chf2011 / Writing

Grey Goo – The Encyclopedia Show, 10/23/11

Here’s the text of my contribution to last night’s Encyclopedia Show on robots, part of the Chicago Humanities Festival.

When Shanny first sent me my assignment–”You, Kate Harding, are to write on the theory of GREY GOO!”–I couldn’t begin to imagine what I’d find when I googled those words. I am a former English major who wasn’t even very good at that, let alone science. And while I am the kind of person who hangs out with–even marries–people who read a lot of science fiction, I generally do not.

Since this is a humanities crowd, I assume some of you might be similarly ignorant, so here are the bullet points. The theory of grey goo is one of those technology-run-amok scenarios that’s basically ridiculous but hypothetically possible, and therefore sort of tantalizing to consider. The deal is, scientists are building these tiny, tiny–like, way smaller than a hair’s breadth–robots, which will be able to do stuff like take incredibly detailed pictures inside the human body and make really, really strong building materials. Or something.

But in order for these little, wee robots to build stuff on a human scale, they will also need to be able to build more of themselves as they go along. And they use bits of organic matter as fuel, which is no big deal when they’re working molecule by molecule. But if we somehow lose control of the off switch, these little, wee, self-replicating robots will just go on consuming all the organic matter they can get–like, for example, us–until there’s nothing left on earth but a thick coating of nanorobot sludge. That’s what a guy called K. Eric Drexler described as “Grey goo” in 1986, and the name stuck.

That’s about as far as Wikipedia will take us. And I don’t know about you, but I still found it difficult to conceptualize grey goo after that. So, like any good former English major, I turned to literature for help–specifically, Michael Crichton’s 2002 thriller, Prey.

Prey deals with the early stages of a potential grey goo scenario, so it offers us some useful tips for averting disaster. In the novel, swarms of hungry nanorobots, numbering literally higher than I can count, are defeated through a three-step process:

  1. Spray the swarm with isotopes to make it trackable at night, when the tiny robots are… asleep?
  2. Track the now-radioactive swarm to its nest–because of course there’s a nest–and bomb the hell out of that.
  3. Spray any remaining tiny robots–for instance, the ones that are more-or-less possessing our hero’s workaholic wife–with virus-infected poop water. Seriously. These particular nanorobots are surviving and multiplying on bacteria, which this particular virus (that lives in the scientists’ fermentation tanks) kills, so poop water saves the day. Our hero, Jack, actually yells, “How’d you like a shit shower?!” before he lets it fly.
And that’s not even the most implausible thing about Prey. The most implausible thing about Prey is that–in the grand tradition of the contemporary American thriller–Jack single-handedly defeats this enormous army of self-replicating robots. Sure, there are a few sidekicks who die or disappear along the way, but basically, one man is responsible for saving humankind. As usual.
Now, I have already both stipulated and demonstrated that I don’t know very much about science. But I feel totally confident in what I’m about to tell you, which is: You guys, when the nanorobots come for us, we will need to work together. 
There will be no lone hero who conveniently happens to have the expertise, resources, and stamina to annihilate the entire horde. Marauding tiny-robot armies are not gonna be deterred by a 40ish, white, American dad who’s just a little more committed to seeing his children grow up than the next guy is.
That is not how it works in real life. In real life, individual people need help to survive.
Americans don’t always like to admit that, but these days, we don’t have much of a choice. These days, a whole lot of us are desperate for any help we can get. Michael Crichton, may he rest in peace, knew a lot more about science and storytelling than I do, but stories are just that. It is pure fiction that a single person, armed with only his wits and a solid work ethic, can defeat a relentless series of attacks by enemies that can’t even be seen when they’re still few enough for an individual to take on. It is pure fiction that a lone hero, however dedicated, can defeat a zillion greedy, single-minded monsters of our own creation.
In real life, human beings need each other. So when the tiny-robot armies come, I hope I can count on all of you to stand with me and fight.