Will nanobots destroy the world?

Do we need to start panicking, or what?
27 March 2018





Will nanobots destroy the world?


Chris Smith put this somewhat apocalyptic question to material scientist, Rachel Smith, from Ted on Facebook. Starting with, what is a nanobot? 

Rachel - This, I think, comes from an idea which was originated by a guy called Eric Drexler who is one of the fathers of nanotechnology. Nano is this millionth of a millimetre length scale and Eric Drexler came up with the idea of these tiny little robots that he hoped would be really useful so they could essentially make things for us on that tiny scale. He thought well, what you need is the robots to be able to make more robots, and then they can make more of the useful things.

But then he started to worry about maybe if the robots can make more of themselves, then they can make more and more of themselves, and kind of eat up everything of the lab they’re in. Then having eaten the lab they’re in sort of set off across the city consuming, and as there’s this idea of the grey goo where everything in the world gets turned into nanobots.

Having said all that, I should probably reassure your listeners that I don’t think it’s very likely to happen. In terms of stuff that scientists can make at the moment, we’re talking about things that don’t self-replicate, they don’t re-make themselves. But they can self-assemble; they can build themselves in the first place. Those sorts of processes: they‘re workable - we do them in my lab. But you have to provide very much exactly the right ingredients and exactly the right conditions. By which I might mean the temperature or the pressure, those kinds of things.

So with current technologies I don’t think we need to be scared at all. However, it would be stupid to say oh, this is physically impossible, because we know about self-replicating entities, but what we’d have to design deliberately is something that comes with its own powerpack. That is completely adaptable to all sorts of of different environments, too different chemical sort of species being available that also carries all the information it needs in itself. And yeah, we’re starting to design life, and life did evolve but it took quite a long time for life then to start from some kind of puddle on the barren Earth and turn into what we have now. And it’s not turned out to be grey goo so I think we’re probably safe.


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