Parallel Minds, 87–96


Synthesising Complexity


Despite the high hopes placed in nanotechnology in the 1990s, neither
Drexler’s nanobots nor Feynman’s little hands have ever seen the light of day. It is perhaps also for this reason that to a large extent public attention shifted elsewhere, to disciplines such as artificial intelligence which seemed more likely to fulfil the science-fiction promises (and/or threats) of their founders, while nanotechnologies were dismissed as a strange failed experiment in collective imagination. According to Drexler’s predictions, nanotechnology could have offered humanity an opportunity to completely revolutionise the way we understand technology, but it would also have opened the way to very serious risks for the planet. One of the apocalyptic perspectives explored by Drexler in his book is the so-called gray goo scenario, in which the proliferation of self-replicating nanobots ultimately leads to the destruction of the earth, via the suffocation of all organic life. Apocalyptic scenarios of this kind have undoubtedly also had an impact on science fiction imagery: an example of such a cataclysm can be found in the 2008 film The Day the Earth Stood Still (dir. Scott Derrickson), in which a giant anthropomorphic alien robot called GORT (Genetically Organized Robotic Technology), sent to earth to annihilate mankind, can disintegrate itself into a trail of tiny self-replicating insects capable of devouring anything they encounter in their path. While advances in artificial intelligence technologies only seem to reinforce fears that we will soon be confronted with self-conscious computers like those that populate science fiction films, from the cunning HAL 9000 in 2001: A Space Odyssey to the ruthless Ava in Ex Machina, catastrophic scenarios like the grey goo apocalypse do not effectively capture either the real risks or the promises of nanotechnology.…