Grey Goo in the 1960s

17 Nov
  • “As soon as each box was activated, it began to roll about on the table on its little casters, avoiding collision with its fellows.”

Back in the 1970s, I read a rather strange novel by John Sladek – “The Reproductive System” (1968).  A researcher, Calvin Potter, helps build a self-replicating robot system. The project was set up by “Wompler’s Walking Babies” as a way to get government money when sales of the dolls died away. Other than a difference in scale (the individual units are inches across) the plot concerns the “grey goo” problem encountered in modern discussions of nanotechnology, although in a rather surreal way. The researcher wasn’t particularly competent – he only got the job because the application form didn’t have room for “Miami Institute of Technocracy” so he had to put down “M.I.T.“, but then no-one else really seemed to know what they were doing either.


At each exhibit, Grandison would pause while Cal named the piece of equipment. Then he would repeat the name softly, with a kind of wonder, nod sagely, and move on. Cal was strongly reminded of the way some people look at modern art exhibitions, where the labels become more important to them than the objects. He found himself making up elaborate names.
“And this, you’ll note, is the Mondriaan Modular Mnemonicon.”
“—onicon, yes.”
“And the Empyrean diffractosphere.”
“—sphere. Mn. I see.”
Nothing surprised Grandison, for he was looking at nothing. Cal became wilder. Pointing to Hita’s desk, he said, “The chiarascuro thermocouple.”
“Couple? Looks like only one, to me. Interesting, though.”
A briar pipe became a “zygotic pipette,” the glass ashtray a “Piltdown retort,” and the lamp a “phase-conditioned Aeolian.” Paperclips became “nuances.”
“Nuances, I see. Very fine. What’s that thing, now?”
He pointed to an oscilloscope. Cal took a deep breath.
“Its full name,” he said, “is the Praetorian eschatalogical morphomorphic tangram, Endymion-type, but we usually just call it a ramification.”
The old man fixed him with a stern black eye. “Are you trying to be funny or something? I mean, I may not be a smart-aleck scientist, but I sure as hell know a television when I see one.”
Cal assured him it was not a television, and proved it by switching it on. “See,” he said, pointing to a pattern of square waves, “there are the little anapests.”


It was an array of gray metal boxes, each about the size of a cigarette package, stacked loosely together in a cube about two feet high. When the toggle switch, prominent on the top of any one box was thrown, it sent out a tuned starting signal to the rest; they were switched off in the same way.
As soon as each box was activated, it began to roll about on the table on its little casters, avoiding collision with its fellows. When all the boxes were moving, they resembled a complicated Brownian movement on the dark  surface of the table, as they explored every inch of it.
Kurt and Karl placed bits and scraps of metal on the table. The smaller bits were at once devoured by individual  boxes, but the larger bars attracted the entire brood. The gray packages, now the size of king-size cigarette cases, swarmed over them like ants, gouging away with tiny cutters and torches — and growing fatter.
It made Cal shiver to look at their orderly feeding.


NOTE: The animated gif at the top of the page was an attempt to illustrate the little grey boxes swarming. It took me a ridiculous amount of time to create – using Blender and Gimp – but I learned a whole bunch of new techniques. Unfortunately, I couldn’t get the ‘Boids‘ functions working properly in Blender. My attempts had impressive flocks of hundreds of little machines, but I couldn’t get them to respect each other’s physical space. Sigh.

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One Response to “Grey Goo in the 1960s”

  1. scruss2 May 19, 2015 at 1:51 am #

    Thanks for this. This is one of my very favourite books, and I make sure to read it annually.

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