Re: Freitas on Gray Goo

From: Charlie Stross (
Date: Mon May 15 2000 - 03:46:54 MDT

On Sun, May 14, 2000 at 04:35:26PM -0500, Eliezer S. Yudkowsky wrote:
> I also have some comments remaining that haven't been entirely obsoleted
> by Hal's remarks:
> (1) Nanoweaponry fighting it out on the nanoscale arrives relatively
> late in the game; in real life, the first two "nanoweapons" to have a
> military impact would be diamondoid jet fighters and the like, followed
> by saturation launches of vat-grown nuclear weapons.

Disagree. It ain't sexy, but if I was looking for a lethal war-fighting
tool I'd go for the humble wasp. Use GM techniques to implant the genes
required to synthesize tetrodotoxin -- or preferably some neurotransmitter
used by mammals but not by insects. (Insects run on GABA and acetylcholine,
IIRC; there's got to be something that you can disrupt in humans that
won't affect a wasp, hasn't there?) At this point, you have a lethal but
unguided missile. The next step is to add broadband peer-to-peer networking,
hooks into its nervous system and optice nerves. Finally, figure out how to
automate the process, and turn whole swarm of the things into a distributed
area-denial weapon.

I have this vision of an armoured division rolling across the frontier
with cover from helicopter gunships, facing effectively no opposition ...
except that as soon as they stop to refuel and re-arm, soldiers start
dying. The survivors bottle up and go hog-wild with Sarin, and presently
they discover that they can function, after a fashion, if they observe
full NBC precautions. So they drive on into the enemy capital and declare
themselves to be an army of occupation ... except that anyone who
ventures out of their sealed chemwar-proofed environment simply dies.
There are a billion bluetooth-networked wasps loose in the city; they
won't sting anyone who isn't wearing an enemy uniform or carrying a gun,
but they know exactly where the enemy soldiers are, and they're fairly
resistant to insecticides -- resistant enough that a high enough dose to
knock them down reliably won't do the humans in the vicinity any good,

(How do you go about occupying enemy territory when just taking your gas
mask off is presenting your face to the stingers of stealthy, lethal,
enemy insects?)

> We'd have to get
> through that without blowing ourselves up before we'd get the chance to
> dust the biosphere. Even if Freitas's paper is entirely true in every
> detail, it doesn't mean - as a policy conclusion - that there's a safe
> path to nanotechnology.
More to the point ...

How does the assumption that the grey goo arises accidentally, or
deliberately, skew the issue?

I would expect most grey goo incidents to be the unfortunate side-effects
of experiments with replicators. But there may well be some that are the
result of groups with similar pathological attitudes to Aum Shinriko, who
set out to create grey goo. The latter is going to be much harder to
deal with; for starters, we can expect them to be stealthed, and for seconds
they're liable to be much more efficient than an accidental mutation.

-- Charlie

This archive was generated by hypermail 2b29 : Thu Jul 27 2000 - 14:11:14 MDT