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 theĀ  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 someĀ  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.

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