ngin - Norfolk Genetic Information Network
24 january 2003


1.The Big Down is Coming Soon! - ETC. group


1.The Big Down is Coming Soon! - ETC. group

The Big Down is Coming Soon! At the end of January 2003 the ETC Group will release The Big Down: Atomtech - Technologies Converging at the Nano-scale. The 80-page report describes and analyzes the convergence of nano-scale technologies and their potential societal impacts. When Genetically Modified Organisms meet Atomically-Modified Matter, warns ETC Group, life and living will never be the same! In conjunction with the launch of The Big Down, ETC Group will release a series of new reports on nano-scale technologies.

ETC Group announces the release of Green Goo: Nanobiotechnology Comes Alive! The full text of the January/February 2003 ETC Communique is now available on our web site:

Issue: If the word registers in the public consciousness at all, "nanotechnology" conjures up visions of itty-bitty mechanical robots building BMWs, burgers or brick walls. For a few, nanotech inspires fear that invisible nanobots will go haywire and multiply uncontrollably until they suffocate the planet - a scenario known as "Gray Goo."  Still others, recalling Orwell's 1984, see nanotech as the path to Big Brother's military-industrial dominance, a kind of "gray governance." Gray Goo or gray governance - both are plausible outcomes of nanotechnology - the manipulation of matter at the scale of the nanometer (one billionth of a meter) - but possibly diversionary images of our techno-future.

The first and greatest impact of nano-scale technologies may come with the merger of nanotech and biotech - a newly recognized discipline called nanobiotechnology. While Gray Goo has grabbed the headlines, self-replicating nanobots are not yet possible. The more likely future scenario is that the merger of living and non-living matter will result in hybrid organisms and products that end up behaving in unpredictable and uncontrollable ways - get ready for "Green Goo!"

Will machines replace life or will life replace machines? The biotech industry has been unable to control or contain the unwanted escape of genetically modified organisms. Will the nanotech industry be better able to control atomically modified organisms? Nanobiotechnology will create both living and non-living hybrids previously unknown on earth. The environmental and health implications of such new creations are unknown.

Impact: Roughly one-fifth (21%) of nanotech businesses in the USA are currently focusing on nanobiotechnology for the development of pharmaceutical products, drug delivery systems and other healthcare-related products. The US National Science Foundation predicts that the market for nanoscale products will reach $1 trillion per annum by 2015. As with biotech before it, nanotech is also expected to have a major impact on food and agriculture.

Policies: No single intergovernmental body is charged with monitoring and regulating nanotechnology. There are no internationally accepted scientific standards governing laboratory research or the introduction of nano-scale products or materials. Some national governments (Germany and the USA, for example) are beginning to consider some aspects of nanotechnology regulation but no government is giving full consideration to the socioeconomic, environmental and health implications of this new industrial revolution.

Fora: Informed international debate and assessment is urgently needed. Initiatives include: FAO's specialist committees should discuss the implications of nanotechnology for food and agriculture when they convene in Rome in March 2003. The Commission on Sustainable Development should review the work of FAO and consider additional initiatives during its New York session, April 28-May 9, 2003. The World Health Assembly, the governing body of the World Health Organization, should address health implications of nanotechnology when it meets in Geneva in May 2003. Ultimately, governments must begin negotiations to develop a legally binding International Convention for the Evaluation of New Technologies (ICENT).

The full text of the 10-page Communique, Green Goo: Nanobiotechnology Comes Alive! is available at



DAILY MAIL (London) January 22, 2003

ONE couldn't imagine a more depressing way for the world to  end. Most of the postulated doomsday scenarios, although  horrible, are at least colourful and spectacular: nuclear  conflagration, collision with a space rock, runaway climate  change, genetically-modified plague. But an  unlikely-sounding scenario has been causing concern among  many scientists for several years now. Instead of a  colourful bang, the world would end with the ultimate  whimper, as all life dissolves -- in a matter of hours --  into a mass of formless, grey goo. The 'grey goo problem'  -- that is actually its formal title -- is a fantastical  but worryingly plausible scenario that has emerged from the  white- hot new science of nano-technology: the art of the  ultra-small. Nanotechnology is the 'monster' at the heart  of best-selling author Michael Crichton's latest science  fiction novel, Prey. Crichton has had an unnerving track  record with his scientifically literate predictions. The  Andromeda Strain, which came out in 1969, forecast our  21st-century fears of genetically-modified germs. Jurassic  Park, two decades later -- and a far darker novel than the  childish film -- played on concerns about cloning and  genetic engineering. In Prey, a swarm of microscopic  airborne machines escape the laboratory and go on the  rampage. In the book, Crichton has tapped into current  fears among some leading scientists that 'nanotech' could  easily get out of hand. Environmentalists have woken up to  the threat, and one research group is now calling for a  complete moratorium on nanotech research until the dangers  can properly be assessed. So why would anyone want to make  machines so small you can't see them? And could they really  destroy the world? Nanotechnology at present exists more on  the pages of theoretical journals than in reality (just as  computing did in the Forties) but it has the potential to  revolutionise our lives. Last year, companies -- mainly  drug, biotechnology and computer firms -- spent $ 4 billion  on nanotechnology. This figure is expected to rise to $ 1  trillion (GBP 600 billion) annually by 2012.

 Nanotechnology, put simply, is technology on the scale of  a billionth of a metre, or about one eighty-thousandth of  the width of a human hair: the scale of atoms and molecules. Nanotechnologists are trying to create tiny machines, so  small that you would need an electron microscope to see  them, that could be used (among a million other things) to  build computer chips thousands of times faster than the  ones we have today, or live in our bodies, keeping our  arteries clear and repairing the damage wrought by  Alzheimer's. The concept of nanotechnology was dreamt up by  the legendary quantum physicist Richard Feynman in a  classic talk he gave at the California Institute of  Technology in 1959. His speech, entitled 'There's plenty of  room at the bottom', predicted that over the coming  decades, the thrust of technology would not be to build  large machines, but incredibly small ones. FEYNMAN, a wit,  raconteur, player of the bongo drums and frequenter of strip bars, was born 50 years too early. As America's best  populariser of science (he died 15 years ago), he talked of  a day when computers would be 'made of little wires, little  elements's computing machines are very large, they  fill rooms!'. He went on to imagine machines that could  manipulate single atoms, others that could write an  encyclopaedia on the head of a pin, or carry out surgery on  our bodies, invisibly, cell by cell. 'Imagine if you could  swallow a surgeon! You put the mechanical surgeon inside  the blood vessel and it goes into the heart and looks  around. It finds out which valve is faulty, and takes out a  little knife and slices it out.'

 Since Feynman gave his famous talk, we have indeed built  computers made 'of little wires, little elements'. The PC  on which this article was written is more powerful than all  the computers in the world combined back in 1959. (Today's  computers, technically speaking, are not nanomachines but  'micromachines' as the chips that power them operate on the  scale of a millionth, not a billionth, of a metre -- but  they are shrinking fast). And we now have the ability to  manipulate atoms, to write encyclopaedias on pinheads, to  build motors so small you need an electron microscope to  see them. In 1986, another extrovert scientist and  visionary named K. Eric Drexler took up Feynman's ideas and  coined the term 'nanotechnology' -- 'the technology of  creating and working with devices only a few nanometres  billionths of a metre big'. In 1990, nanotechnology had its  first big breakthrough when a team of IBM researchers  managed to manipulate 35 individual atoms using something  called an 'atomic force microscope' so that they spelt out  'IBM'. THIS was an important breakthrough as it  demonstrated that it was possible to move the very building  blocks of matter around as individual entities. (Legend  says that another team later spelt out the letters 'Bill  Gates Sucks' -- the first example of nano-graffiti.) All  interesting stuff, but spelling out letters isn't going to  make mini-surgeons or new alloys. Drexler, in his book  Engines Of Creation, said that for nanotechnology to take  off, we would need to be able to build 'universal  assemblers', tiny general-purpose robots or nanobots that  can be programmed to build just about anything, atom by  atom, from the raw material around them. Once you can do  this, he argued, life will never be the same. We will be  able to make engine parts for planes and cars that are 100  per cent perfect. Buildings that will assemble themselves  (literally) from a pile of sand, new drugs that will be  able to target an individual cancer cell. But there is a  big danger. Because building 'nanobots' -- tiny machines  designed to make things -- will always be a fiddly task, it  would be far more efficient if there was a type of nanobot  that could make copies of itself -- to reproduce, like a  bacteria or a virus. Throw a self-replicating nanobot in a  bucket of iron, sand or wood, and in an hour it would have  made a trillion copies of itself, using the contents of the  bucket as raw material. This is, in essence, what life  does; a tree sucks air and water out of its environment and  uses the power of sunlight to turn them into wood. This is  all well and good, but what if such a machine -- a  'replicator' -- were to escape out of the laboratory or  nanofactory where it was being kept? The fears engendered  by the coming nanotech revolution (fears explored in  Crichton's book) are sparked by this terrifying scenario.

 What if the nanomachine failed to stop replicating itself?  What if it were designed to 'prey' on organic matter, the  stuff of plants and animals to furnish the raw materials  for its 'children'? We would then be faced with an  incredibly efficient, virus-like plague sweeping through  the world. Using simple arithmetic, it has been worked out  that a single rampant nanobot could, through uncontrolled  'breeding', reduce every human, animal, tree, shrub and  blade of grass on Earth to a seething mass of dust-sized  machines in less than a day. Drexler writes: 'Uncontrolled  replica-tors could spread like blowing pollen, replicate  and reduce the biosphere to dust in a matter of days.

 'Dangerous replicators could be too tough for us to stop,  if we make no preparation. We have trouble enough  controlling viruses. 'The grey goo threat makes one thing  perfectly clear: we cannot afford certain kinds of  accidents with replicating assemblers.'

 Indeed, we can't. In his analysis of the grey goo problem,  or 'global ecophagy' to give it its posh title, scientist  Robert Freitas suggests that if we ever get round to  building such machines, we should set up global monitoring  systems to alert us to any escaped nanobots going on the  rampage. One way would be to use weather satellites to  detect the heat given off as the machines replicated in  their trillions. Should this happen, 'killer nanobots'  would be unleashed to kill the original miscreants. It all  sounds very far-fetched. But in fact several research  projects are under way that point the way to a possible  nano-future. In California, Berkeley scientists Kris Pister  and Randy Katz have set up the 'smart dust' project (which  provided the inspiration for Crichton's book). Their aim is  to build minute 'motes', machines so small they can be  carried aloft without the need for wings or motors. These  machines could be equipped with tiny sensors and cameras,  and unleashed on the battlefield as a swarm of invisible  reconnaissance agents. Their research is being funded by  DARPA -- the Pentagon's research agency that in the 1970s  gave birth to the internet. They have already made good  progress, although their goal is still some years away.

 MEANWHILE, the world's smallest ever motor -- a true  nanomachine -- has been built by a team of German  scientists. Its mechanism consists of a single molecule,  and it is powered by nothing more than a beam of light. It  was constructed last year by Hermann Gaub of Munich  University, and uses the properties of a polymer molecule  that shrinks when it is exposed to light. 'It's pretty much  the same way as your car engine runs,' Gaub says. With five  millionths of a billionth of a billionth of the power of a  Ferrari V8, this nanomotor is just a demonstration of what  can be done. It has no practical purpose, but it  illustrates the progress being made. Other researchers are  busy investigating the use of existing organic molecules  such as DNA to power nanomachines. In truth, all life on  Earth is effectively nanotechnology; the way a DNA molecule  tells the body to make proteins is pure nanotech, as are the electrochemical firings that make our brains work. The  Green movement has woken up to the potential threat of  nanotechnology, much as it became alarmed about genetic  modification in the Eighties and Nineties. Greenpeace says  it is 'monitoring' the situation, and some researchers are  already worried. According to Jim Thomas of the Etc Group,  an Oxford-based research group which investigates the  threat from new technologies, nanotechnology poses a real  threat. 'No government has any regulations for this,' he  says. 'There aren't even any laboratory protocols'. In a  report to come out in two weeks, the Group will highlight  fears that nanotechnology could unleash a whole new class  of toxins into the environment, and in the longer term  could pose an even more serious threat as nanoengineered  viruses and bacteria are created. 'Rather than grey goo, I  think what we might see is "green goo", as living things  are co-opted as parts of nanomachines,' he says.

 'Basically, we are calling for a complete moratorium on  all commercial nanotech applications and strict controls on  nanotech research.'

 NOT everyone is as nervous about nanotechnology as this.  In Britain, Ottilia Saxl, who runs the Stirling-based  Institute of nanotechnology, is scathing about the grey goo  threat, and would much prefer that critics concentrate on  the positive aspects of nanotechnology, such as 'smart  glass' that cleans itself, and nano-derived drugs. She says  the threat from nanotechnology cannot arise for some time,  because progress simply won't be fast enough. Maybe. It is  easy to dismiss fears of the 'ultimate experiment gone  wrong', but scientists admit they cannot always be sure  where their research is leading them. Before the first  atomic bomb was exploded in New Mexico in 1945, several  physicists working on the project voiced fears that if they  had done their sums wrong, the nuclear chain reaction could  blow up the whole of the Earth's atmosphere. Happily, they  were wrong. As (probably) are those who fear that the giant  atom-smashers with which physicists are probing the secrets  of the universe could accidentally make a black hole. But  the threat from nanotechnology should be taken seriously  until it can be shown that these tiny machines will never  become a menace. Like the computer revolution of the 80s  and 90s, if enough money is thrown at it, nanotechnology  could be with us sooner than we think. If this happens, the  age of the nanobots will soon be upon us. We will have to  hope the future remains bright, not grey.

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