Foresight Position Statement on Avoiding High-Tech Terrorism
September 11th has made clear that a handful of determined terrorists can kill thousands and wreak tens of billions in damage.
In response, the democracies are creating an international coalition to end terrorism. This is necessary because smaller groups can cause more damage today than they could in the past. Now that a few can kill thousands it would seem desirable to improve our systems and more effectively limit the opportunities available to terrorists.
The Foresight community has been aware for well over a decade that future advances in technology will shift the balance even more. In the coming decades, nanotechnology will give us greater powers for both good and ill than we have ever had before. While the extraordinary benefits of this new manufacturing technology will give us better health, a cleaner environment, and material wealth greater than anything we enjoy today, it will also let us build new and uniquely powerful weapons. Foresight believes that the safest method of dealing with this new technology is to develop a clear societal understanding of the technology and the issues it raises, and a widely reviewed safety framework within which nanotechnology can emerge in the coming decades with minimum risk and maximum benefit. Publication of the "Foresight Guidelines on Molecular Nanotechnology" (available on the web at http://www.foresight.org/guidelines) is a beginning for the evolving public discussion of these issues.
The solutions that have already been considered within the Foresight community -- in conferences and workshops, on internet discussion groups and by e-mail, in books and papers -- have often been very similar to the proposals that are now being weighed in response to the events of September 11th. If society is to contain not only the terrorists of today, but the terrorists of the coming decades, Foresight believes we need better understanding and better preparations for the kinds of attacks that are possible. Even though many people knew intellectually that a modern airliner carried enough fuel to release a kiloton of energy, this fact and its theoretical consequences were not taken seriously -- not until after the event did we start to implement effective policies to prevent such a catastrophe.
Today, some of us understand that future technologies in general and nanotechnology in particular will give us greater powers, but society as a whole has yet to start grappling with these issues. While growing numbers now understand at least the magnitude of the problem, many do not and some claim we are safe because molecular nanotechnology is "impossible" (recent claims of "impossibility" are refuted at http://www.imm.org/SciAmDebate2). Too often in the past we have heard that new technologies were "impossible" only to have them become a part of daily life (see "Erroneous Predictions and Negative Comments Concerning Scientific and Technological Developments" at http://www.foresight.org/news/negativeComments.html).
We at Foresight strongly endorse the international coalition against terrorism now being created. It could evolve over time into an international framework able to deal with the risks of future technology. While the potential risks of nanotechnology are still many years away, we don't know how many years. The history of terrorism indicates that it is the products of technology development that are abused, not the development tools themselves, so we have some time to work on the challenge of preventing abuse of molecular nanotechnology.
Whether we have one decade, or two or three is uncertain. What we do know is that molecular nanotechnology is feasible and is coming. Because it is possible that the development of this new technology might take place faster than expected, the responsible course of action is to begin focused study of its development process today. Such research will provide us with a clearer picture of how long it might take to develop, quell the unsupported claims of impossibility, and put us in the best position to understand its potential and develop it in a safe and responsible fashion that benefits us all.
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