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Grey goo

This goes back to 1986 and Eric Drexler’s book The Engines of Creation. He is the guru of the world of nanotechnology, in which individual molecules are manipulated as though they are snooker balls. In fiction, but not (yet) in fact, intelligent sub-microscopic machines do extraordinary things like building spaceships from raw materials without human intervention or circulate in the bloodstream to monitor our bodily fitness and cure every ill.

Bill Joy of Sun Microsystems, hardly a techno-Luddite, has written about a negative side to this magical molecular mystery that may one day be ours. He argues that these nanotechnological auto-assemblers might get out of control and convert the planet and every living thing on it to a uniform but useless mass of bits and pieces: the grey goo (a term actually invented by Mr Drexler). Mr Joy goes as far as saying that there are some areas of research we ought not to pursue, because the consequences might be so dire.

Michael Lewis, who has just published thoughts on his own brand of futurology in a book called The Future Just Happened — and in the process spawned a fresh set of sightings of the term — says that concern about grey goo is an allegory of mid-life personal obsolescence. Or just possibly a fear that developing technology is going to eat our bodies as well as our souls.

The nightmare is that combined with genetic materials and thereby self-replicating, these nanobots would be able to multiply themselves into a “gray goo” that could outperform photosynthesis and usurp the entire biosphere, including all edible plants and animals.

American Spectator, Feb. 2001

Grey goo is a wonderful and totally imaginary feature of some dystopian sci-fi future in which nanotechnology runs riot, and microscopic earth-munching machines escape from a laboratory to eat the world out from under our feet.

Guardian, July 2001

Page created 29 Sep. 2001

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World Wide Words is copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–2014. All rights reserved.
This page URL: http://www.worldwidewords.org/turnsofphrase/tp-gre3.htm
Last modified: 29 September 2001.