This is good news: "North Carolina A&T State University has been awarded an Engineering Research Center (ERC) from the National Science Foundation...The ERC is considered the 'crown jewel' among NSF awards. In the past 25 years, only about 30 ERCs have been funded by NSF."
Commercial possibilities: "More than eight companies in the nanobio market will be associated with the ERC to provide input for the direction of research as well as a conduit to transfer the technology to the real world."
More: "NC A&T will also start a new department of bioengineering in conjunction with this ERC. The department will offer BS, Masters and PhD degrees in bioengineering."
Jagannathan Sankar will lead the ERC, which will focus on next-generation implantable medical devices and sensors.
The nano aspect reminds me of a column I wrote eight years ago. It has little to do with the good news from A&T, but you can read it anyway after the jump.
Gray goo, coming to get you
News & Record
As if you don't have enough to worry about, what with gas prices and tax season and your NCAA tournament pool all shot to hell, now comes the threat of gray goo. The gray goo in question is a possible byproduct of the emerging science of nanotechnology that could crowd out all life on Earth, starting with the plants and finishing with the humans.
This happy news comes from Bill Joy, chief scientist at Sun Microsystems, who has written a 20,000-word opus published in the April edition of Wired magazine. The article has taken over the media world like, well, gray goo, inspiring debate in forums from National Public Radio and The New York Times to the Charlie Rose show and the online magazine Slate. Nothing like the end of human existence to get people talking, especially now that the presidential primaries are effectively over.
If the gray goo doesn't get us, writes the inaptly named Joy, highly evolved robots or runaway biotechnology might do the trick. None of this is strictly the stuff of science fiction: Nanotechnology, the fast-developing specialty that involves machines with parts the size of individual molecules, could be ready for commercial deployment within a decade or two, while the emergence of rogue biological agents and robots powered by computer chips 1 million times more powerful than the one on your desktop are a virtual certainty.
That death and destruction could be brought about by our own creations is a persistent theme in popular culture, a tradition that includes Mary Shelley's Frankenstein and Arnold Schwarzenegger's Terminator, and in real-world debates over nuclear weapons, pollution and global warming (with fiction and reality fusing in the recent Y2K hysteria). What sets Joy's doomsday hypothesis apart from this well-established tradition of techno-terror is the self-replicating nature of his bogeymen; each of his potential villains is capable of reproducing itself on a massive scale, turning the threat of localized disaster into the specter of global catastrophe.
I don't know Bill Joy personally (although in my capacity as a contributing editor to Wired I am in some highly tenuous way his colleague), but he is a legend in the software industry, an inventor of the Java computer language and a filthy-rich technology mogul with a massive compound in Aspen. None of that, however, makes him much more than a brilliant and well-connected layman when it comes to his present subject matter. As a considerably less-brilliant layman, I find his hypotheses to range from sensationalistic to scary.
The conscious robots part, despite its supporting quotes from smart people about competition between species and nature favoring machines, never gets too frightening; the super-bacteria part, on the other hand, is pretty alarming in light of our current problems with biological weapons and antibiotic-resistant bugs (I don't know enough about nanomachines to be afraid of gray goo yet).
Nobody seems to be rejecting Joy's ideas as completely loony. Even skeptic Robert Wright, author of the recent (and far more optimistic) book ''Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny,'' writes in Slate that the chances of some Joy-predicted catastrophe actually taking place are better than even. Joy's lack of solutions - a watery plea for human goodness and stricter global regulation are about as much as he can muster - is disappointing, but his underlying message, that we should be extremely careful with the powerful tools we are building, is one worth heeding.
The past week brought news of technology's incredible promise, with the story of a paralyzed Frenchman who is starting to walk again with the aid of a microchip implant, and also of technology's unpredictability and limitations, with the junking of the multi-billion dollar Iridium satellite network. Technology has become a force that involves us all, even people who try to avoid the hype and live as simply as possible. We don't have to wait for the gray goo to get us. We need to pay attention to what's going on around us today.
© News & Record 2000