Friday, July 22, 2011

Prince Charles vs. the Gray Goo

I always like to see news stories from long ago that I didn’t catch the first time around.  Sure, it makes me feel a little unaware but in the Information Age, taking in everything can sometimes be a herculean task.

Back in 2004, Britain’s Prince Charles apparently caused a bit of a stir when he “spoke out against” nanotechnology.  That is of course a bit of an exaggeration but Chuck did compare nanotech to thalidomide, a comparison that many scientists at the time immediately called “inappropriate and irrelevant.”  While that is quite true, the Prince’s statements were distorted by the media (shocker!) into headlines of “Prince fears grey goo nightmare.”

Aside: “Grey (or Gray) Goo” refers to a scenario dealing with nanotech robots.  In this hypothesis, the nanobots go out of control, self-replicating and consuming all things in the world in order to construct more of themselves and leaving behind only "gray goo."  Even Eric Drexler, the nanotech innovator who first coined the term, says he wishes he’d never used the phrase “gray goo.”

What Prince Charles actually said was far more reasonable than those headlines.   While writing in The Independent, the Prince said: "I do not believe that self-replicating robots, smaller than viruses, will one day multiply uncontrollably and devour our planet.  Such beliefs should be left where they belong, in the realms of science fiction."
Although he intimates that science fiction is something silly, I’ll back what Chuck said as he is really on the same page as most scientists.  Gray goo is at best an unlikelihood and at worst something that could easily be prevented.  The crux of the Prince’s real message was this:
 “Nanotechnology is a triumph of human ingenuity. Some of the work may have fundamental benefits to society, such as enabling the construction of much cheaper fuel-cells, or new ways of combating ill-health," he says.  But “how are we going to ensure that proper attention is given to the risks that may ensue?”
Smart.  I liked this story because I believe it to be an exemplary reflection of the human tendency to fear technological advancement.  The media took what the man-who-would-be-king said and exploited that tendency.  No innovation comes without risk or at the very least without a downside and history bears out that the downside can sometimes be rather awful.  That is why this urging of caution is absolutely valid.  Caution.  Not a halt.  The benefits of new developments in nanotechnology are worth their potential risks and are worthy of energy and effort.  Feigning crisis over a possible “gray goo” is not.

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1 comment:

  1. On Facebook, AR said: "Listen....can't down him...early champion of music and gardening..etc....I know...nerd...but me too!"

    Yep! Like I said, his statements were actually spot-on.