Gray goo (also can be spelled as: grey goo) is a hypothetical global catastrophic scenario involving molecular nanotechnology in which out-of-control self-replicating machines consume all biomass on Earth while building more of themselves, a scenario that has been called ecophagy (the literal consumption of the ecosystem). The original idea assumed machines were designed to have this capability, while popularizations have assumed that machines might somehow gain this capability by accident.Self-replicating machines of the macroscopic variety were originally described by mathematician John von Neumann, and are sometimes referred to as von Neumann machines or clanking replicators. The term gray goo was coined by nanotechnology pioneer K. Eric Drexler in his 1986 book Engines of Creation. In 2004, he stated “I wish I had never used the term ‘gray goo’.” Engines of Creation mentions “gray goo” as a thought experiment in two paragraphs and a note, while the popularized idea of gray goo was first publicized in a mass-circulation magazine, Omni, in November 1986.Gray goo – Wikipedia
The term was first used by molecular nanotechnology pioneer K. Eric Drexler in Engines of Creation (1986). In Chapter 4, Engines Of Abundance, Drexler illustrates both exponential growth and inherent limits (not gray goo) by describing “dry” nanomachines that can function only if given special raw materials:
Imagine such a replicator floating in a bottle of chemicals, making copies of itself…the first replicator assembles a copy in one thousand seconds, the two replicators then build two more in the next thousand seconds, the four build another four, and the eight build another eight. At the end of ten hours, there are not thirty-six new replicators, but over 68 billion. In less than a day, they would weigh a ton; in less than two days, they would outweigh the Earth; in another four hours, they would exceed the mass of the Sun and all the planets combined — if the bottle of chemicals hadn’t run dry long before.
According to Drexler, the term was popularized by an article in science fiction magazine Omni, which also popularized the term “nanotechnology” in the same issue. Drexler says arms control is a far greater issue than gray goo “nanobugs”.
In a common practice, billions of nanobots are released to clean up an oil spill off the coast of Louisiana. However, due to a programming error, the nanobots devour all carbon based objects, instead of just the hydrocarbons of the oil. The nanobots destroy everything, all the while, replicating themselves. Within days, the planet is turned to dust.
Drexler describes gray goo in Chapter 11 of Engines of Creation:
Early assembler-based replicators could beat the most advanced modern organisms. ‘Plants’ with ‘leaves’ no more efficient than today’s solar cells could out-compete real plants, crowding the biosphere with an inedible foliage. Tough, omnivorous ‘bacteria’ could out-compete real bacteria: they could spread like blowing pollen, replicate swiftly, and reduce the biosphere to dust in a matter of days. Dangerous replicators could easily be too tough, small, and rapidly spreading to stop — at least if we made no preparation. We have trouble enough controlling viruses and fruit flies.
Drexler notes that the geometric growth made possible by self-replication is inherently limited by the availability of suitable raw materials. Drexler used the term “gray goo” not to indicate color or texture, but to emphasize the difference between “superiority” in terms of human values and “superiority” in terms of competitive success:
Though masses of uncontrolled replicators need not be grey or gooey, the term “grey goo” emphasizes that replicators able to obliterate life might be less inspiring than a single species of crabgrass. They might be “superior” in an evolutionary sense, but this need not make them valuable.
Bill Joy, one of the founders of Sun Microsystems, discussed some of the problems with pursuing this technology in his now-famous 2000 article in Wired magazine, titled “Why The Future Doesn’t Need Us“. In direct response to Joy’s concerns, the first quantitative technical analysis of the ecophagy scenario was published in 2000 by nanomedicine pioneer Robert Freitas.