These Mortal Coils

I have just learned about yet another possible way for the human race to get creamed. Forget about a giant-ass meteor rocketing down on us, or flesh-slurping aliens, or the four horsemen riding hard over the hills. Bill Joy, co-founder and chief scientist of Sun Microsystems, predicts an altogether different finality. In the much-discussed Wired's April 2000 cover story ("Why the Future Doesn't Need Us":, Joy warns that it is gray goo we need to watch out for.Mind you, the goo might not necessarily be gray in color, nor even gooey in texture. Those are just its hypothetical characteristics. What's important is that, whatever shape it takes, there will be a lot of it. There will be so much of it, in fact, that it will be damn-near impossible to stem its oozing onslaught. We'll drown in the stuff. And it'll be our own damn fault.The idea of gray goo is a hypothetical worst-case scenario, dreamed up by people who think about such things. The goo would actually be many tiny robotic machines, built on a molecular level. The prototypes would be created by humans, but they would be designed to go forth and multiply on their own, with instructions programmed in their tiny robot heads on how to search their environment and, with the materials they find, build copies of themselves. No matter how small these biological "assemblers" might be, once the first few have been set loose, they'd just keep replicating until they eventually crowd out all other life forms."Gray goo would surely be a depressing ending to our human adventure on Earth," Joy writes, "far worse than mere fire or ice, and one that could stem from a simple laboratory accident."If such a dire future comes to pass, it would be due to the merging of three scientific fields of study, all of which will come to maturation in the next few decades: robotics -- the science of making machines that can carry out complicated tasks; genetic engineering, or the reshuffling of genes to achieve desired characteristics; and nanotechnology, the art of building things atom by atom, or at least at a submicron level. Any mad scientist with all three skill sets on his or her risumi could conceivably make machines that can do all sorts of complex stuff (such as build copies of themselves). The scientist could make them out of organic materials found pretty much everywhere (i.e., living cells), and could make them very small -- small enough that they could be built in a basement. Or, heck, in a file-cabinet drawer in a basement closet.Frightened yet? We have trouble enough keeping such relatively simple scourges as viruses, mosquitoes, and Microsoft at bay. How would we combat genetically engineered bacteria spreading over the globe like pollen? Or solar-powered, self-replicating devices so efficient at using sunlight that they crowd out real plants?This is what Joy is trying to warn us about. Despite his tantalizing descriptions of future annihilation, the article shows him to be deeply conservative about the issue. Like a Sunday-morning preacher warning of the excesses of Saturday night, Joy argues that these technologies are just too powerful to mess with. Eventually, he argues, someone will go and fuck up the entire planet by misusing them. And this is why he advocates limiting "development of technologies that are too dangerous, by limiting our pursuit of certain kind of knowledge."Frankly, I had been taking Joy's essay only half seriously until I read the sentence just quoted. It is Joy's solution, not the problem, that has me worried. I mean, nanotechnology and genetic engineering are still in very primitive stages. It's a mighty long way from the lab room to the production floor; like artificial intelligence or alchemy, these are ideas that have yet to produce bankable results (at least not results anywhere near the scale Joy envisions). But advocating that we not learn about certain things causes real damage right here and now. Can Joy really be so simpleminded as to believe everyone on the planet will choose to remain ignorant of the potentially lethal possibilities of these new disciplines? What does he propose to do, have all the bad guys in the world sign pledges swearing not to play with the nano-sized biological agents?Forget the obvious argument here. ("If we outlaw genetically engineered self-replicating killbots, then only outlaws will have genetically engineered self-replicating killbots.") Think about the bad precedent it sets. Where would we be if our ancestors had successfully snuffed out Galileo's ideas about Earth not being the center of the universe? If J. Robert Oppenheimer and his genius cronies didn't build the atomic bomb? As Joy himself points out, the federal government didn't gather together the best scientists to build a monster weapon merely for the sake of building a monster weapon; it was considered a necessary deterrent. It was widely thought that Adolf Hitler's people were already building one; no one wanted Germany to be the only country in the world with atomic capabilities.In retrospect, maybe creating the atomic bomb was a good idea, and maybe it wasn't. But once the notion and the technology to bring it to fruition were within reach, it was pretty much inevitable that someone was going to build one. If gray goo is indeed within reach of humankind, then we couldn't prevent its production even if we wanted to. Somebody, somewhere, by accident or by malicious design, will concoct a batch of the stuff, and all we can do is put on trunks and swim through it as best we can. But we'd be doing ourselves a major disservice if we let fear limit our exploration of how the world works. In the long run, such voluntary ignorance might be even more detrimental.E-mail: joabj@

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