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Prince Charles asks scientists to look into 'grey goo'
By Roger Highfield, Science Editor
(Filed: 05/06/2003)
 
Fears by the Prince of Wales that armies of microscopic robots could turn the face of the planet into an uninhabitable wasteland have prompted the nation's top scientists and engineers to launch an inquiry.
 
Having attacked GM foods in the past, Prince Charles has more recently turned his attention to nanotechnology, the ability to manipulate matter at scales of billionths of a metre.
 
Concerned by claims by environmentalists that swarms of rogue "nanomachines" could one day reduce all in their path to "grey goo", the prince has asked the Royal Society to help him to weigh up the risks.
 
Yesterday, at the Cheltenham Festival of Science, Lord May, president of the Royal Society and former government chief scientist, announced that the Society and the Royal Academy of Engineering are to launch a study into nanotechnology.
 
But Lord May stressed: "There is nothing inherently sinister about nanoscience or nanotechnology, it just refers to the study of things on the scale of one-millionth of a millimetre."
 
He said the prince should be reassured that the "grey goo" scenario, which is raised by various sources, notably Michael Crichton's book Prey, is even less likely to come true than cloning dinosaurs.
 
"The nightmare scenario of self-replicating nanobots destroying everything is about as likely to come true as Jurassic Park, another product of Michael Crichton's fertile imagination," said Lord May.
 
Fearful of the same polarised debate developing as with GM, Lord May has decided to launch the inquiry, even though many of the risks are "purely imaginary and conjectured".
 
Some of the benefits of nanotechnology, such as superior materials and sunscreens, are clear cut "but maybe there are some things we ought to be thinking about".
 
Prince Charles's fears appear to have been prompted by The Big Down, an extended polemic on the potential evils of nanotechnology, published at the start of this year by an organisation called ETC, a pressure group based in Canada.
 
This report rages against technological developments for creating extravagant wealth and extreme poverty.
 
But Lord May said that advances in science and technology have made life better in both the developed and developing worlds.
 
Lifespans have increased, from a global life expectancy at birth 50 years ago of 46 years, to 64 years today, he said. World food production has doubled over the past 35 years, using only 10 per cent more land.
 
Sir Martin Rees, Astronomer Royal, also spoke at the festival last night, on his new book, Our Final Century, which weighs up current threats to humankind.
 
Compared with the real threat from nuclear weapons, Sir Martin said that the "grey goo" scenario "might become a concern 50 years from now but is science fiction for the moment".
 
There will be a session on nanotechnology this Saturday at the festival, which is sponsored by The Daily Telegraph.