I’m afraid you’d just end up whispering obscenities in people’s ears while punching their children.