Foresight Institute Logo
Image of nano

BBC Airs Scaremongering Nanotech Documentary

Dr_Barnowl writes "The BBC saw fit to fuel the fires of fear over nanotech in last nights Horizon . While the web content is quite moderate, the prevailing image of nanotech the program presented was a swarm of CGI grey goo flying like a whirling dervish over a blasted desert (an image straight out of Michael Crichton's Prey , interspersed with time-lapse shots of reproducing cells and decaying animals as the commentary spoke of 'our day of reckoning'."

Dr_Barnowl continues

While the more positive aspects of nanotech were mentioned, the emphasis was most heavily placed on the negative aspects, with grey goo leading the way and little snippets like targeted eugenic weapons and espionage devices thrown in for fun. The negative imagery was repeated though much of the programme and one suspects that the whole thing was put in to "sex up" and pad out an otherwise very dry tale about the fake science antics of Hendrick Schön.

It's a shame that such a popular and widely viewed science program has been so one-sided about nanotechnology. With self-replicating systems being made out to be the only path forward in what I suspect was a carefully cut interview with Ray Kurzweil, grey goo was portrayed as virtually inevitable. It would seem that nanotech could rapidly aquire the same status as GMO in the public eye of this country (UK), and very much fuelled by the same green-tinted-spectacles lobby. The programme even aired the infamous Prince Charles/Grey Goo Daily Mail headline I commented on last April. The one that used a blown-up scanning electron micrograph of an ant to make its point. Perhaps we could do with a better library of positive nanotech images for journalistic consumption?

A full transcript is available.

9 Responses to “BBC Airs Scaremongering Nanotech Documentary”

  1. rumplestiltskin Says:

    Why was this show made?

    I read the transcript in its entirety before posting. I heartily recommend this.

    The first half of the show explored Moore's Law and silicon technology with stunning lack of relevance to nano. In addition to the clumsiness of journalistic approach this "documentary" portrayed the field of nanotechnology simultaneously as two mutually exclusive things.

    1. so realistic, workable, and diabolically effective that it will consume us all because whereas we can build it we are too incompetent to tame its powers effectively(grey goo. yawn.)
    2. so inextricably intertwined with academic scientific fraud that there is no chance of validity to it whatsoever

    This is bad reportage to say the least.

    BUT it makes great propaganda. "Fear the technology and have contempt for the ethics of the practicioners". A very effective technique.

    That dreary Smalley versus Drexler hissy fight was bad enough for the field, and the name changes ("zettatechnology"? huh?) are a curious combination of topical and irrelevant.

    What next, nano-witch trials?

    This is all wrong.

  2. Mr_Farlops Says:

    BBC Horizon has flubbed it before

    The Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP) has on at least two occasions complained about programs that Horizons has aired. Granted that balderdash about pseudoscience isn't really the same thing as balderdash about nanotechnology, but I get the impression that the editors and journos of this program aren't doing their homework and don't really care about the subjects they examine.

    Many people are going to be mislead by this show. Sigh. A skeptics work is never done. Even after nearly 60 years of nuclear technology, many people are still sadly misinformed about that as well. Nearly a 160 years after Origin of Species there are still people who believe that evolution is just a bad guess. This despite massive reforms in mass education, despite the advent of broadcast journalism, the advent of the Internet. A skeptic's work is never done. Against stupidity the gods themselves struggle in vain.

    But we must never give up that struggle! If we do nothing, ignorance will surely win. It seems like we have to run as fast as we can to stay in the same place but, just barely, bit by bit we advance and the hopefully the culture gets wiser.

  3. Gavinr Says:


    To think I actually contributed a fragment of my TV licence to this tripe.. I can't knock Horizon for looking at the somewhat remarkable case of Hendrick Schön (assuming for a moment it isn't all an elaborate scientific crucifixion. It seems to be the popular choice of policy for steering scientific debate forwards these days..). Impartiality and truth are, and always will be, important to all efforts; to present the down's as well as the up's to an argument is right, otherwise how can we expect to learn anything? Though there was undeniably a potential high for nano in Hendrick's work, What struck and disturbed me was how they kept going from an analysis of him and his work in one breath, only to switch to drawing parallels with the dark alleys of nanotech.. They did it in such an insideous way as to provoke people into drawing their own dire and ill-informed conclusions. I don't recall anyone mentioning the Foresight Institute and it's efforts in the face of said dangers during their nano-bashing either (IRONICALLY, NANOTECH WAS TRUMPETED AS REMARKABLE IN AN EARLY/MID 90's EDITION OF HORIZON ENTITLED "NANOTOPIA".. ANYONE REMEMBER THAT??!!). Who is seemingly determined to undermine all the hard work? I read with interest (when the Smalley/Drexler argument initially ignited) a theory that the US government might have a "black book" nanotech project, as they did with the Manhattan project. The old two-handed game; deny the possibility of a scientific effort whilst simultaneously developing it with the other hand. A thought not to be discounted I think, but regardless of whether there's any truth to any of that or not it disturbs me to contemplate that various unscrupulous individuals are perhaps getting the better of us all once again, and this time with something all too important.. It stands to reason that should the Drexlerian assembler/disassembler/replicator vision work (and we've all read the possibilities and heard the fiscally-concerned disbelievers in the face of probably as much technical proof as can be mustered) the ones who stand to potentially lose the most are the people with a vested interest in keeping people in "need" of all things harvested/manufactured. At the very least one might imagine a huge paradigm shift of social philosophy in the wake of such developments. So, why can't these same people realise that there perhaps ISN'T anything to be afraid of..? So the world may change.. A lot of it does so every single day.. Can't they accept that along with all the up's and down's, the potential to be seized will make their OWN lives better as well, and maybe even remove the need for their greed? How dare anyone (mentioning no names..) have the audacity to stand in the way of open debate?! We wait with baited breath..

  4. chis Says:

    Psychological operations

    The primary tactic used for obtaining mass obedience, which has been used extremely successfully for thousands of years is to inspire fear. One critical thing to realize however, is that fear is created by mis-information, not because people can't understand the concepts involved. They are simply restricted from critical aspects of reality that favors a pre-calculated conclusion.

    I hope this Horizon 'documentary' serves as an eye opener for those of you who haven't yet realized that the change that nanotech can potentially deliver -could- face strong resistance by the systems that wield power, despite the fact that nanotech will be of enormous benefit to the entire human race. The more real the threat from nanotech, the greater the resistance could become. While I'm not saying this will definitely happen, I am saying this could possibly happen and if it does, there needs to be a well formulated response.

    For those who havenít already read it, here is a link to an excellent and very frighteningly relevant article by Michael Crichton: _quote04.html

    In response to Gavinr's comments:

    >So, why can't these same people realize that there perhaps ISN'T anything to be afraid of..?

    The purpose of capitalism is to concentrate capital. The purpose of government is to concentrate power (an advanced from of brute physical force). These systems achieve their goals at the expense of all else – including the welfare of the masses. What you are asking these institutions to do is to willingly accept their own demise – for the betterment of the population – which are less important priorities to these systems than a) the systems own self preservation, and b) improving the systems relative standing to systems of capital and government in rival nations.

    To compound the problem, these systems have evolved extremely potent defensive mechanisms for preventing their own demise from external influences. They have a history stretching back thousands of years and exist today because they are the best systems humans have every devised to implement priorities a) and b) mentioned above. To expect these systems to self-regulate is about as illogical as using weapons to help heal sick people, or using bandages to fight with in military combat.

    All that is important to conclude is that these systems are not designed to accept detrimental change without acting in self-preservation. The ONLY way to change these systems that has proven historically effective is to make conformance to the wishes of the people less 'painful' than non-conformance. The same mechanism used by the systems themselves: restrict the viable options of the mass population by making certain actions 'painful'. This is used to expose particularly useful (relative to the systems) human traits such as competitiveness, rivalry and aggression.

    >Can't they accept that along with all the up's and down's, the potential to be seized will make their OWN lives better as well

    Nanotech will be resisted using whatever means are available to the incumbent systems at the time. This is a very important concept to understand, because the way I see it the technical problems of creating nanotech pail in comparison to the problems implementing it successfully. This is only my assessment and may or may not prove to be the case in reality, but -IF- things turn out like this, the greater the recognition and understanding of the problem, the stronger our position will be. Which is of course, bringing free and un-restricted nanotech to 6+ billion people.

  5. Gavinr Says:

    Re:Psychological operations

    Actually bandages in the hands of a few well placed combatants could do an awful lot of damage, especially around the jugular.. But seriously, (only jossing Chis..) I absolutely agree with you. At this point in history I can't realistically think of a worse political system that could be in place, with respect to the way in which they establishment has comfortably wedged itself in. Also we seem to be suffering our greatest epidemic of dissatisfied, selfishly-motivated peoples yet in recent living memory, they having being created by the leanings of decadence which we have as a result of modern "comforts" (ironically probably only to be exacerbated by the onset of nanotech unless we can change our way of thinking..). The key really seems to lie where it always has (our existence being a linear one); at the feet of children.. many of whom at the moment think they're hard done by when they only have £5 pocket money per week, have to cope with not having the right trainers, enough of this or that, etc.. along with all the usual adolescent pains we ALL have to deal with. Perhaps the single most potent thing which we could do to help provide a smoother path to the future would be to reassess the goals of education, a virtually impossible task I know, given that the institutions which would seek to protect themselves control the strings in this department as well. My proposal would be that we adopt a stance stemming from a more basic wisdom than the one we employ at present. If, from the start, we could begin by getting children over their first few hurdles (this we quite reasonably do at the moment I'm glad to say); seeing where they are, learning who they are and how they feel they fit in, their place in the grand scheme of things; first how wrong an awful lot of things are/have been, how wrong their pre-conceptions may be and follow this up with teachings which don't force-feed facts in preparation for some kind of existence of servitude, but to a nobler philosophy which actually teaches them how to be better people. I'm not saying teach them to turn their back on materialistic things and taking on a pastoral hippy existence (although that would be an improvement from where we ARE). Society has reached a point where it would be too much of a stretch to foresake technological advancement, and let's face it nanotech is perhaps the greatest gadget in the universe if I may be so flippant for a moment.. No, we simply need to be able to reassess the template we work from in order that not only society be better served but that the individual be more contented in themselves. When you get a world full of angry people evrything is bound to collapse into chaos and irrationality, regardless of which of the myriad choices of politics and belief you choose to align yourself with. Though none of us can profess to have all the answers (otherwise this forum would be superfluous) it's clear that the REAL hard work is with us right now.

  6. MitchellPorter Says:

    Re:Psychological operations

    "bringing free and un-restricted nanotech to 6+ billion people"

    This means giving everyone on Earth their own weapon of mass destruction. This is not a formula for utopia or even for a better world; it is a formula for mass destruction.

  7. Kadamose Says:

    Re:Psychological operations

    This means giving everyone on Earth their own weapon of mass destruction. This is not a formula for utopia or even for a better world; it is a formula for mass destruction.

    True – however, if such technology is restricted, and is only given to a select few…those without it, will eventually rebel and basically destroy the world without nanotech's help.

    I'd rather see creative destruction…instead of stupid destruction…if you catch my drift.

  8. Kadamose Says:

    Re:Psychological operations

    I forgot to add that the only way Nanotech to truly ever be implemented correctly, is to destroy 75% or more of the human population.

  9. pick 3 lottery system Says:

    Having a self-replicating nanotechnology could bring a good or bad outcome, or even a worse outcome. It would be an advantage if this nanotechnology could help in making the work in the industry faster but if time will come to a point that this technology will keep on replicating that it is out of control, then it will surely be a bad news for the world.

    I hope this study will give more of a positive outcome than a bad one.

Leave a Reply