Re: LIST: the Gooies

Lyle Burkhead (
Sun, 18 Apr 1999 11:46:12 -0700

Mitchell Porter writes,

> Let's define our terms here. When I talk about "grey goo",
> I am talking about microscopic, nonbiological, free-living replicators
> hardy enough and prolific enough to pose a threat to
> most life on Earth. Artificial life - out of control - worst-case
> What is so fantastic about that?

The idea that life as it presently exists will be replaced by something else is not, in itself, fantastic. However, --

  1. What is fantastic is the image of goo spreading over the planet, eating everything in its path. Microscopic life won't have an advantage over large-scale life in the future any more than it does now. Hard life, like natural life, will come in all sizes, from microbes to Godzilla, and all forms, from algae to insects to mammals, plus other forms that have not yet been thought of. The ecosystem of the future will be at least as complex and diverse as the ecosystem of today. The world isn't going to be any more gooey in the future than it is now.
  2. The very idea of "nonbiological, free-living replicators" is absurd. It is possible to have replicators that use different materials and have different sources of energy than natural cells, but any free-living organism that replicates will be "biological" in a general sense.

Hard life, like natural life, will be constrained by time, space, and energy; there will still be such a thing as bioenergetics. Each species will have its own niche. There will still be predators and prey, and there will still be an ongoing arms race between predators and prey, as described by Dawkins. There will still be symbiotic relationships and parasitic relationships between species. In other words the general form of biology will remain the same. The essential difference will be that organisms will be able to change themselves, like corporations do, instead of depending on the blind process of natural selection.

3. Finally, the other fantastic thing about the grey goo scenario is that it is all supposed to happen overnight. I wish it were that easy to design new cells. I spend a lot of time trying to figure out how to redesign my own cells. It's a daunting task, and I think it will take decades just to make the first steps. Replicators are complex, and that complexity isn't going to go away.