8/12/2005

Wired News: Rage Against the (Green) Machine

First came the concerns about nuclear power. Then, the fears about genetically modified foods. Now, European and Canadian environmentalists have a new, lab-made monstrosity to rail against: nanotechnology.

Last week, at the Brussels headquarters of the European Parliament, Greenpeace, GeneWatch U.K., the ETC Group and others held a teach-in, of sorts. The goal was to highlight the potential dangers that could arise when scientists start manipulating matter at the nano -- billionth of a meter -- level.

People have been trafficking in nanotech nightmares since the term was introduced into the public lexicon in the 1980s by then-MIT researcher Eric Drexler. Like proteins and enzymes in our bodies, human-made, molecule-size machines will be able to build just about anything -- including more of themselves, Drexler postulated.

The fear is that they'll never stop building. The world could be covered in a nanobot swarm, a semi-living "gray goo."

Jurassic Park scribe Michael Crichton and Sun Microsystems co-founder Bill Joy have been two of gray goo's most eloquent, high-profile skeptics. Prince Charles is the most recent. In May, he proclaimed himself disturbed by the prospect of gray goo. The Royal Academy of Engineering and the Royal Society, the Brits' national science academy, are launching an investigation into nanotech's perils.

A recent ETC Group report, "The Big Down" (PDF), is what spooked Charles, according to U.K. press reports. But ETC executive director Pat Mooney says gray goo isn't his nanotech concern. After all, most scientists think teeny-tiny robots are impossibly far off.

No, no, Mooney insists, it's green goo that's the problem -- human-crafted, biologically based machines, not "little tin men," as Mooney puts it. (Never mind that these organic 'bots are basically what Drexler, the nanotech forefather, originally envisioned.)

Drexler's Foresight Institute has proposed some guidelines for preventing goo. The self-replicating machines, for example, should not be allowed to reproduce in a natural, uncontrolled state.

But goo, no matter what the color, is in the future. Today, there are billions of dollars being spent on nanoresearch projects -- projects that Mooney thinks could cause a danger.

The properties of a material can change drastically when reduced to the itty-bitty scale. So it's a good idea to conduct studies into some nanoparticles' health and environmental impact, said Kevin Ausman, executive director of Rice University's Center for Biological and Environmental Nanotechnology.

But there are way, way too many different kinds of nanoparticles to study them all. Instead, Ausman advocates studying only those nanobits that are making the most progress in scientific research and in commercial viability.

That's not enough, ETC Group contends. There should be, at least, a common set of safety regulations for nanoresearch. Some scientists handle tiny matter as if it's toxic, and wear full protective suits. Others don't even use safety goggles.

"These (scientists) are just plain stupid if they don't get their act together and settle on best practices in the lab," Mooney said.

This isn't the first time the advocates have made waves. In the 1990s, the organization -- then called the Rural Advancement Foundation International -- challenged Monsanto and other chemical companies to stop working on genetically modified plants that produced infertile seeds.

After a long fight, Monsanto's research eventually stopped.

Wired News: Rage Against the (Green) Machine

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