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What about the grey goo?

Aside from perhaps Star Trek’s Next Generation and the characters known as the ‘Borgs’ who were enhanced by nanobots (ie nano sized robots!), the most prominent use of the idea of nanotechnology in popular culture was in Michael Crichton’s 2002 best-selling novel “Prey”.

The plot of Crichton’s novel details how a medical imaging technology enabled by nanobots leads to great swarms of nanobots devouring everything around them and creating a “grey goo”.

This idea of “grey goo” took root when newspaper headlines incorrectly suggested that the Prince of Wales had expressed fears about the “grey goo” scenario in comments about the opportunities and risks of new technologies. (Click here for more about this story.)

But the image stuck and the word ‘nanobots’ was coined and they still comes to mind when some people hear the word nanotechnology.

Where did it all start?

The concept of “grey goo” was first put forward by Eric Drexler in his 1986 book “Engines of Creation” in which he describes “universal assemblers” (also known as nanobots) that would themselves assemble large-scale objects atom-by-atom - a concept that has come to be known as molecular nanotechnology.

Drexler warned that one possible outcome of this would be that these nanobots would manage to escape our control and continue to self-replicate themselves consuming more and more to support the process, and leave in their wake a “grey goo”.

But will it actually happen?

No! Drexler himself has marginalized this idea, and in 2004 publicly branded the concept “obsolete”, arguing that the proposed manufacturing systems that employed self-replicating robots as he put forth in Engines of Creation would be needlessly inefficient and complicated.

Experts today agree that it is both impractical and unlikely, but despite this, the concept of “grey goo” has held on in the works of science fiction as a potential doomsday scenario. But it remains firmly in the realm of science fiction rather than science fact.

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