Facing up to military nanotechnology

A new book by German physicist Jürgen Altmann of Dortmund University looks at Military Nanotechnology: Potential Applications and Preventive Arms Control (Routledge, 2006). Both near-term and long-term applications are examined. From the abstract:

NT applications will likely pervade all areas of the military…By using NT to miniaturise sensors, actuators and propulsion, autonomous systems (robots) could also become very small, principally down to below a millimetre – fully artificial or hybrid on the basis of e.g. insects or rats. Satellites and their launchers could become small and cheap, to be used in swarms for earth surveillance, or for anti-satellite attack. Whereas no marked change is expected concerning nuclear weapons, NT may lead to various new types of chemical and biological weapons that target specific organs or act selectively on a certain genetic or protein pattern. On the other hand, NT will allow cheap sensors for chemical or biological warfare agents as well as materials for decontamination. Most of these applications are ten or more years away.

The concept of “molecular NT” would be characterised by universal molecular assemblers, self-replicating nano-robots, super-human artificial intelligence. Applied for military purposes, fast exponential growth of armaments would become possible, with weapons on all size scales, acting against all kinds of targets, selectively or for mass destruction. In this still hypothetical scenario, even human control would be at risk…

As the leader in military NT R&D, the USA has a crucial role. Since the most dangerous military NT applications in the hands of opponent states or terrorists could threaten also the USA, preventive limits could be in its enlightened national interest.

In the long term, preventing misuse of NT and associated powerful technologies will require very intense inspection rights and criminal law, calling for strengthening civil-society elements in the international system.

Sounds right to me. I’ll be requesting a review copy so we can let you know more about this possibly important book.

Is this a topic that Foresight should more actively take on at this time? We will at some point: the question is when. Currently we have the Foresight Guidelines, and are working with the IRGC to bring the topic to greater prominence. Your views welcome. —Christine

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