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