Peter Cochrane's Uncommon Sense: Grey goo

The next big panic?

Nanotechnology promises all kinds of advances but some would have us believe it might just destroy the planet, converting our surroundings into what has famously been termed 'grey goo'. Peter Cochrane warns against such worries. All of them were to wreak havoc and reduce us to mutants or kill thousands in uncontrollable pandemics across the planet: test tube babies, fertility drugs, animal cloning, contraceptive induced thrombosis, mad cow disease, human cloning, stem cell research, brain-cooking mobile phones, GM crops, anthrax, West Nile Virus, Sars - the list seems endless and continues to expand by the week. What actually happened? Relatively speaking, nothing. The real killers are still malaria, cancer, heart disease, influenza and accidents in the home or while driving. Now nanotechnology is in the spotlight with stories about turning the planet into grey goo. Why do we seem to have an insatiable desire to focus on non-problems and waste vast resources worrying about the insignificant? Is grey goo - one fear of where nanotechnology might take us - just one more in a very long line of scare stories? Is it just the need for sensationalism on the part of the media? How about a search for something to be worried about - when nothing is actually wrong - by the populous? Or is there more to it? There seem to be at least four key mechanisms at work: those seeking visibility, including those educated and uneducated in a subject or discipline; those seeking sensationalism for monetary gain; those who are so ignorant that they are scared of their own shadow; and those with an anti-science/progress agenda of their own making. In the middle, of course, we have the poor old public trying to make sense of the war of words on both sides. At no time do we ever seem to get an unbiased, reasoned and quantified argument presented by, or in, the media – just more opinionated and anecdotal shouting matches. Debate no longer seems to occur, or to be even tenable, and perhaps could now be deleted from the dictionary. What could be done? In a democracy, a presentation of the true facts would be a good start. It is also worth noting that Mother Nature has spent the last 2,000,000,000 years trying to conjure up killer bugs and self-destruct scenarios and has, so far, been far more successful at it than we have. For the most part our (human) efforts are focused on creating beneficial technologies and outcomes to counteract these natural efforts. And we have been moderately successful. Without modern medicine 90 per cent of you reading these words would not be here, we would have been terminated before the age of 10 years by some bug we are now immunised against or have drugs to combat. The upside of all our technologies to date has been enormous compared to the downside and on a par with the invention of the hammer. The benefit of the hammer as a tool for good far outweighs its occasional use as a murder weapon. So the latest technology to fall under the gaze of the media and technophobes is nanotechnology and the spectre of grey goo. Here, we are warned, is a technology of micro-machines smaller than bacteria likely to be capable of eating the planet

About Peter Cochrane

Peter Cochrane is an engineer, scientist, entrepreneur, futurist and consultant. He is the former CTO and head of research at BT, with a career in telecoms and IT spanning more than 40 years.

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