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Nanotechnology and International Security

M.A. Gubrud*

University of Maryland

This is an abstract for a poster to be presented at the Fifth Foresight Conference on Molecular Nanotechnology.

Recent U.S. planning and policy documents foretell "how wars will be fought in the future," and warn of new or re-emergent "global peer competitors" in the 2005-2025 time frame. It is generally appreciated that this period will be characterized by rapid progress in many areas of technology. However, assembler-based nanotechnology and artificial general intelligence have implications far beyond the Pentagon's current vision of a "revolution in military affairs."

Whereas the perfection of nuclear explosives established a strategic stalemate, advanced molecular manufacturing based on self-replicating systems, or any military production system fully automated by advanced artificial intelligence, would lead to instability in a confrontation between rough equals. Rivals would feel pressured to preempt, if possible, in initiating a full-scale military buildup, and certainly not to be caught behind. As the rearmament reached high levels, close contact between forces at sea and in space would give an advantage to the first to strike.

The greatest danger coincides with the emergence of these powerful technologies: A quickening succession of "revolutions" may spark a new arms race involving a number of potential competitors. Older systems, including nuclear weapons, would become vulnerable to novel forms of attack or neutralization. Rapidly evolving, untested, secret, and even "virtual" arsenals would undermine confidence in the ability to retaliate or resist aggression. Warning and decision times would shrink. Covert infiltration of intelligence and sabotage devices would blur the distinction between confrontation and war. Overt deployment of ultramodern weapons, perhaps on a massive scale, would alarm technological laggards. Actual and perceived power balances would shift dramatically and abruptly. Accompanied by economic upheaval, general uncertainty and disputes over the future of major resources and of humanity itself, such a runaway crisis would likely erupt into large-scale rearmament and warfare well before another technological plateau was reached.

International regimes combining arms control, verification and transparency, collective security and limited military capabilities, can be proposed in order to maintain stability. However, these would require unprecedented levels of cooperation and restraint, and would be prone to collapse if nations persist in challenging each other with threats of force.

If we believe that assemblers are feasible, perhaps the most important implication is this: Ultimately, we will need an integrated international security system. For the present, failure to consider alternatives to unilateral "peace through strength" puts us on a course toward the next world war.

*Corresponding Address:
Mark A. Gubrud, University of Maryland Physics Dept. CSR, College Park, MD 20740, ph: 301-405-7581, fax: 301-314-9541, email:
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