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Foresight Update 6 (page 2)

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Table of Contents - Foresight Update 6

Military Implications of Nanotechnology

Opinion by Scott Pace

In our last issue Mark Gubrud of the Federation of American Scientists started off what we plan to be a long-term debate on potential military uses of nanotechnology. Here Scott Pace of RAND presents another view; it is written from the U.S. perspective, but his points generalize to other nations using nanotechnology.

The Foresight Institute has raised awareness of the many potential social, economic, and political impacts of nanotechnology. The potential military significance of nanotechnology has not yet been examined to comparable depths. The purpose of this article is to raise questions for further discussion of the military and arms control implications of nanotechnology, rather than to offer any definitive answers.

Military capability is but one element of national power addressed by U.S. national security strategy. Other elements are international political influence, economic strength, and national well-being. U.S. national security strategy reflects national interests and consists of a broad plan for achieving objectives supporting those interests. Among the most important objectives are to:
"maintain the security of our nation and our allies. The United States, in cooperation with its allies, must seek to deter any aggression that could threaten that security and, should deterrence fail, must be prepared to repel or defeat any military attack and end the conflict on terms favorable to the United States, its interests, and its allies."[1]
Military analysts distinguish between confrontations at peacetime or crisis levels, low-intensity (e.g., guerrilla) warfare, conventional theater war (e.g., the 1967 Arab-Israeli War), theater nuclear war (e.g., use of tactical nuclear weapons in Europe), and strategic nuclear war (e.g., a massive U.S./Soviet nuclear exchange). The United States has a policy of "flexible response" to potential threats across this spectrum of conflict. Different military responses are thus deemed appropriate at different levels of conflict.

How might nanotechnology contribute to U.S. military power at these different levels of conflict? In peacetime or crisis, nanocomputers may allow more capable surveillance of potential aggressors. The flood of data from worldwide sensors could be culled more efficiently to look for truly threatening activities. In low-intensity warfare, intelligent sensors and barrier systems could isolate or channel guerrilla movements depending on the local terrain. In conventional theater war, nanotechnology may lead to small, cheap, highly lethal anti-tank weapons. Such weapons could allow relatively small numbers of infantry to defeat assaults by large armored forces.

At nuclear conflict levels, accurate nanocomputer guidance and low nanomachine production costs would accelerate current trends in the proliferation of "smart munitions." Rather than requiring nuclear weapons to attack massive conventional forces or distant, hard targets, nanotechnology enhancements to cruise missiles and ballistic missiles could allow them to destroy their targets with conventional explosives. Conventional explosives themselves might be replaced by molecular disassemblers that would be rapidly effective, but with less unintended destruction to surrounding buildings and populations. President Reagan's goal of making nuclear weapons "impotent and obsolete" could be reached not by space-based defenses, but by terrestrial nanoweapons making nuclear weapons irrelevant.

These potential military applications would allow the United States a greater range of options in deciding how to respond to aggression. Nanoweapons could lower the cost of meeting aggression (in both dollars and lives) in tactical applications while preserving strategic deterrence without nuclear weapons. Strategic deterrence today is not limited to deterring nuclear attacks on the U.S. homeland, but on preventing political coercion of the U.S. and its allies. Should our allies be threatened by a third country, the U.S. could either respond directly with its own forces or provide support to our allies, including nanotechnology weapons, to preserve their security. Nanoweapons could deter war either by threatening unacceptable damage to an aggressor, as with today's strategic nuclear weapons, or by denying any plausible achievement of an aggressor's objectives, as is the potential with space-based missile defenses.

How might nanotechnology affect the future
of nuclear and conventional arms control?

How might nanotechnology affect the future of nuclear and conventional arms control? Arms control has traditionally focused on three objectives in support of U.S. national interests. The first is to lower the possibility of war. The second is to lower damage caused should war occur. The third is to lower the burden of armaments on society. Nanoweapons may provide new temptations to aggression should one nation or group of nations achieve a great enough technical lead in the field. In achieving the first objective of arms control, the U.S. may seek to either limit knowledge of nanotechnologies (as is done with nuclear weapons) or seek to disseminate knowledge widely to allow development of countermeasures to potential nanoweapons.

In terms of limiting damage should deterrence fail, nanotechnology may allow great increases in target discrimination so that noncombatant casualties and damage are minimized. Conversely, nanotechnology could be used to create weapons of mass destruction, such as chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons. The first nanoweapons of certain classes will raise interesting questions under the international law of armed conflict and treaties proscribing biological weapons and environmental modification techniques.

As for lowering the economic burden of armaments on society, nanomachines may lower the cost of producing weapons and their supporting command and control systems. The United States may choose to use this new economic productivity to create more capable forces, rechannel defense expenditures to other needs, or lower taxes. Perhaps all three outcomes will occur.

U.S. air, naval, and ground forces all have distinct roles and missions to perform that are not likely to disappear with changes in technology, although some of the changes may be dramatic as when the Army's cavalry gave way to the tank. Nanotechnology does not allow one to violate the laws of physics; visible light sensors built with nanomachines will still not be able to see through walls. The most lethal nanoweapon is not very useful if it cannot find or reach its target. A U.S. armed with nanoweapons may be able to deter or prevent attack on its homeland, but it will continue to have obligations to allies who may ask for help. Discussions of military applications of nanotechnology will likely be most productive if grounded in realistic appraisals of nanotechnology limits, actual military needs, and continuing U.S. national interests.


  1. The White House, National Security Strategy of the United States, Washington, D.C., January 1988, p.3.
Scott Pace is a graduate student in policy analysis at the RAND Graduate School, Santa Monica, CA.

Table of Contents - Foresight Update 6

Online Flourishing

FI was recently informed that USENET estimates about 5000 people read (at least occasionally) the nanotechnology discussion on that system. This is a Netnews group called sci.nanotech, one of the many USENET newsgroups which form a large, distributed, hierarchical electronic bulletin board. Formerly available only to those with UNIX machines, it is now accessible to anyone through services such as the WELL at 415-332-4335 (voice) and Portal at 408-725-0561 (voice).

In cooperation with FI, sci.nanotech carries most FI publications. The moderator is Josh Hall ( or rutgers!!josh), who can answer specific questions about the group by electronic mail.

[Note: JoSH's current email address is He maintains an archive of nanotechnology papers and related material at ]

Table of Contents - Foresight Update 6

Hypermedia Journal

A new journal, Hypermedia, has been announced. Excerpts from the announcement follow:
"Hypermedia is a new international journal designed to provide a focus for research and a source of information on the practical and theoretical developments in hypermedia, hypertext, and related technologies.

"The journal Hypermedia will cover the following key themes: the conceptual basis of hypertext systems; cognitive aspects; design strategies; knowledge representation; link dynamics; authoring; navigation and browsing; testing and evaluation; user interfaces; tools for hypermedia; hypertext and expert systems; applications in education and training, information management, publishing, business, commerce, the professions, and public administration.

"Vannevar Bush's vision of a device to complement man's intellect by aping the associative powers of the human mind finds practical expression in the current surge of interest in hypermedia systems. It is intended that this new journal will play a central role in supporting and reporting on the significant developments in this important area of information technology."
The announcement stated that publication would begin with the Spring 89 issue, with three issues planned per year, for $85. For more information or a free inspection copy contact Taylor Graham Publishing, 500 Chesham House, 150 Regent Street, London W1R 5FA, U.K. (Note: new publications don't always succeed; the last hypermedia magazine mentioned here ceased publishing after a few months. Caveat emptor.)

Table of Contents - Foresight Update 6

Journals to Watch

Readers interested in keeping up with enabling technologies leading toward nanotechnology will want to watch for these relatively new journals at technical libraries:

Protein Engineering, IRL Press, 8/year, $85 individual (U.S).

Those who follow Russ Mills's technical column have seen this mentioned. Its focus is the exploration of protein structure and function through analysis of the properties of modified proteins. High editorial standards have kept the early issues thin but well worth reading.

Journal of Computer-Aided Molecular Design, ESCOM, 4/year, $190.

Described in Nature as "essential reading for anyone interested in molecular modeling and molecular design," a main goal of this journal is to be a forum for multidisciplinary communication in molecular design, emcompassing computer science, chemistry, biology, and structure-activity relationships. Quality in the first year was high and papers dealt with a broad range of topics, with a strong emphasis on design. ASCII files of the actual coordinates of modeling results are made available on IBM and Mac disks, which enable the 'readers' to view the figures on their own computers, giving a three-dimensional effect.

Table of Contents - Foresight Update 6

Agoric Software Advances

by Chris Peterson

In our last issue we announced the availability of The Ecology of Computation (ed. B. Huberman, Elsevier, 1988, paperback, $39.50), which includes three papers by Mark S. Miller (formerly at Xerox PARC, now at Xanadu) and K. Eric Drexler (Stanford) on using market mechanisms to organize computational systems, an approach which may lead to the evolution of more adaptable and intelligent software: (For information on obtaining reprints, see the end of this article.)

In independent work, Donald Ferguson--now at IBM Yorktown--has completed a 1989 Ph.D. thesis at Columbia entitled "The Application of Microeconomics to the Design of Resource Allocation and Control Algorithms." Here he describes his work on market-based distributed resource allocation algorithms, which were shown to outperform known-to-be-good noneconomic algorithms for those purposes. Dr. Ferguson encountered the Miller and Drexler papers toward the end of work on his thesis, and cites them as providing "a very compelling motivation for work in this area [i.e. on how the field of economics can contribute to computer science]."

Work has continued at Xerox PARC in this area. A Master's thesis by Carl Waldspurger of MIT, involving work done in collaboration with PARC researchers, presents experimental results on processor allocation derived from an algorithm having fundamental similarities to that proposed by Drexler and Miller. These results support key predictions made in "Incentive Engineering." This new work is being prepared for publication, with additional coauthors at Xerox PARC (T. Hogg, B. Huberman, J. Kephart, S. Stornetta), for the Communications of the ACM and perhaps other journals. It has also been covered in news items in Science, The Economist (a British newsweekly), and the New York Times.

The three papers have also drawn the attention of Professor Don Lavoie of the Center for the Study of Market Processes at George Mason University in Fairfax, VA. As one of the first professional economists to pick up on these ideas, he read the papers with "enormous interest and excitement" and plans to encourage his graduate students to pursue the ideas further. (Lavoie's undergraduate degree in computer science helps explain his alertness to this interdisciplinary work.)

[Note: For a follow-up on Prof. Lavoie's interest in agoric computing, see article in Update 8.]

Industry also has shown interest in agoric systems; on April 4 Eric Drexler spoke on the topic at Hewlett-Packard.

Mark S. Miller has generously agreed to donate 40 sets of the three papers to the Foresight Institute for distribution to computer scientists and economists who request them. Requests should be accompanied by a stamped, self-addressed 9 by 12 inch envelope with $2.05 in postage. (From outside the U.S., send a self-addressed envelope with airmail postage in the form of either a bank check showing a U.S. address or an international money order, made out to the Foresight Institute; $4.22 for delivery to Europe, $5.55 for delivery to Asia.)

Table of Contents - Foresight Update 6

Hypertext Multievent

The Italian Multievent on Hypertext will take place on September 19-21, 1989, consisting of Advanced Tutorials and an Advanced Workshop (Sept. 19-20) and a Conference with accompanying Exhibition (Sept. 21-22). Sponsored by Eurogroup Marcopolo, A.R.G., and Synergia, the event expects the following speakers: Robert Akscyn of Knowledge Systems, Mark Bernstein of Eastgate Systems, M.C. Borelli of A.R.G., B. Croft of University of Massachusetts, G. Degli Antoni of Universita di Milano, M. Frisse of Washington University, P.K. Garg of Hewlett-Packard Labs, F. Garzotto of Politecnico di Milano, S. Gibbs of University of Geneva, Robin Hanson of NASA Ames, M. Holm of Apple Computer, Kirk Kelley of Sun Microsystems, Norman Meyrowitz of Brown University, Ted Nelson of Autodesk and Project Xanadu, Paolo Paolini of Politecnico di Milano, F. Rabitti of I.E.I.-C.N.R., R. Schwartz of Borland International, C. Thanos of I.E.I.-C.N.R.

Over 200 people are expected to attend the Conference, at which "a set of very advanced lectures of leading researchers and practitioners will present the state of the art of the field. A balanced view between technology and applications will be provided."

The Workshop will have restricted attendance and will produce a set of position papers. "The basic goal would be to compare research activities in Europe with research activities in U.S.A., focusing on possibilities of joint projects.

"Within the global framework, specific technical issues can be developed, according with the interests of the participants.

"One example: is it true that in Europe researchers tend to think (and to make use) of Hypertext products as Knowledge Management tools, while in North America emphasis is placed on cooperative development of documents?"

For further information, see the Calendar listing.

Table of Contents - Foresight Update 6

Foresight thanks Dave Kilbridge for converting Update 6 to html for this web page.

From Foresight Update 6, originally published 1 August 1989.
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