Mental_floss' step-by-step guide to destroying civilization with nanotechnology

Ransom Riggs says I just finished a new short film project [for mental_floss]. As far as I know, it's (one of) the only short films ever made with mocap technology (the actor wears a neoprene suit covered in reflective dots ... my animators learned from robert zemeckis himself) and almost certainly the only short film to ever dramatize the nightmarish "gray goo" scenario, in which, Sorcerer's-Apprentice-like, a hapless would-be evil genius unleashes a plague of nanorobots which devour the earth. It's on YouTube -- in HD.


  1. This cartoon makes evil, soulless, world-destroying nerds look silly. They have their good side, you know.

  2. This short is based on mental_floss’s latest book–Be Amazing. From what I gather, the entire book is rather tongue in cheek.

  3. I think I’m going to have nightmares tonight, complete with creepy robotic maniacal laughter. AHH!

  4. I wonder when people will learn that antibiotics are useful only against bacteria and not viruses, you know they are 2 completely different things actually …

  5. I’m disappointed that there’s never been a realistic depiction of the grey/green goo scenario in film or TV. The recent Day The Earth Stood Still nanobot swarm is probably as good as it gets.

  6. Looks like Rusty Venture. I approve.

    I am a little annoyed that they never really show the bots multiplying exponentially.

  7. That was fantastic!

    I just hope Greg from London watches this before he throws the switch on that nano-robot machine he’s building in his mother’s basement!

    I’ll be on the Mars bus.

  8. One thing I never understood about the “gray goo” nanobot scenario: wouldn’t it be kept in check by the same forces that have (thus far) prevented a similarly adapted microorganism from evolving?

    I admit I’m not especially well read on nanotechnology but it seems like if it was easy to create a world-devouring microbe nature would have done it by now.

  9. The truth of the matter is, we’d have destroyed the world already before we can even come up with something as advanced as sentient nanobots.

    Awesome cartoon though, and really great presentation.

  10. No, because a nature destroying microbe wouldn’t presumably reproduce fast enough, nor would there be an impetus for it to evolve.

    Keep in mind, the most common “bugs” are things like yeast or mold. They don’t attack and kill everything around them. And some of the most successful (at reproducing themselves) viruses are things like herpes.

  11. jjasper, the reason many people think that the grey goo scenario is feasible is this reason, self-replicating nanorobots might be a lot more efficient than anything in nature. The overall efficiency of photosynthesis is 6.6%, the efficiency of the best solar cells is ab 41%, that’s a lot more efficient than anything in nature.

  12. @ #19 posted by jjasper:

    No, because a nature destroying microbe wouldn’t presumably reproduce fast enough, nor would there be an impetus for it to evolve.

    I’m still not convinced. Why would speed matter? Anything cabable of consuming all the matter (or even just all the carbon) in the world would eventually do so. Even the slowest reproducing bacteria only need a few days per generation, which works pretty fast on an exponential curve.

    I’m also not sure I see why the impetus to “evolve” would come into play either. A bacteria that could eat anything wouldn’t have to evolve in order to destroy all other life.

    Finally, what do these hypothetical nanobots use for energy? If they’re solar they can only eat what’s in view of the sun. If they use chemical energy then they can only function in environments rich in certain compounds. Either scenario puts a cap (albeit a pretty nasty one) on how much damage they could do.

    I’ll concede that some really scary kind of nanobot could probably wipe out humanity some day. But all life? That’s a pretty tall order.

  13. @22 brainspore:

    speed matters in competition, or conflict. If there’s no challenge such as a predator or conspecific aggressor, unchecked exponential replication can be slow yet yield large totals in little calendar time, unless required resources become limiting. Other factors include accumulation of inhibitory wastes (if any) or reduction in resource densities slowing generation times or increasing time required for dispersion.

    Simple math: 1 week generation time, binary fission replication–> population of 4.5E+15 after 1 year.

    But if each nanobot is only 100nm^3, that’s only 4.5cc. or less than a cubic inch.

    Unless actively avoided, cannibalism would likely limit growth to below ideal.

  14. @21 RIDL
    yeah only a subpopulation of replicators.

    O’course since when are cartoons/TV/movies assumed to be accurate depictions of reality (oh wait a minute…damn…that was one of the semi-fundamental problems in much of the world.)

    But here’s what strikes someone who actually works in these fields as silly: the options in the UI at the production station, and the fact that a nanofab producing such devices nonetheless has a “janitor.”

    (Then again, it reminds me of a story someone told me about a cleanroom plagued with problems…working after hours one night he saw a custodian walk out of the cleanroom, to the parking lot, then beat the broom he carried free of dust…suffice it to say, that company failed.)

    Beyond the merely silly, this sort of thing feeds misperceptions not so much about the scale of the largest risks of nanotechnology, but the nature and likelihoods of different classes of risk.

    There’s a critical mental lapse in this rendition (among others) of the grey-goo scenario, namely that the technology is widespread, capable of fast replication and autonomous action without any design effort or particular safeguards, yet there’s no defense nor alarm raised. The likely reason for the lapse: that’s how to get to the intended event if the story.

    I know it’s jusssst a cartoon, but this is my line of work (and has largely been since before most people heard of “nano”) so I take it seriously when everyone locks on to fearing the wrong risks, and consequently are more likely to do nothing to prevent the real risks (or, imagining relinquishment could be globally effective, impede the real benefits which it makes feasible.)

    Unlike a “good” thought experiment, a world in which advanced nanotechnology exists is different from the world we know in many, many ways rather than only one. Although we might contemplate types or sequences of events, experience and extrapolation are likely not so useful in this case as they are ordinarily, or rather, not as straightforwardly useful.

  15. oh dear, this has always been my favorite dooms’day theory.

    as unlikely as it is, the idea of one giant constantly moving and self replicating mass of mini machines taking to the shape of the world as it already is?


    granted, i cant watch this particular video….*shrug* dammed no speakers!

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