Security implications of nanotechnology

Though we do not always agree with Gregor Wolbring, his column on nanotech and the military reminds us of a very difficult potential problem:

The start of a nano arms race, and the lack of willingness to regulate potential synthetic biology through the modification of existing treaties or the application of existing treaties or the development of new regulations is short sighted.

Nano or synthetic biology weapons will diffuse into hands other than the inventor and first user, and it is easier to reverse engineer nano or synthetic biology military products than to make a nuclear weapon. Once they exist they can be copied, and diffusion of the resulting products will make local and global security nearly impossible. Security would come with a hefty price tag — not just in financial terms, but in changes to societal interactions.

This is indeed the big challenge in nanotech safety—not the nanoparticle toxicity question being widely debated today. One of Gregor’s links was particularly interesting: a report on The Security Implications of Nanotechnology from a committee of the NATO Parliamentary Assembly. Some excerpts:

The potential for NT innovations in chemical and biological weapons is particularly disquieting, as NT can considerably enhance the delivery mechanisms of agents or toxic substances…On the other hand, NT offers tools to effectively and profoundly strengthen homeland security policies, aimed at fighting the proliferation of biological and chemical weapons…The effects of NT on military strategies, as well as possible implications for existing international arms control agreements, receive insufficient attention from contemporary thinkers…

…NT will permit chemical and biological warfare to become more feasible and effective. Even though this kind of warfare is considered immoral and prohibited by international conventions, NT will provide qualitatively new improvements that are likely to attract the attention of an imprudent military, or terrorist groups. At this stage, it is unclear whether the countermeasures enabled by NT would prove effective enough to diminish this threat.

On the arms control conventions for chemical and biological warfare, a positive point is made regarding enforcement using nanotech:

Your Rapporteur believes that NT will provide the means (i.e. nano-enabled verification tools, such as nanoscale sensors) to reinforce these conventions.

From the conclusions:

Additional lengthy and scrupulous studies of military NT are urgently needed. The prospects of molecular NT should be assessed with particular attention, as this is the most controversial aspect of NT and would present extremely grave consequences if its feasibility is confirmed.

We certainly agree that the prospects of molecular nanotechnology should be assessed with particular attention. But let’s do it as calmly as possible, as suggested in the final conclusion:

When it comes to making political decisions, policy makers should be impartial and weigh the arguments of both supporters and opponents of NT. While some enthusiasts tend to overemphasize the magnitude of NT, seeking additional funding, sceptics might be too cautious and thus obstruct the development of NT, regardless of its benefits to society. The issue, therefore, is to be considered in a balanced and cool-headed manner.

Quite so. It’s a tough challenge. —Christine

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