Tag Archives: grey goo

Existential risk

The idea that robots of one kind or another (e.g. nanobots eating up the world and leaving grey goo, Cylons in both versions of Battlestar Galactica trying to exterminate humans, etc.) will take over the world and find humans unnecessary  isn’t especially new in works of fiction. It’s not always mentioned directly but the underlying anxiety often has to do with intelligence and concerns over an ‘explosion of intelligence’. The question it raises,’ what if our machines/creations become more intelligent than humans?’ has been described as existential risk. According to a Nov. 25, 2012 article by Sylvia Hui for Huffington Post, a group of eminent philosophers and scientists at the University of Cambridge are proposing to found a Centre for the Study of Existential Risk,

Could computers become cleverer than humans and take over the world? Or is that just the stuff of science fiction?

Philosophers and scientists at Britain’s Cambridge University think the question deserves serious study. A proposed Center for the Study of Existential Risk will bring together experts to consider the ways in which super intelligent technology, including artificial intelligence, could “threaten our own existence,” the institution said Sunday.

“In the case of artificial intelligence, it seems a reasonable prediction that some time in this or the next century intelligence will escape from the constraints of biology,” Cambridge philosophy professor Huw Price said.

When that happens, “we’re no longer the smartest things around,” he said, and will risk being at the mercy of “machines that are not malicious, but machines whose interests don’t include us.”

Price along with Martin Rees, Emeritus Professor of Cosmology and Astrophysics, and Jaan Tallinn, Co-Founder of Skype, are the driving forces behind this proposed new centre at Cambridge University. From the Cambridge Project for Existential Risk webpage,

Many scientists are concerned that developments in human technology may soon pose new, extinction-level risks to our species as a whole. Such dangers have been suggested from progress in AI, from developments in biotechnology and artificial life, from nanotechnology, and from possible extreme effects of anthropogenic climate change. The seriousness of these risks is difficult to assess, but that in itself seems a cause for concern, given how much is at stake. …

The Cambridge Project for Existential Risk — a joint initiative between a philosopher, a scientist, and a software entrepreneur — begins with the conviction that these issues require a great deal more scientific investigation than they presently receive. Our aim is to establish within the University of Cambridge a multidisciplinary research centre dedicated to the study and mitigation of risks of this kind.

Price and Tallinn co-wrote an Aug. 6, 2012 article for the Australia-based, The Conversation website, about their concerns,

We know how to deal with suspicious packages – as carefully as possible! These days, we let robots take the risk. But what if the robots are the risk? Some commentators argue we should be treating AI (artificial intelligence) as a suspicious package, because it might eventually blow up in our faces. Should we be worried?

Asked whether there will ever be computers as smart as people, the US mathematician and sci-fi author Vernor Vinge replied: “Yes, but only briefly”.

He meant that once computers get to this level, there’s nothing to prevent them getting a lot further very rapidly. Vinge christened this sudden explosion of intelligence the “technological singularity”, and thought that it was unlikely to be good news, from a human point of view.

Was Vinge right, and if so what should we do about it? Unlike typical suspicious parcels, after all, what the future of AI holds is up to us, at least to some extent. Are there things we can do now to make sure it’s not a bomb (or a good bomb rather than a bad bomb, perhaps)?

It appears Price, Rees, and Tallinn are not the only concerned parties, from the Nov. 25, 2012 research news piece on the Cambridge University website,

With luminaries in science, policy, law, risk and computing from across the University and beyond signing up to become advisors, the project is, even in its earliest days, gathering momentum. “The basic philosophy is that we should be taking seriously the fact that we are getting to the point where our technologies have the potential to threaten our own existence – in a way that they simply haven’t up to now, in human history,” says Price. “We should be investing a little of our intellectual resources in shifting some probability from bad outcomes to good ones.”

Price acknowledges that some of these ideas can seem far-fetched, the stuff of science fiction, but insists that that’s part of the point.

According to the Huffington Post article by Lui, they expect to launch the centre next year (2013). In the meantime, for anyone who’s looking for more information about the ‘intelligence explosion’ or  ‘singularity’ as it’s also known, there’s a Wikipedia essay on the topic.  Also, you may want to stay tuned to this channel (blog) as I expect to have some news about an artificial intelligence project based at the University of Waterloo (Ontario, Canada) and headed by Chris Eliasmith at the university’s Centre for Theoretical Neuroscience, later this week.

In depth and one year later—the nanotechnology bombings in Mexico

Last year in an Aug. 11, 2011 post I covered some stories about terrorism and nanotechnology in the aftermath of a major bombing in Mexico where two scientists were injured. Leigh Phillips has written a substantive news feature focusing largely on the situation in Mexico.

From the Aug. 29, 2012 news feature (open access) in the journal Nature,

Nature assesses the aftermath of a series of nanotechnology-lab bombings in Mexico — and asks how the country became a target of eco-anarchists.

The shoe-box-sized package was addressed to Armando Herrera Corral. It stated that he was the recipient of an award and it was covered in official-looking stamps. Herrera, a computer scientist at the Monterrey Institute of Technology and Higher Education in Mexico City, shook the box a number of times, and something solid jiggled inside. What could it be? He was excited and a little nervous — so much so, that he walked down the hall to the office of a colleague, robotics researcher Alejandro Aceves López, and asked Aceves to open it for him.

Aceves sat down at his desk to tear the box open. So when the 20-centimetre-long pipe bomb inside exploded, on 8 August 2011, Aceves took the full force in his chest. Metal pierced one of his lungs. “He was in intensive care. He was really bad,” says Herrera’s brother Gerardo, a theoretical physicist at the nearby Centre for Research and Advanced Studies of the National Polytechnic Institute (Cinvestav). Armando Herrera Corral, who was standing nearby when the bomb went off, escaped with a burst eardrum and burns to his legs.

As was reported at the time, an eco-anarchist group calling itself ‘Individuals Tending Towards (or To) Savagery’ laid claim to this ‘achievement’.

While there have been other attacks, Mexico has experienced more attacks and more violence and the impact is being felt personally and institutionally,

One year on from the bombing at Monterrey Tec, the repercussions are still being felt. Armando Herrera Corral and Aceves will not speak to Nature about what happened. “It’s too sensitive, you understand?” is all Aceves would say. Herrera has left his job as director of the university’s technology park and is now head of postgraduate studies. Other Mexican universities with nanotechnology research programmes have evacuated campuses in response to bomb threats, and universities across the country have introduced stringent security measures. Some researchers are anxious for their own safety; some are furious about being targets. But all the researchers that Nature spoke to in Mexico are adamant that the attacks will not discourage them from their research or dissuade students from entering the field.

As for reasons why Mexico, to date, has experienced more attacks than other countries,

Reporting by Nature suggests that several broad trends have come together to precipitate the violence. Over the past decade, Mexico has invested heavily in nanotechnology relative to other developing countries, because it sees the field as a route to economic development; mainstream green groups worldwide have grown increasingly concerned about nanotechnology’s health and environmental risks; and there has been a shift towards extreme ideas and tactics among radical environmentalists critical of technology. In Mexico, this has been set against a general background of growing violence and political upheaval.

According to Phillips’ article there were three incidents in 2011 (April, May, and August, respectively)  in Mexico as compared to one attempted attack in Switzerland in 2010. This year, there has been one attack in Europe as I noted in my May 29, 2012 post which featured Andy Coghlan’s article for New Scientist on rising violence against scientists. From Coghlan’s article,

It’s like something out of Kafka. Anti-science anarchists in Italy appear to be ramping up their violent and frankly surreal campaign. Having claimed responsibility for shooting the boss of a nuclear engineering company in Genoa, the group has vowed to target Finmeccanica, the Italian aerospace and defence giant.

In  a diatribe sent on 11 May to Corriere della Sera newspaper on 11 May, the Olga Cell of the Informal Anarchist Federation International Revolutionary Front said it shot Roberto Adinolfi, head of Ansaldo Nucleare, in the leg four days earlier. “With this action of ours, we return to you a tiny part of the suffering that you, man of science, are pouring into this world,” the statement said. It also pledged a “campaign of struggle against Finmeccanica, the murderous octopus”.

Coghlan suggests that the focus is being shifted from nanotechnology to nuclear science in the wake of Japan’s Fukushima nuclear accident in 2011.

Philips takes a different tack in the Nature article,

As nanotechnology has been growing in Latin America, a violent eco-anarchist philosophy has taken root among certain radical groups in Mexico. Mexican intelligence services believe that the perpetrators of the bombings last year were mainly young and well educated: their communiqués are littered with references to English-language texts unlikely to have been translated into Spanish.[emphasis mine] Intelligence services say that the eco-anarchist groups have been around for about a decade. They started off protesting against Mexico’s economic and political system by setting off small explosives that destroyed bank machines.But around 2008, certain groups began to adopt an ‘anarcho-primitivist’ perspective. (Locally, they are called primativistas, says Gerardo Herrera Corral.) This philosophy had won little notice until the past few years, but with increasing media reports of looming global climate disaster, some radical green activists have latched on to it. California-based environmental writer Derrick Jensen — whose popular books call for an underground network of ‘Deep Green Resistance’ cells — is a highly influential figure in this otherwise leaderless movement, which argues that industrial civilization is responsible for environmental destruction and must be dismantled.

In their writings, anarcho-primitivist groups often express deep anxiety about a range of advanced research subjects, including genetic engineering, cloning, synthetic biology, geoengineering and neurosciences. But it is nanotechnology, a common subject for science-fiction doomsday scenarios, that most clearly symbolizes to them the power of modern science run amok. “Nanotechnology is the furthest advancement that may yet exist in the history of anthropocentric progress,” the ITS wrote in its first communiqué, in April 2011.

If the perpetrators are young and well-educated then the comment in this excerpt from the article does not follow logically and Phillips does not explain this seeming disparity,

In Mexico, the existing social and political climate may have helped light the fuse, says Miguel Méndez Rojas, coordinator of the department of nanotechnology and molecular engineering at the University of the Americas Puebla in Mexico. He says that the bombings cannot be understood outside the context of what he describes as a dangerous cocktail of poverty and poor education, widespread ignorance of science, ongoing social upheaval and a climate of violence. [emphasis mine]

Phillips’ article goes on to discuss some of the more moderate groups including the Canada-based ETC Group, which has an office in Mexico,

Some researchers in Mexico say that more-moderate groups are stoking fears about nanotechnology. One such body is the Action Group on Erosion, Technology and Concentration (ETC, pronounced et cetera), a small but vocal non-profit organization based in Ottawa, Canada, which was one of the first to raise concerns about nanotechnology and has to a large extent framed the international discussion. Silvia Ribeiro, the group’s Latin America director, based in Mexico City, says that the organization has no links to the ITS. The bombings were a “sick development”, she says. “These kinds of attacks — they are benefiting the development of nanotechnology,” she says. “It polarized the discussion. Do you want nanotech or the bomb?”

ETC wants to see a moratorium on all nanotechnology research, says Ribeiro, who is the lead author on many of the group’s reports criticizing nanotechnology research and commercialization. She says that there have not been enough toxicological studies on engineered nanoparticles, and that no government has developed a regulatory regime that explicitly addresses risk at the nanoscale.

However, ETC also infuriates researchers by issuing warnings of a more speculative nature. For example, it has latched on to the concept of ‘grey goo’ — self-replicating nanorobots run wild — that was raised in the book Engines of Creation (Doubleday, 1986) by nanotechnology engineer Eric Drexler. In ETC’s primer on nanoscale technologies, it says that the “likely future threat is that the merger of living and non-living matter will result in hybrid organisms and products that are not easy to control and behave in unpredictable ways”.

Ribeiro has also criticized genetic modification and vaccination against human papillomavirus in a weekly column in La Jornada. Méndez Rojas says that ETC “promotes beliefs, but they are not based on facts, and we need a public discussion of the facts”.

The impression I’ve had from reading ETC materials is that they are trying to repeat the success they enjoyed with the GMO (genetically modified organisms) and frankenfood campaign and they’d dearly love to whip up some strong feelings about nanotechnology in aid of more regulation.

I’m not a big ETC fan but I do have to note that their research is solid, once you get past the annoying ‘smart ass’ or juvenile attitude in the literature. Yes, they have an agenda but that’s standard. Everyone has an agenda so you always have to check more than one source.  When you analyze it, Phillips’ article is just as emotionally manipulative as the ETC Group’s communications. Including the ETC Group with the eco-anarchists in an article about terrorism and nanotechnology is equivalent to including the journal Nature with North Korea in an article about right-wing, repressive institutions framed from beginning to end to prove a somewhat elusive point.

Scientists in general seem to recognize that there are some legitimate concerns being expressed by the ETC Group and others,

Most nanotechnology researchers acknowledge that some areas of their work raise legitimate environmental, health and safety concerns. The most important response, says Gerardo Herrera Corral, is for scientists to engage with the public to address and dispel concerns. Herrera is head of Mexico’s only experiment at CERN, Europe’s particle-physics laboratory near Geneva, Switzerland, and he points to how CERN dealt with public fears that its Large Hadron Collider could create a black hole that would swallow Earth. “We set up a committee to deal with this. We looked into the real dangers. There were journal articles and we answered all the e-mails we got from people. I mean top-level physicists answering thousands of e-mails.”

“But this is work we should all be doing,” says Herrera. “Even if it’s extra work on top of all the other things we have to do. It’s just part of our job now.”

I like the idea of high level scientists taking the time to answer my questions and I imagine others feel the same way, which may go a long way in explaining why CERN (European Particle Physics Laboratory) has acquired such good will internationally.

Overall, I suspect Phillips is a little over-invested in Mexico’s nanotechnology terrorism. Three incidents in one year suggests something deeply disturbing (and devastating if you are the target) but in an international context, there were only three incidents. If you add up all of the nanotechnology incidents cited in Phillips’ article, there are three bombings (Mexico), one attempted bombing (Switzerland), a successful arson attempt (Mexico), and a few cancelled public debates (France) from 2009 – Fall 2012.

I am inclined to Coghlan’s argument that there is a disturbing trend toward anti-science violence and, it seems to me, it is largely unfocused, nanotechnology here, nuclear science there, biotechnology everywhere, and who knows what else or where else next?

ETA Feb. 21, 2013: Leigh Phillips contacted me to mention that there was a May 28, 2012 article for Nature, Anarchists attack science, which preceded Coghlan’s article for New Scientist and to which Coghlan provides a link. Phillips’ preceding article was subtitled, Armed extremists are targeting nuclear and nanotechnology workers. Phillips opens with the then recent attack on a nuclear engineering executive and subsequently focuses on attacks in the nanotechnology sector.

Nanotechnology terrorism in Mexico?

The nano terrorism trial in Switzerland concludes (my July 25, 2011 posting) while Mexico seemingly has an outbreak of nano terrorism.  According to one account, there were two incidents this week, one at Mexico’s National Polytechnical Institute on Tuesday, August 9, 2011 (another account notes that there were previous incidents in April and May 2011 targeting the same professor but does not mention an August 9 attempt) and a more serious one (two professors were injured) at the Monterrey Technological Institute (the campus on the outskirts of Mexico City) on Monday, August 8, 2011.

The group identified as likely culprits (a partially identified note was found at the scene of the August 8 incident) is called, in English, ‘Individuals Tending to Savagery (ITS)’. They have attacked academics before and are known for opposing nanotechnology experiments.

One of the injured professors works in the field of robotics and the intended target of the August 9 (?), April and May 2011 incidents, Oscar Camacho, works in the field of micro-electro-mechanical systems (MEMS).

I gather the group (ITS) has posted a manifesto online which states that nanoparticles could cause the planet earth to turn into grey goo (a well worn and popular ‘end of the world because of nanotechnology’ scenario first posited by Eric Drexler who has since repudiated it but taken up by any number of science fiction writers).

Dexter Johnson at Nanoclast (on the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineering [IEEE] website) notes in his August 11, 2011 posting,

The confusion—that now seems insurmountable—over the advanced material science that accounts for the nanotechnology being used in products today and the molecular mechanosynthesis of the famed “nanobot” variety has now resulted in violence.

My sympathies to the injured academics and their families.

Nano’s grey goo and the animation series Futurama

You never know where you’re going to find nanotechnology. Most recently I found it in a review of the first few episodes of the animated US tv series, Futurama. Alasdair Wilkins recently offered a few thoughts about a recent ‘nanotechnology-influenced’ episode Benderama. From Wilkins’s June 24, 2011 commentary,

“Benderama” is an example of an episode type that pretty much only Futurama is capable of doing: taking an outlandish but vaguely plausible scientific idea and letting that guide the story. Some all-time great episodes have come from this approach: “The Farnsworth Parabox” did this with alternate universes, Bender’s Big Score used time paradoxes (or the lack thereof), and “The Prisoner of Benda” focused on mind-switching. This time around, the topic is the grey goo scenario of nanotechnology, as Bender gains the ability to create two smaller duplicates of himself, who in turn can each create two smaller duplicates of themselves, who in turn…well, you get the idea. Also, the crew deals with Patton Oswalt’s hideous space giant, who can only take so much mockery of his appearance.

The business about smaller duplicates creating smaller duplicates is very reminiscent of Waldo, the story by Robert Heinlein which according to Colin Milburn influenced the part about creating smaller and smaller hands in Richard Feynman’s famous 1959 talk, There’s plenty of room at the bottom. From a transcript of Feynman’s talk (scroll down 3/4 of the way),

A hundred tiny hands

When I make my first set of slave “hands” at one-fourth scale, I am going to make ten sets. I make ten sets of “hands,” and I wire them to my original levers so they each do exactly the same thing at the same time in parallel. Now, when I am making my new devices one-quarter again as small, I let each one manufacture ten copies, so that I would have a hundred “hands” at the 1/16th size.

The ‘grey goo’ scenario was first proposed by K. Eric Drexler in his 1986 book, The Engines of Creation. He has distanced himself from some of his original assertions about ‘grey goo’ and there is still debate as to the plausibility of the  scenario.

From a more technical perspective, Feynman, Heinlein and Benderama present a top-down engineering scenario where one continually makes things smaller and smaller as opposed to the increasingly popular bottom-up engineering scenario where one mimics biological processes in an effort to promote self-assembly.

I’m not sure I’d call the science in the episode, ‘outlandish but plausible’ as it seems old-fashioned to me both with regard to the science and the humour. Still the episode seems to offer some  gentle fun on a topic that usually lends itself to ‘end of the earth’ scenarios so it’s nice to see the change in tone.

Nanotech BC scoop: part 3 interview with Victor Jones

Belated Happy Victoria Day! We (Canadians) just celebrated a long weekend and so I’m a day later than I planned for posting the third and final part of the Victor Jones (former chair of Nanotech BC) interview.

(5) I mistakenly guessed that Darren Frew (former executive director) was the Nanotech BC representative going to the big nanotechnology conference in Japan during February 2009 when in fact it was you. How did it go? NANOTECH 2009 – TOKYO – WAS  VERY GOOD.  THERE WERE  OVER 70  CANADIANS THERE AND BY ALL ACCOUNTS MOST FOUND IT VERY USEFUL FOR COLLABORATIVE RESEARCH OR BUSINESS DEVELOPMENT.  ONLY MYSELF FROM BC.    THE EMBASSY STAFF IN TOKYO WERE VERY HELPFUL AND THE CANADIAN BOOTH WAS BUSY.    ATTENDANCE REACHES ALMOST 50,000     FOLLOW ON WORK WAS PENDING

I COULD SAY A LOT MORE…..IT IS A FULL WEEK IN MEETINGS   SEMINARS AND TRADE SHOW….

(6) Where are things going? Will Nanotech BC rise again? Or will something new rise from the ashes? I LEAVE THIS TO MICHAEL (ALLDRITT – DIRECTOR – AT NRC-IRAP) AND THE BOARD  -  THERE ARE SEVERAL POSSIBILITIES……  THE LEGAL NOT FOR PROFIT ORG EXISTS AND ITS FUTURE IS OPEN.  THERE IS NO DOUBT THAT THIS ARENA CONTINUES TO GROW AS  STATED STRATEGIC IMPORTANCE FOR MANY COUNTRIES, REGIONS AND CITIES.  NANOTECH BC  WAS A LEADER IN ITS ASSET MAP WORK – NOW BEING REPLICATED IN ALBERTA; AND BC HAS SOME WORLD CLASS WORK GOING ON;       THERE ARE SIMILARITIES TO THE VERY EARLY DAYS OF BIOTECH. / GENOMICS; BUT CHALLENGES TOO …..

I wonder why the province of BC was dragging its feet about funding the organization. Given the amount of money being invested by governments and business around the world, you’d think that there would be more interest. I did look for a science policy on the provincial government website and was not able to find one.

Two researchers (Jennifer Pelley and Marc Saner) from the Regulatory Governance Initiative at Carleton University (Ottawa, Canada) have produced a report outlining the regulatory approaches toward nanotechnology from five different jurisdictions. From Nanowerk News,

Authored by Jennifer Pelley and Marc Saner, this report investigates the question: “How have Canada and other jurisdictions reacted to the recent emergence of nanotechnology-based products in the marketplace (and what is the current state of affairs)?” Our survey focuses on five key jurisdictions: the United States (US), the United Kingdom (UK), the European Union (EU), Australia, and Canada.

There’s more about the report here and the report is here.

One final thing, Discover Magazine has a blog called ‘Science not Fiction‘ which features the ‘Codex Futurius’, a Q & A for science/fiction questions directed to experts. They have an answer to a question about grey goo.