Green or Gray?

April 5, 2002

Originally published April 4, 2002 at Tech Central Station. Published on April 5, 2002

Will the future be green? Or gray? Or, to put it another way, do we face a choice between a "biofuture" and a "machine future"? Biophysicist Gregory Stock will be debating artificial intelligence guru Ray Kurzweil on this very topic at the Foresight Institute’s conference in Palo Alto later this month. But at the risk of stealing a bit of their thunder (but, I suspect, no more than a bit), I want to address the issue now.

Those who favor the gray approach–relying on nanotechnology and nanotech-powered artificial intelligence–note that machines can do a lot of things that living creatures can’t. They can be made of materials that are stronger and easier to control, they can be designed from the ground up with comparative straightforwardness, and they can be designed to function without troublesome issues such as sex, mutation, and evolution. Or, if such traits seem desirable, those can be designed in. It’s like the difference between a car and a horse. Machines will sit quietly, without needing to be fed, watered, or even dealt with–much, anyway–until they’re needed. And when they are needed, they’ll do what they’re told, without deciding that they’d really rather munch on some delicious-looking daffodils along the way.

The green approach offers the flip side of these advantages. With machines, you have to know what you’re doing. With biotech, you just have to find an organism that knows how to do what you want–more or less, anyway–and do a little modification. Want people to be able to photosynthesize? You don’t have to invent photosynthesis, just figure out a way to put chloroplasts into human skin. (Okay, this is a silly example, but you get the point.) Cars may be a better means of getting around than horses are today, but people figured out how to travel on horseback long before they were up to building automobiles, and the first few generations of automobiles were no great shakes compared to horses, either. And we still don’t have a car that knows the way home on its own when you’re too drunk to drive.

In truth, of course, there’s a lot of overlap. You can, in principle, do most of the things that you could do with nanotechnology using advanced biotechnology, since biological processes are really just naturally evolved nanotechnology. And in the process of using and studying biological systems, you’re sure to learn things that will have important applications for nanotechnology. (The reverse is probably also true–in engineering nanodevices, you’re almost certain to learn things that will have biological applications.) One need only look at Robert Freitas’ fascinating work of conceptual engineering, Nanomedicine (Landes Bioscience, 1999) to see the ways in which biology and engineering will mesh.

Interestingly, though, it’s the Greens who may provide much of the impetus for going gray. Over the past couple of decades, environmentalists who are opposed to genetic engineering have spent a lot of time demonizing biotechnology as "tinkering with life." By treating DNA as something almost holy, they have sought to make any sort of manipulation of genes seem like desecration to those who agree with them. This is a pretty silly argument, but it is one that has won some converts.

The problem is, having chosen to take that approach, they’ve committed intellectual disarmament where nanotechnology and other gray technologies are concerned. When you’re building robots, you’re not tinkering with life. You’re tinkering with, er, machines–and what more appropriate subject is there, in the popular mind, for tinkering with?

So although there may be little reason, on the merits, to choose between going green and going gray, the actions of environmentalists and anti-biotech activists may load the dice in favor of more mechanical approaches. Thus do politics and science interact.

Copyright (c) 2002 Tech Central Station. Used with permission.