GREY GOO ARMAGEDDON; Jurassic Park Author Michael Crichton's New Book Describes How a Plague of Microscopic Robots Breed with Awesome Speed by Devouring Humans. Science Fiction? Sorry . . . It Could Happen. Scientists Now Believe That Such Robots Could Eventually Reduce Everything on the Globe to Grey Goo

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Byline: MICHAEL HANLON

ONE couldn't imagine a more depressing way for the world to end. Most of the postulated doomsday scenarios, although horrible, are at least colourful and spectacular: nuclear conflagration, collision with a space rock, runaway climate change, genetically-modified plague. But an unlikely-sounding scenario has been causing concern among many scientists for several years now. Instead of a colourful bang, the world would end with the ultimate whimper, as all life dissolves - in a matter of hours - into a mass of formless, grey goo.

The 'grey goo problem' - that is actually its formal title - is a fantastical but worryingly plausible scenario that has emerged from the white-hot new science of nano-technology: the art of the ultra-small.

Nanotechnology is the 'monster' at the heart of best-selling author Michael Crichton's latest science fiction novel, Prey. Crichton has had an unnerving track record with his scientifically literate predictions.

The Andromeda Strain, which came out in 1969, forecast our 21st-century fears of genetically-modified germs. Jurassic Park, two decades later - and a far darker novel than the childish film - played on concerns about cloning and genetic engineering.

In Prey, a swarm of microscopic airborne machines escape the laboratory and go on the rampage. In the book, Crichton has tapped into current fears among some leading scientists that 'nanotech' could easily get out of hand.

Environmentalists have woken up to the threat, and one research group is now calling for a complete moratorium on nanotech research until the dangers can properly be assessed.

So why would anyone want to make machines so small you can't see them? And could they really destroy the world?

Nanotechnology at present exists more on the pages of theoretical journals than in reality (just as computing did in the Forties) but it has the potential to revolutionise our lives.

Last year, companies - mainly drug, biotechnology and computer firms - spent $4 billion on nanotechnology. This figure is expected to rise to $1 trillion (pound sterling600 billion) annually by 2012.

Nanotechnology, put simply, is technology on the scale of a billionth of a metre, or about one eighty-thousandth of the width of a human hair: the scale of atoms and molecules.

Nanotechnologists are trying to create tiny machines, so small that you would need an electron microscope to see them, that could be used (among a million other things) to build computer chips thousands of times faster than the ones we have today, or live in our bodies, keeping our arteries clear and repairing the damage wrought by Alzheimer's.

The concept of nanotechnology was dreamt up by the legendary quantum physicist Richard Feynman in a classic talk he gave at the California Institute of Technology in 1959.

His speech, entitled 'There's plenty of room at the bottom', predicted that over the coming decades, the thrust of technology would not be to build large machines, but incredibly small ones.

FEYNMAN, a wit, raconteur, player of the bongo drums and frequenter of strip bars, was born 50 years too early. As America's best populariser of science (he died 15 years ago), he talked of a day when computers would be 'made of little wires, little elements ...today's computing machines are very large, they fill rooms!'.

He went on to imagine machines that could manipulate single atoms, others that could write an encyclopaedia on the head of a pin, or carry out surgery on our bodies, invisibly, cell by cell.

'Imagine if you could swallow a surgeon! You put the mechanical surgeon inside the blood vessel and it goes into the heart and looks around. It finds out which valve is faulty, and takes out a little knife and slices it out.'

Since Feynman gave his famous talk, we have indeed built computers made 'of little wires, little elements'. …