Critics Fear University `Creating Tools for Frankenstein Species'

Article excerpt

Byline: Robin Turner

FEARS have been raised that ``thinking'' micro robots at a Welsh university could get out of control and create Frankenstein species.

Critics are concerned that the self-replicating tiny machines, which are smaller than a single cell and are made at a nanotechnology centre in Swansea, could form an ever-expanding ``grey-goo'', contaminating human or plant cells.

They have been angered that scientists are coaxing atoms to reassemble themselves to mimic cancer killing drugs or to form new materials.

But experts at Britain's newest nanotechnology centre claim there are enough safeguards to prevent anything and becoming a danger.

Dr Peter Singer of the Centre for Bioethics at the University of Torontois concerned at the rise of nanotechnology centres around the world with no controls over their work because it is so new.

He said, ``How will the Swansea centre address the ethical, legal, social, environmental and economic aspects of nano?

``Has it, like scientists working on the human genome project, dedicated part of its budget to these processes?''

And Neil Jones, of Swansea Friends of the Earth said, ``Having the power to breed bacteria can be useful but give it to someone like Saddam Hussein and it could threaten the world.

``There are going to be wonderful benefits from nanotechnology but scientists have a habit of rushing in.

``It's a bit like GM crops, once the genie is out of the bottle it might be impossible to put back in.''

Leading author Michael Crichton has also raised a warning voice about nano scientists' work. ``Imagine a mass of tiny computers, each smaller than a speck of dust, programmed to fly in a cloud over a country like Iraq and send back pictures,'' he said.

``Imagine the computers be-gin to evolve and the aggregate cloud becomes a death dealing swarm that threatens mankind - a mechanical plague.''

Yesterday, however, Professor Steve Wilks, one of three scientists who will be running the centre, based at the University of Wales, Swansea, said every precaution would be taken.

He said, ``The concerns about nanotechnology are shared by scientists as well as environmentalists.

``This university has a strong ethics committee which will look at aspects of nanotechnology and whether certain experiments are appropriate.

``We also plan to hold public information days so people are given the facts about what is a new but fast growing science. …