GRAPHENE: birth of a new future, or death of the past?


The European Commission is about to spend €2 billion on graphene and human brain research. But the claimed objectives may well be more integrated – and less benign – than they seem

I’d imagine most of you have never heard of graphene. Graphene is carbon-rich and only one atom thick. It thus qualifies as a near as damnit two-dimensional substance….the first example of such a thing in the real world. Despite being the thinnest material known to exist, it is also the strongest material ever tested— 2-300 times stronger than steel. A lot of atomic and sub-atomic stuff has this ability to defy the size v importance obsession: graphene rocked the world of chemistry in 2004 when UMIST scientists discovered that it had remarkable properties that allow it to conduct electricity better than any other common substance.

As you might expect, most members of our beads-fixated species are interested in how graphene can be used strategically and commercially. China controls 70% of the known supplies of it, and it’s been named a “supply critical mineral” and a “strategic mineral” by the United States and the European Union. It makes semiconductors 100 times faster, and would make every aeroplane 70% lighter. Phones and computer displays made with it can bend and fold. And it has the potential to make people and things completely invisible. Yes, that’s right: invisible.

But some possibilities are genuinely profound. As graphene is almost all carbon – the chemical basis for all known life – it should be an ecologically friendly, sustainable solution for an almost limitless number of applications. Importantly, it renders solar energy 100 times more efficient, and thus might well be the missing link for which some of us have been hoping as an end to dependence on fossil fuels….and thus interminable Middle Eastern violence.

For me, the most interesting thing about graphene is that it could be extremely useful in understanding the higher-order functioning of the human brain….and is becoming an integral part of stem-cell research. This holds obvious promise for treating numerous neurological disorders: but it has much more to tell us in terms of why we’re here – and what the point of at least some of this sh*t called life might be about. We might be on the verge of finding out how, during a vivid dream, we can cram three hours of surreal narrative into seven seconds. It could well unlock some of the intriguing mysteries surrounding autism. In the end, it could enable us to use the huge areas of spare back-up we have in both cerebral hemispheres.

However, I came across this rather disturbing piece of information last week. The headline isn’t news…but some of the copy had me worried. Last January, the European Commission announced two EU Future and Emerging Technologies (FET) flagship programmes, which would each be allocated €1bn in funding to drive forward radical scientific research across the continent and enable greater understanding of key elements in our society. One focus area was the wonder material graphene; the other the vast Human Brain Project (HBP), which (it is hoped) will help researchers to gain profound insights into the nature of humanity, and develop new treatments for disease that emerges in the sub-atomic zone.

In fact (I have since learned) the two studies are linked and will cooperate closely. This is mainly because the quantity of experimental work necessary to really understand the brain is enormous, and graphene can accelerate the process exponentially. But note this extract from the project description (my italics):

“Whereas [the) Blue Brain [Project] looked exclusively at neurons,” asserts HBP spokeman Richard Walker, “we wanted to get down to the molecular level, which is fundamental as this is where, for instance, disease happens. In doing that, we were also able to look at the applications of brain research. In the HBP, brain simulation is only one-third of it. The other two-thirds cover medical research – actually using our models to get new insight into brain disease and how to treat them – and information technology – using our knowledge of the brain to build new computing technologies.”

Now it just so happens that the sub-atomic/molecular levels of brain function are my own particular fascinations, because they don’t promise – but could offer – insights into how much is real in our 3-D Universe, and how much is invented by us. “The answer lies within” and all that. However, most things given to the human species inevitably end up being perverted. And if you really were trying to f**k something up for humanity, I can’t think of a better starting point than getting the EC involved.

Two billion euros is a lot of money. I have been told in the last 24 hours that one major area of spend the HBP’s sponsors are less willing to talk about is advanced robotics. What are being increasingly referred to in such circles as soft body robots. Or put another way, alternative humans.

The BHP is, I’m told, going to build on initial research into graphene gel done by UC Berkeley in the States. The gel can be moulded, and then respond to light – just like a real life-form. In doing so, the gel can be made to flex and move almost instantaneously. Part of the gel is made from synthetic elastin – one of the important building blocks for human blood vessels and skin.

Add that to a robot using graphene to make brain function a hundred times faster, and graphene skin a hundred times stronger than steel, and you have something very special indeed. Or truly horrifying: a weapon. A weapon, what’s more, that could be rendered invisible: because graphene gel is light sensitive, Researchers at the University of Texas in Austin have been able to develop a hyper-thin ‘mantle cloak’ for use in such robots. Just imagine all the erections getting bigger in the Pentagon on the basis of that one.

At the bottom line, though, it’s the human replacement potential that graphene super-robots could achieve that causes me most anxiety. Large budgets are never applied to major science projects without there being a big, credible military-industrial application as the carrot. To sell something to States, you have to clearly illustrate what’s in it for them.

We are about to enter a very odd chapter in human history on numerous dimensions. I don’t want to set hares running here: if anything, I’d love this piece to help in even a small way to make the content a self-denying prophecy. But you don’t need a doctorate in solar rocket science to see the Huxleyesque potential in graphene generally, and the EC’s Human Brain Project in particular.

The one missing piece in the jigsaw that has always eluded me about the latest attack of élite econo-fiscal madness is that, on the consumption model of capitalism they so adore, the logic is extremely dodgy and dead-end. If you pauperise all the consumers, HTF do they consume the products you need to sell them to keep the whole flying circus vaguely airborne – albeit upside-down?

But supposing, as Eddie Mair recently said to his best friend the London Mayor, you’re a bit of a nasty piece of work. You and some of your mates get together at a hotel near Watford, and chew the fat about what’s new on the block. And some bright spark says, “Course, if you didn’t need to provide food and welfare for the Untermenschen, you wouldn’t need Government budgets and high taxes. You wouldn’t need so much land laid to crops. You could dig it all out and make lots of stuff like graphene. You could tell all the Greens to go f**k themselves. In fact, you wouldn’t need to, because all the Greens would now be, um, Graphene Robots. And you know what, robots don’t ask for money or food or welfare. They don’t get period pains and anxiety attacks. They don’t consume anything. They don’t ask questions, right?

This is our big chance to have all the power and all the money and all the fun…without any of that human rights, liberties and democracy crap. You could slim down the world population to, you know, the Alphas. Like us. Gliding around the world in our super-light graphene aeroplanes, stealing other people’s secrets with our invisible graphene robots, bribing Congressmen with our unidentifiable…no hang on, we wouldn’t need MPs and Senators would we? Jesus guys, isn’t this just great?

Yes, I know it’s insane and seems ludicrously far-fetched.

But ask yourself this: do you really think these possibilities haven’t occurred to the Gargoyles? By all means, don’t get paranoid: but do be vigilant. I think we need somebody with influence and time on his hands to look into this on our behalf – I’m thinking, MEP Dan Hannan – to get a categorical assurance from Brussels and its Eurocops that my information is completely wrong and utterly without foundation.

Then we will know, for certain, that they must be up to something.

Last night at The Slog: Tennis, Top-Ups and tits-up. One life in a day