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Foresight Nanotech Update 58

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A publication of the Foresight Nanotech Institute

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Military Nanotechnology: Potential applications and preventive arms control

by Jürgen Altmann

(Routledge, 2006. Paperback, 238 + xvi pages)

Book Review by James Lewis, PhD

Jürgen Altmann holds a PhD in physics, has been studying disarmament-related issues since 1985, and has been actively investigating nanotechnology since 2002. The goal of Military Nanotechnology: Potential applications and preventive arms control "is to do a first assessment of the implications that NT weapons and other military NT systems could entail, and to present first considerations on preventive limitations." This goal is decisively achieved. Altmann uses the term NT to cover the wide range of (mostly short-term and medium-term) research and development activities that are currently the focus of major government funding initiatives (such as the US National Nanotechnology Initiative) and commercial development. For the vision of long-term advanced nanotechnology first elaborated by K. Eric Drexler and Foresight during the 1980s he uses the term MNT (for molecular NT). This book addresses the military implications of both NT and MNT, but with most emphasis on NT.

Military Nanotechnology is the fruit of a thorough scholarly effort, supplemented by abundant notes and bibliographic references. The notes and references do not extend past 2004. Accordingly, Altmann's characterization of MNT as having to do with "universal molecular assemblers" and "self-replicating nano-robots" does not reflect the consensus developed within the MNT community during 2003 to de-emphasize self-replicating nanomachines in favor of desktop nanofactories, culminating in the 2004 publication by Chris Phoenix and Eric Drexler of "Safe exponential manufacturing" (Nanotechnology 15 869-872)

Altmann's introduction includes a concise (12 pages) but thorough summary of previous writing on the potential military use of nanotechnology—from Engines of Creation in 1986 through two 2002 articles in the journal Disarmament Diplomacy. Chapter 2 is an overview of nanotechnology (through 2003) that manages to be simultaneously concise, comprehensive, easy to follow for someone with modest technical background, and of sufficient depth to enable understanding the key ideas. The coverage of MNT includes distinct but associated futuristic concepts, including super-human artificial intelligence, eradication of disease and aging, and merging of humans and robots. The approach that Altmann takes toward MNT "is guided by the precautionary principle: those concepts that do not obviously run counter to the laws of nature will be taken seriously as principal possibilities." Altmann's overview also includes the visionary concepts associated with the convergence of nano-, bio-, information, and cognitive sciences and technology (see Update 49 article) championed by the US National Science Foundation and Dept. of Commerce.

Military R&D efforts in NT are the topic of chapter 3. US DoD efforts are covered in considerable detail, illustrating the immense depth and breath of current US military NT. Several tables list the titles of numerous specific projects. The military NT R&D efforts of other countries are sketched very briefly, either because they are much smaller than the US effort, or much less open, or both. Altmann estimates that US investment in military NT R&D currently (2003) exceeds that of the rest of the world combined by a factor of 4 to 10. However, several nations, particularly China and Russia, have the capacity to rapidly develop military NT R&D applications. Altmann identifies factors that could enhance mutual suspicion and thus, in the absence of international constraints, lead to an NT arms race.

Potential military applications of nanotechnology (both NT and MNT) are described in chapter 4. Numerous specific NT applications (including devices for computation and communication, software and artificial intelligence, nanostructured materials for vehicles and improved armor, autonomous combat vehicles, sensors, incremental improvements in conventional weapons, etc.) are identified in time frames ranging from 5 to 20 years.

Altmann's consideration of the potential military uses of MNT draws on Mark Gubrud's work, presented at the 1997 Fifth Foresight Conference on Molecular Nanotechnology. First of all, a mature molecular manufacturing base, perhaps including advanced artificial intelligence systems for engineering design, would provide for rapid, inexpensive stockpiling of the highest quality conventional weapons. Further, the potential for self-replicating weapons and for full automation of weapons production and deployment by artificial intelligence adds qualitatively new dimensions to warfare. Swarms of microscopic vehicles could attack infrastructure and weapons. Such machines could certainly also attack human beings, either with extreme precision or as non-specific weapons of mass destruction. The production of nuclear weapons would be greatly facilitated. Perhaps the most troubling danger is strategic instability caused by arms races, weakening conventional deterrence, and enhancing first strike advantage.

The remainder of the book focuses on preventive arms control, beginning with the precedents provided by conventional arms control treaties, and by limitations on civilian R&D for the sake of health, safety, environmental, and ethical considerations. Altmann's philosophy on regulation derives from the "precautionary principle", which maintains that "limits should not have to wait for full indisputable evidence, but should already be applied if there are reasonable grounds for concerns about potential dangers to environmental, human, animal or plant health". Altmann also points out that "in general adequately verified arms limitations are much cheaper than military preparations for mutual armed conflict." Ideally regulations and verification would prohibit dangerous military applications but not impede useful applications. Reasons why this distinction might be difficult to make in practice are surveyed.

Applying these general considerations to NT and MNT, Altmann is particularly concerned about the development by the military of distributed sensors for use on the battlefield. Specifically he advocates complete bans on self-contained sensor systems smaller than 3 to 5 cm, small arms and munitions that contain no metal, and missiles smaller than 20 to 50 cm. Likely to arouse objections is Altmann's "demand for a moratorium on implants and other body manipulations that are not directly medically motivated." This moratorium would include civilian as well as military use and would last at least 10 years. Altmann also wants to prohibit "armed, mobile, systems without crew", which would prohibit not only military robots but the current US Predator drone Hellfire missile combination. Both military and civilian use of mini- and micro-robots would also be banned. For MNT Altmann advocates first determining feasibility and time frames, and then studying appropriate limits and verification means for both civilian and military applications.

In his conclusion, Altmann offers the hope that the rapid advance of technology, especially NT and MNT, may lead nations to conclude that "security can no longer be reliably ensured by national armed forces," and this realization would be a catalyst for strengthening international institutions and international law.

Military Nanotechnology provides an excellent beginning to addressing a very difficult problem—avoiding a nanotechnology arms race. However, it is likely that much more work remains to be done before the outline of a workable solution becomes visible. Because nanotechnology is deeply anchored in molecular technology essential to the civilian economy and has many far-reaching implications, it is not clear to what extent military applications can be limited without unacceptable restrictions on core technologies. Altmann makes reasonable proposals for how to draw this line with respect to NT, but does not address this crucial issue with respecct to MNT.

As one example Altmann explicitly rejects the position taken in the Foresight Guidelines on Molecular Nanotechnology [he references version 3.7 (June 2000); current version (April 2006)] that "While a 100% effective ban [of core MNT technologies] could, in theory, avoid the potential risks of certain forms of molecular nanotechnology, a 99.99% effective ban could result in development and deployment by the 0.01% that evaded and ignored the ban." Altmann labels this approach "clearly flawed" (p. 11). His reasons for this judgment make sense with respect to military applications of MNT but do not address the fact that the Foresight Guidelines concern the core MNT technologies that are already aggressively being developed in thousands of laboratories in dozens of nations.

Perhaps the most debatable aspect of Altmann's analysis is his dismissal of effective nanotechnology-enabled countermeasures to nanotechnology-enabled threats. Compare his conclusion with the argument advanced by J. Storrs Hall in Nanofuture that open development by mainstream populations will provide defenses against nanotechnology-based threats (see "Anticipating advanced nanotechnology" in this issue).

For an initial discussion of the issues raised by Military Nanotechnology, see the Nanodot post "Facing up to military nanotechnology".

Table of Contents

Waitt Institute for Scientific Breakthroughs

Foresight at the 10th Annual NSTI Nanotech Conference and Trade Show

Foresight Nanotech Institute represented by Miguel Aznar and Alicia Isaac

At the 10th Annual NSTI Nanotech Conference and Trade Show, May 20-25, 2007, Santa Clara, California, Foresight's Director of Education Miguel Aznar presented a poster Wednesday afternoon: "How do we, as a society, guide the development of nanotechnology?"

Miguel Aznar with his poster at 10th annual NSTI Nanotech conference

At the Nanotech Showcase on Wednesday evening, Miguel joined Alicia Isaac (below) in staffing the Foresight booth.

Alicia Isaac at Foresight booth at 10th annual NSTI Nanotech conference


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Foresight Nanotech Update 58 Spring 2007