Rupert Goodwins' Diary

Tuesday 15/3/2005And talking of William Burroughs, more evidence that his spirit too walks abroad — this time in China. Let me take you to the Institute of Precision Engineering and Intelligent Microsystem, Shanghai Jiao Tong University.

Tuesday 15/3/2005

And talking of William Burroughs, more evidence that his spirit too walks abroad — this time in China. Let me take you to the Institute of Precision Engineering and Intelligent Microsystem, Shanghai Jiao Tong University. This is a bustling, go-head kind of place, and it's recruiting. With a pitch like this; "As the sea accepts all rivers for its capacity, the university seeks every talent for her growth. With great sincerity, we are here inviting distinguished people to join us for joint future brilliance," it's not hard to be seduced by its bright-eyed charm.

Yet beware. There are things afoot at the Institute which are even more terrifying than the miniature black hole that may have been accidentally cooked up recently in Rhode Island. Intelligent microsystems might elicit ideas of tiny, friendly robots bustling around the place cleaning the floor and cooking fish fingers, but the work in Shanghai is of a more, ah, fundamental nature.

A paper in the Journal of Medical Engineering And Technology reveals all. Researchers Zuo J, Yan G, and Gao Z. have created a — oh, let's not be coy — monster. A very small monster, to be sure, just 12 cm long and 7.5mm across, but monstrous in all its tiny respects. Based on the principles of the earthworm, the robot can "move reliably in horizontal and certain declining tubes", driven by one of the micromechanical electric motors which are Shanghai Jiao Tong University's stock in trade. And the nature of these certain declining tubes? What Zuo, Yan and Gao have summoned is what they call a miniature endoscope for colonoscopy. The world will come to know and fear it as the Robot Arseworm.

I have been an avid consumer of science fiction for many years. I have inhabited cyber-dystopias under the cold, titanium thumb of imperial golems, and watched aghast as armies of mad mechanoids lay waste the worlds of their creators. There have been machines the size of planets bent on mankind's destruction, there have been awkward artificial dogs, the all-devouring grey goo of malfunctioning nanotech, even rebelliously sentient brown shoes.

But nothing from the fever dreams of Philip K Dick or Gene Roddenberry comes close to this Shanghai Surprise. It is science at its disinterested, impassive worst — creating for the nominal good a device of the most inhuman evil. What will happen when these things strike out on their own? When the goal of nanotechnology, self-duplication, is achieved? Powerful, autonomous, unstoppable, the creeping swarms will have but one thought in their shiny, snub-nosed artificial minds. To seek out their God-given destiny by any means necessary — and once there, to breed.

We are in the End Times, my children. Make your peace with man and deity, and prepare for the unthinkable.