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Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Planet Diesel

For several years, the worry about nanotechnology has been the Grey Goo scenario: some nanobot escapes the lab and, like the brooms in the Sorcerer's Apprentice, multiplies geometrically as it carries out its assigned task of turning X into Y, eventually transforming all life on Earth to grey goo before hitting its own self-destruct button.

Technology is the solution!

But the more immediate threat may come from "synthetic biologists" who are genetically engineering microbes that do things like eat sugar cane juice -- carbohydrates -- and secrete diesel. Two equally bad scenarios are a) that we use up the world's farmland creating microbe food to produce more diesel, and b) we create plentiful supplies of diesel that we then burn and destroy ourselves with global warming. But a third scenario, it seems to me, is that a single self-replicating microbe finds its way out into the environment and starts turning you, me and Fido into diesel, conveniently creating a refuelling stop for traveling aliens, but ending life as we know it.

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This scientific frontier is being overseen by the new US Secretary of Energy, Steven Chu, but pushed by Craig Venter, who's busy making money out of mapping the human genome. Venter's quote at the end of the article above: “It’s infinitely scalable. We think the future will be very bright.” If that doesn't send a cold chill up your spine, it's time to re-read "Cat's Cradle" - Ice 9 was infinitely scalable too.

We're all Bokononists on this bus.


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