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Foresight Update 5

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A publication of the Foresight Institute

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Nanotechnology in Warfare

Opinion by Mark Gubrud

One of the goals of the Foresight Institute is to stimulate debate on the public policy consequences of advanced technologies such as nanotechnology. This essay will start off the discussion on military applications of nanotechnology. The essays in this series are the opinions of the authors and not necessarily those of FI.--Editor

When we contemplate the application of nanotechnology to weapons we find virtually unlimited room for fantasy. A number of clichés have arisen in the nanotech community: omnivorous robot locusts, omnipresent surveillance gnats, microbes targeted for genocide, mind control devices, and so on. But what makes good science fiction does not necessarily make an effective tool of combat.

Will nanotechnology make nuclear weapons obsolete? Perhaps in peace, but not in war. Nuclear energy will remain preeminent in total war, for at least three reasons. First, it is "infinitely lethal"; chemical bonds cannot resist nuclear energy. Second, it is cheap, and nanotechnology will make it cheaper. Third, and most important, it is quick; the bomb goes bang and that's it, end of discussion.

Nanotechnology might seem to make SDI's Rube Goldberg schemes workable, but space weapons will only create a final front. The principle of preemption--getting in the first blow, and aiming for a knockout--is an ancient and essentially unalterable fact of military life. Missiles are now targeted on missiles. And in a war involving space weapons, the first strike will be in space.

Battles with first-generation, bulk technology space weapons will already be so swift that we will have to trust a machine to decide when to start shooting. Nanotechnology could produce huge numbers of such weapons, and also nuclear and chemical explosive-driven directed-energy weapons that will reduce the decision time practically to zero, below even what a computer can cope with.

We see it most clearly in space, but on every front the speed and numbers of today's high-tech and tomorrow's nanotech weaponry collapse decision time and undermine the basis of mutual deterrence. One does not have to calculate that a first strike will succeed, one has only to fear that the other side may try it, perhaps as some conflict escalates or as some situation gets out of control. Preparing to attack is not generally distinct from preparing to defend or deter; defenses are needed against retaliation, and second strikes may aim at the same targets as first strikes. As in World War I, mobilization may be a slippery slope leading inexorably to war. Today that instability is mitigated by the gap between the time scale of crisis and combat and that of production and deployment. Nanotechnology will reduce and eventually eliminate this margin of safety.

Replicating assemblers could be used at any time to initiate an arms buildup, one that could reach fantastic proportions in the time frame of historical military crises. The buildup would be exponential, and traditional order-of-battle correlations would still apply, so it would seem that whoever initiated the buildup (assuming equal technologies) would have supremacy--not falling behind would be a security imperative. Finally, the strike time compression of massively proliferated and lightspeed weaponry would undermine mutual deterrence at the brink. These are the basic characteristics of the nanotechnic era that combine to make it militarily as different from the present as the present is from the pre-nuclear era. The difference is that no level of armament will be even metastable, not even complete disarmament.

Perhaps nuclear disarmament and major conventional disarmament will be achieved, but each proud, independent nation still retain its vestigial military--including one nano-supercomputer, busily planning rearmament and war. Then one day a dispute could arise, and quickly develop into an awesome, nuclear-powered, nanotechnic struggle for the control of territory and matter. Large-scale space development would not change the essence of this situation.

We cannot depend on the balance of terror to hold the peace, for even if there is ultimately no defense against nuclear weapons, especially not in space, there may still be temporary shelter in dispersal and/or underground. Deep tunnels and closed-cycle life support systems can provide a redoubt for entire populations, while their machines struggle for control of the open land, sea, air, and space and to penetrate the enemy's shelters.

Nano/nuclear war could be a drawn-out struggle, and the victor would have means to clean up the mess and to remake the world. Or so it might seem. But in practice, hot war would probably break out before anyone was ready for it. There would be no assurance of destruction to hold back the first strike; rather, there would be great pressure to preempt, since the outcome might be decided in the first few microseconds. One could not afford to concede land, sea, air and space without a fight, despite the inevitable vulnerability of predeployments in these environments. On the other hand, a well-prepared, long war of attrition, with decentralized and versatile assembler-based production, might kill everyone before one regime could neutralize all the others.

The challenge of the nuclear era has been to limit arms and to resolve disputes between armed sovereign states without recourse to war. The challenge of the nanotechnic era will be to abolish the armed sovereign state system altogether; otherwise military logic will always point toward fast rearmament and then to war. In the near term, the challenge will be to avoid star wars and a new Cold War. To governments, nanotechnology will suggest power, and power is dangerous in a divided and militarized world. For the world as a whole, nanotechnology will mean change, and even slow change has often been amplified by the world's complex and discontinuous system to produce violent results.

To prevent such results, our development of nanotechnology must be fully open, international, and accompanied by a rising worldwide awareness of its significance and earnest planning for swift, necessary, and unavoidable change in economic and security arrangements. Any leading force must include all potential nanotechnology powers, which does include the USSR--at least! And it must lead, not force. In answer to the question of the military uses of nanotechnology: it must never have any at all.

Mark Gubrud is a policy intern at the Federation of American Scientists. Your responses to his comments are welcome.

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Upcoming Events

Nanotechnology Keynote address, April 21 evening, American Humanist Assoc., LeBaron Hotel, San Jose, CA. Part of a weekend-long conference. Contact 408-251-3030.

Human Genome Project Conference, April 23-25, Alliance for Aging Research and AMA, J.W. Marriott Hotel, Washington, DC. Dinner lecture on nanotechnology on 24th. Contact 800-621-8335.

HyperExpo, June 27-29, Moscone Center, San Francisco. Trade show covering hypermedia and related topics. Contact American Expositions, 212-226-4141.

Second Conference on Molecular Electronics and Biocomputers, Sept. 11-18, Moscow, USSR, $150. Contact P.I. Lazarev, Institute of Biophysics of the Academy of Sciences of the USSR, Pushchino, Moscow Region, 142292, USSR.

First Foresight Conference on Nanotechnology, during October or November, 1989, Foresight Institute and Global Business Network, Palo Alto, CA. Small technical meeting; see writeup in this issue.

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Conference Planned

The Foresight Institute, in cooperation with the Global Business Network, is planning a small technical colloquium on nanotechnology, to be held in Palo Alto in fall 1989. This invitational meeting will help researchers in enabling technologies make contact and communicate their goals and concerns. Potential attendees will be asked to submit position papers describing their interests. Additional information will be announced as it becomes available.

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Biotech meets nanotech

by Chris Peterson

The goal of nanotechnology and the engineering approach needed to reach it are receiving increasing attention within the biotechnology community, particularly among protein designers. Drawn from a pure science background, these researchers are being pulled increasingly in the direction of designing and building new structures, a task for which creative engineering skills are needed.

This interest has shown up at two meetings: At the First Carolina Conference on Protein Engineering (held last October) the subject was raised by researcher Bruce Erickson of the University of North Carolina's chemistry department. As the chair of the session on Nongenetic Engineering, he led off with a reading from the book Engines of Creation and recommended it to the audience.

This January's American Association for the Advancement of Science conference in San Francisco, which included substantial coverage of protein engineering, featured a plenary lecture given by Frederic Richards of Yale's Department of Molecular Biophysics and Biochemistry. In it, he highlighted one paper in particular: the 1981 PNAS paper describing a path from protein engineering to control of the structure of matter [1].

While it is too soon to tell whether the protein path to nanotechnology will be the fastest, the goal is becoming clearer to researchers in that field.

  1. Drexler, K.E., Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 78:5275-5278, 1981.

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Nanotechnology at MIT

"Nanotechnology: Prospects for Molecular Engineering" was the title of a symposium held at MIT on January 11-12. Sponsored this year by both the MIT Nanotechnology Study Group (MIT NSG) and the Foresight Institute, a nanotechnology event has been held at MIT annually since 1986.

The introductory lecture was given by Eric Drexler, in which the technical foundations of the case for nanotechnology were laid out and basic designs described. Next, David Pritchard of MIT's Physics Department described his work on laser trapping and the use of optical standing waves to diffract beams of sodium atoms. In conversation after his talk, he noted that it is possible to use optical trapping to confine atoms to a space small compared to a wavelength of light, but that positioning is quite inaccurate on an atomic scale. This inaccuracy (with today's technology, at least) precludes "optical assemblers" for molecular structures.

Adam Bell of the Technical University of Nova Scotia described computer-aided design and its role in design for nanotechnology. He emphasized the usefulness of developing a uniform language for describing systems, and the need to develop new engineering methodologies in this new domain.

Ray Solomonoff of the MIT NSG spoke on "Managing Innovation" with particular emphasis on the prospects for managing nanotechnology as it arrives. His talk highlighted the practical parallels between self-replicating molecular machinery and self-improving artificial intelligence. He expects that the latter, in particular, is apt to bring an abrupt transition in knowledge, technology, and world affairs.

Jeff MacGillivray, also of MIT NSG, looked at the economics to be expected in a world with nanotechnology. He asked "what will be of value?" His answers included land, resources, and human services [see correction].

On the second day, several of the previous speakers were joined by Marvin Minsky (of the MIT Artificial Intelligence Lab and Media Lab) and Paul Saia (of Digital Equipment Corporation) in panel discussions of the technical basis of nanotechnology and the timeframe for its arrival and of the social impact and implications expected from nanotechnology.

The second day's events were capped off by a more informal meeting for those interested in further pursuing the issues raised.

MIT NSG and FI would like to thank the groups whose funding made the symposium possible: MIT's Departments of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, Materials Science and Engineering, Mechanical Engineering, and Physics; MIT's Alumni Association, IAP Funding Committee, and Media Laboratory; and the Digital Equipment Corporation.

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Once again there are too many people deserving thanks for all to be listed here, but the following is a representative group: Michael Schrage for pointing the Rockefeller Foundation in our direction, Peter C. Goldmark, Jr., for investigating nanotechnology for the Rockefeller Foundation, Ray and John Alden for continuing useful advice, Peter Schwartz and Stewart Brand of the Global Business Network for help with the planned technical conference, David Gagliano for looking into research funding sources, the Seattle NSG for putting on Nanocon, Time-Life Books for covering nanotechnology, and Ed Niehaus for public relations help. Others are mentioned throughout FI publications.

Foresight Update 5 - Table of Contents



The byline for the article entitled "The Road to Nanomachine Design" in Update #4 was accidentally omitted. It was written by Dr. Thomas Donaldson, as described at the end.

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From Foresight Update 5, originally published 1 March 1989.

Foresight thanks Dave Kilbridge for converting Update 5 to html for this web page.


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