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
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
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
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 violent results.
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. Contact 408-251-3030.
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
HyperExpo, June 27-29, Moscone Center, San
Francisco. Trade show covering hypermedia and related topics.
Contact American Expositions, 212-226-4141.
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, USSR.
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 are
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 Bruce
Erickson 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
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 field.
"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
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
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