Creative Destruction

April 4, 2007

Malicious Ecophagy

Filed under: Environment,Ethics,Science — Brutus @ 11:01 pm

I recently stumbled upon a really nasty threat in emergent science called “malicious ecophagy” that probably should have gone onto my earlier post called Steamrollers except for the fact that this threat doesn’t have the slow-moving inevitability of those I identified before. Rather, ecophagy (the consumption of the ecosphere) would most likely happen suddenly. The threat stems from the race in nanotechnology to create an assembler, a nanobot able to take apart material at the molecular level and reassemble it. Think of replicator technology contemplated in Star Trek fiction for a possible application.

The promise of such technology, which is partly the impetus for developing it, is the hope that, using nanotechnology, we would be able, for instance, to create corn from lawn clippings or clean up a toxic dump by merely rearranging the molecules. It could potentially be the end of want. An array of nanomedicine applications are also contemplated. The potential danger, however, is that if we manage to create an assembler, and if we can’t turn off the molecular transformation, the assembler could then go on to recreate itself ad infinitum until a swarm of biovorous nanobots have literally consumed the totality of biomass and reduced it to dust or some sort of gray goo. It has suitably been termed the “gray goo problem.” Science fiction has already suggested the problem, though of extraterrestrial origin, of an all-consuming biomass in the movie The Blob.

This passage from K. Eric Drexler’s Engines of Creation describes the issue further:

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 [self-]replicating assemblers. Gray goo would surely be a depressing ending to our human adventure on Earth, far worse than mere fire or ice, and one that could stem from a simple laboratory accident.

This spells out the stakes fairly succinctly. Yet in their hubris, scientists appear to be confident that they can avoid the problem, and research continues apace because there is no regulatory agency to oversee and halt the development of potentially dangerous technologies. Indeed, weaponization of nanotechnology is virtually assured. It reminded me that in the dawning atomic age, the creators of the first atomic bomb considered the possibility that detonating a device might accidentally ignite the atmosphere. The danger was calculated to be sufficiently low, though, that the gamble appeared to be worth it. (We’re certainly comfortable with that particular doomsday scenario in hindsight.)

Everyone to whom I’ve described the gray goo problem has responded fairly simply that, well, we just shouldn’t go there then. We don’t want an “oops” we can’t recover from. That’s also the argument made by Bill Joy in his lengthy article in Wired titled Why the Future Doesn’t Need Us. His preferred term is “relinquishment,” and he includes genetic engineering and robotics in a triumvirate of “GNR” (Genes-Nanotech-Robots) technologies that we should give up on before we outwit ourselves and alter something irrevocably. Joy’s credentials and scientific acumen are far better than anything I can bring to bear on the issue, and I rather trust his conclusions (and recommend reading the article). However, despite a few good examples of historical relinquishment, I have my doubts that we can muster the necessary humility and restraint to avoid delving ever deeper into the Pandora’s Box of science and technology. Like the so-called shot heard around the world, that “oops” muttered in a lab somewhere could be a signal event.

15 Comments »

  1. That’s why you build your assemblers to require an external power source, or to be dependent upon an externally-supplied raw material source. If everything goes south, your goo blob peters out after a few hundred meters when the magnesium runs out or whatever.

    It hardly seems worthwhile deliberately foreclosing the prospect of being able to turn industrial waste into cancer medicine so that we don’t run any risks. The philosophy of relinquishment is of a piece with the “protective principle” – you don’t have to move very far at all towards the logical endpoint before you find yourself cringing in a closet, wringing your hands and blubbering that the oxygen will get you.

    Cowboy up, troops.

    Comment by Robert — April 4, 2007 @ 11:48 pm | Reply

  2. Precautionary principle, not protective principle. The error is the fault of nanobots.

    Comment by Robert — April 5, 2007 @ 12:24 am | Reply

  3. That’s why you build your assemblers to require an external power source, or to be dependent upon an externally-supplied raw material source.

    Or make certain environmental factors be an On/Off switch. The presence of certain chemicals found in toxic waste will allow assemblers to continue working. The lack of the specific chemicals will cause the assemblers to deactivate until such a source is found. (Or, for technology that is to be used within the human body, hemoglobin would work quite well. If things goes haywire, it’ll kill the unfortunate one that carries the assemblers, but it won’t carry out a massive gray goo exploitation of the ecosphere.) Likewise, the presence of a certain molecule can be an automatic Off switch. And if that molecule is prominent enough, such as an oxygen molecule or sodium chloride, it will prevent any possible breakouts beyond a specific location.

    Like all of us here, I’m not an expert in the theories of nanotechnology. Yet this makes sense to me.

    Comment by Off Colfax — April 5, 2007 @ 7:27 am | Reply

  4. The premiss is funamentally implausible. Living cells and viruses have been doing nanotech for billions of years. If there was a way to reduce the biosphere to gray goo, then they would have done so by now.

    Comment by Daran — April 5, 2007 @ 9:57 am | Reply

  5. I’m not a scientist working in nanotech, but the solutions you fellows propose seem a bit naive based on what I’ve read. In the case at hand, starting a chain reaction would be a lot easier than stopping it, and even predicating that reaction on the presence of certain chemical elements seems too laughably easy a solution — one that would have muted the discussion before it even began (which isn’t the case).

    My blog post doesn’t treat the issue in great enough detail, but Bill Joy’s article does. Please have a look at it.

    Comment by Brutus — April 5, 2007 @ 10:22 am | Reply

  6. I agree with Daran. Nanotech has been the great hope/fear of science fiction for at least 30 years and it has yet to materialize as either the thing that brings about the new golden age or the end of the world. Worry about something probable like a worldwide disaster causing sized asteroid hitting the earth (it’s happened at least twice) or a nuclear war (happened once.)

    Comment by Dianne — April 5, 2007 @ 11:15 am | Reply

  7. Not that it much matters, but the popular sci-fi TV series Stargate SG-1, entering its final season ( # 10 ? ) postulates such an invention being produced by a child ( alien ) as a toy which, well, gets out of control. It’s been ‘around’ for quite a while.

    Comment by opit — April 5, 2007 @ 5:48 pm | Reply

  8. By a robot child alien as a toy.

    Comment by Glaivester — April 5, 2007 @ 7:05 pm | Reply

  9. Brutus, so okay, I’ve read the article.

    One thing that stood out for me was this part of :

    Most dangerously, for the first time, these accidents and abuses are widely within the reach of individuals or small groups. They will not require large facilities or rare raw materials. Knowledge alone will enable the use of them.

    Certainly both nanotechnology and genetic manipulation are possible in the small laboratory. Yet these fields require equipment that is highly difficult to home-brew due to the level of complexity needed. Keep track of the equipment, just as we currently do with the 20th Century bogeymen of nuclear/chemical/biological components, and things cannot go haywire too quickly.

    Most of us here grew up in the final days of the Cold War. We know exactly what it means to live under the shadow of complete annihilation. And we know that there are already mechanisms available to counteract that annihilation. They would need to be adapted, of course, but we are an adaptable species.

    Comment by Off Colfax — April 5, 2007 @ 11:02 pm | Reply

  10. Dianne says:

    Nanotech has been the great hope/fear of science fiction for at least 30 years and it has yet to materialize as either the thing that brings about the new golden age or the end of the world. Worry about something probable like a worldwide disaster causing sized asteroid hitting the earth

    In other words, despite reports that we’re on the cusp of a major nanotech breakthrough that might unwittingly unleash a doomsday scenario, we shouldn’t be too concerned because we’ve managed so far not to have done ourselves in? My concerns aren’t so easily allayed. It’s impossible to recognize and prepare for all potential threats. But the ones we create ourselves are worth some consideration.

    Off Colfax says:

    Keep track of the equipment, just as we currently do with the 20th Century bogeymen of nuclear/chemical/biological components, and things cannot go haywire too quickly.

    As I said in my post, there is no regulatory agency (yet) for overseeing nanotech or genetic engineering. Bill Joy’s point in the passage you quote is that the materials and know-how to do some serious damage with these technologies are far more ubiquitous than for WMDs. There are a lot of tech firms, research institutions, colleges, and universities currently pursuing the next big breakthrough, and there is little reason to expect that a typical 18-year-old lab assistant would treat things with the seriousness they might deserve. I don’t know for sure, but I doubt that the cost and complexity of the necessary lab equipment is as far beyond the average college science department’s reach as you seem to think.

    In other areas (cloning, for example), there are known rogue scientists willing to go wherever they need to in order to set up labs and pursue unobstructed research. The objectives and motivations aren’t always clear. But if some tin horn leader sets up a lab and hires some researchers to develop the next tech weapon, that’s hardly a benign scenario but clearly with historical precedent.

    Comment by Brutus — April 6, 2007 @ 12:28 am | Reply

  11. In other words, despite reports that we’re on the cusp of a major nanotech breakthrough

    We’ve been on that cusp for years. Decades. I’ve stopped believing in the breakthrough that is “just around the corner.” If we see a proof of concept of nanotech I will quickly change my position. But until then I’m not all that worried about it.

    that might unwittingly unleash a doomsday scenario,

    So might lots of things. I could name a good dozen ways in which the (not very dangerous) work I’m doing could accidently destroy the city I’m in if things went very, very badly wrong. And I’m not dealing with anything really dangerous. Currently, I think it more likely that something will get out of the TB labs and decimate the country than that we’ll all turn into grey goo tomorrow.

    we shouldn’t be too concerned because we’ve managed so far not to have done ourselves in?

    I find the fact that we have had the capacity to do ourselves in for at least the last 50 years and haven’t done so moderately encouraging. Remember, any reasonably bright physics undergraduate can, in principle, make a working model for an atomic bomb. Getting enriched uranium is somewhat harder, but probably not out of the question for a determined person.

    As far as worrying about a nanotech disaster in particular, though, I’m not sure what the point is. Given the lack of working nanotech, we don’t know what the threat would look like or how to counter it. So what’s the point of worrying about something you can’t prevent?

    Comment by Dianne — April 6, 2007 @ 12:42 pm | Reply

  12. You don’t even need to be a physics undergrad. All the theoretical work has been done; making a nuclear weapon is a question of being a skilled machinist at this point. See Tom Clancy’s “The Sum of All Fears” for a fictional, but highly accurate, depiction of what it takes.

    Getting the nuclear material is the only part of the process that cannot be reasonably characterized as trivial, for any motivated group of people.

    So what’s the point of worrying about something you can’t prevent?

    Well, if it all DOES go south, when we’re standing around in the afterlife looking sheepish, he can be one of the people saying “see! we TOLD you!”. Of course, that will just end up making him really unpopular. So basically it’s a tactic for not getting laid in Heaven.

    Comment by Robert — April 6, 2007 @ 1:05 pm | Reply

  13. So basically it’s a tactic for not getting laid in Heaven.

    Big deal. Why should Heaven be any different for me than Earth in that respect?

    Comment by Glaivester — April 6, 2007 @ 6:51 pm | Reply

  14. Why are we more vulnerable to gray goo like worries now than we have for the rest of history?

    1. The Rise Of Monoculture. The number of species in the global human foodchain is mcuh smaller than it used to be and has less intraspecies diversity. As a result, a single pathogen which is bad for a particular variant of a major cultivated food crop or animal can devistate a much larger proportion of the total food supply.

    2. Megafarming. We engage in higher density farming which makes it easier to spread disease. The ability of pathogens to become antibiotic resistant in a matter of years, illustrates to limitations of countermeasures.

    3. A Smaller World. Modern transportation moves pathogens from one part of the world to another much more rapidly. Until now, only pathogens with long periods of latency could travel far. Those pathogens tended to be much less quickly lethal as well. Now, pathogens with relatively short latency periods can get around the world much more quickly. The Spanish Flu was the first example of the impact of a smaller world, but the world has grown much much smaller than it was nearly a century ago.

    4. Intelligent Design. Life may not have arisen by intelligent design, but we are intelligent designers. Something that might evolve once in a million years and might not be the right thing at the right time, can be conciously created by us. For example, there are relatively few germline viruses, which when you are infected with one, changes your DNA and that of your descendants. But, germline viruses are very attractive for genetic engineers, so a little loophole in evolution that allows much more rapid propogation of genetic change can turn into a flood gate.

    5. An Antiseptic World. Improved sanitation and the like has resulted in the average person having far less exposure to pathogens, making them much more vulnerable to them.

    6. Affluenza. Humanity is in the process of culturally adapting to longer lives and fewer children. This gives us a more comfortable life. But, this makes it possible for other modes of living to have a disproportionate genetic impact on the population. A pathogen that latches onto an alternative mode of living can spread quickly while receiving only delayed notice in the affluent class.

    Comment by ohwilleke — April 9, 2007 @ 11:32 am | Reply

  15. Don’t quit now. ‘Modern’ home design locks in air so well that the benefits – there are some – of infiltration are defeated. Instead, volume of ‘make up’ air is cut to save on the expense of heat exchangers and heat supplementation. ‘Disinfectants’ are used with great abandon without proper consideration for the buildup of toxins on surfaces – and aerosolized in confined spaces. New compounds are used in fabrics with the burden of proof on hazard, not safety.
    This turns homes into ‘sick buildings’ even if radon or mildew don’t add to the level of hazard due to airborne contaminants – usually without assurance of CO2 levels being low and air oxygen content normal. People wonder why the proliferation of immune system conditions. ( Some mystery ! )

    Comment by opit — April 9, 2007 @ 7:32 pm | Reply


RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URI

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Blog at WordPress.com.

%d bloggers like this: