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Nanotech arms race debated

Signal, the publication of the Armed Forces Communications and Electronics Association, has a Special Report on nanotechnology in their July issue, including: (1) Small Matters: Nanotechnology could lead to the next arms race; experts debate how to prepare, (2) a piece on the New Jersey Nanotechnology Consortium, and (3) a story on photo-activated porphyrin nanotubes. The two “experts” in the first piece are Lawrence Gasman of NanoMarkets (a Foresight Editorial Board member) and me. Most of the quotes sound right (if perhaps a bit too blunt), but I hope I didn’t say “What you’d want is something that has the destructive chemical action of a chemical weapon, which is really easy to do, combined with sensing and computation…” That’s what you don’t want, especially in the wrong hands, but seem likely to get anyway someday. An arms race is the U.S. public’s #2 concern about nanotechnology. –CP

11 Responses to “Nanotech arms race debated”

  1. jbash Says:

    OK, so, if “That’s what you don’t want”, and “An arms race is the U.S. public’s #2 concern about nanotechnology”, then why, assuming you did say it, did you say “This is not one we can afford to lose. This is one we absolutely have got to win, and we’ve got to get organized about it”. Sounds like a great way to encourage an arms race to me.

    You’re talking to people here who treat “[assuring] US security” (second paragraph) as their top priority. Most of them don’t even seem to think about why. This is a BENT MINDSET.

    The priorities are, or ought to be, preserving, enhancing, and liberating actual, thinking, feeling beings. The US itself is simply an administrative structure, not a god. It has NO INTRINSIC VALUE. It’s useful insofar as it advances the real goals… and dangerous insofar as it obstructs them. Nations are here to serve people, not the other way around.

    Encouraging the US military to try to “get ahead” seems likely to push it toward becoming part of the problem… a path it’s already probably inclined to take.

    This “my band first” thing that we inherited from the apes has GOT to be suppressed, at least as far as is possible. The stakes are too high. Wooden clubs don’t destroy species or biospheres. Nanotech may.

    Please don’t whip these people up, even if it looks like a quick way to get funding… and please think about whether you’d rather preserve the US, or preserve the potential inherent in beings of reason. Someday it may come down to a choice between the two.

  2. jbash Says:

    So, I seem to have gotten caught in a dangerous error there, myself…

    This isn’t necessarily about destroying species or biospheres. It may also be about nanotech-enabled tyrrany… a tyrrany that might be impossible to break for centuries. One of the big risks of the jingoistic country-oriented attitude is that people may decide that some country, or some arbitrary way of life, or some other totalizing fetish, has to be preserved at the cost of all else… and have the technology to force that on the rest of us.

  3. Christine Peterson Says:

    Useful points as always, Jbash.

    So here’s a question: what should be our message to the U.S. military?

    I grew up during the Vietnam War, suspicious of anyone in uniform. But my actual experiences in interacting with actual military-oriented people who are thinking about nanotechnology have been positive. They don’t seem to be focused on world domination, but on trying to avoid wars and promote peace and freedom.

    In any case: your and others’ thoughts on what our message should be would be most welcome –CP

  4. Novak Says:

    Usually, I only post to complain about something. I thought– just for novelty, mind you– that I’d take the time to stop and say I actually agree with most of the positions Christine espouses in the article. (Except for the scare tactic of claiming that China’s research and development budget is actually six times as high as it really is. Jeez, I hate that.)

    I work in the defense industry (not even remotely nanotech-related) for a number of reasons. But nowhere on that list of reasons is, “I want to have an arms race! That sounds coooool!” I’d really rather not ever have one again. But I am more than enough of a student of history– real history, written by real historians, not the slanted sound-bytes you’ll get from the politicians and the politically funded think-tanks– to realize that just because I don’t want something doesn’t mean I won’t get it. Declaring that we don’t want an arms race and then failing to pursue the obvious military applications of the technologies involved doesn’t avert an arms race. That’s just head in the sand crazy-talking, of the sort that assumes only the West (or even more specifically, only the United States) acts, and the rest of the world simply re-acts; that assumes that if we don’t make weapons of a type, no one else will make weapons of that sort. But that’s simply false on the face of it. The United States does not have an exclusive license on military innovation, as the history of the 20th century should make abundantly clear.

    If we need a message for the military– and by extension, the supporting defense industry– let’s start with something along these lines: “It’s a dangerous world, but you already knew that. Dramatically new opportunities will open up, and amazing new force multipliers will be developed in the next ten to fifty years, many of them associated with nanotechnology. Do not ignore it. But do not pursue it blindly. Pursue it doggedly, with foresight, with wisdom, with failsafes, and respect for our past. Pursue it with one eye on the dangerous future of warfare; and one eye on the past of Western tradition which has kept the military from dominating our government thus far and emphasized layers and layers of failsafes around the most dangerous weapon systems. Don’t fuck this up. It’s important.”

    (And note, my entire little spiel can be changed into a talk about the weaponization of space with just a one word modification.)

    And also, Christine doesn’t have to “whip these people up.”

    “These people,” are, in my experience, profoundly not-stupid and are looking in this direction already.

  5. Kevin McCarrell Says:

    I missed the press release from a year ago about the public perception study done by Cobb and Macoubrie at NC State when it first came out. However, I am extremely tired of people twisting the results of this study to meet their needs. CRN tried to cite it as a proof that “the public wants and expects intensive studies of molecular manufacturing.” (

    Now it seems that Foresight has used the study to pat itself on the back, trying to implicate that the public has a great understanding of nanotechnology due to Foresight’s efforts. Did anybody read this study?! It specifically stated that 80% of Americans had heard “little to nothing” about nanotechnology. The American public does not have a clear understanding of the benefits and risks of nanotechnology, and the statement that an arms race is the public’s #2 concern of nano is completely worthless. There were only four other choices in the survey besides an arms race, and the wording of the questions leaves me rather unsurprised at the results.

  6. Christine Peterson Says:

    In response to Kevin: given the U.S. public’s level of science understanding and interest, it’s not surprising that 80% have heard little to nothing about nanotechnology. We may need to be realistic about how high the level of interest can go, or even needs to go. Perhaps you’re right that our wording was too strong, but I am still impressed by the results of the survey we were commenting on. Those results were more sensible than I might have expected, or even hoped for. In any case, thanks for commenting.–CP

  7. andrew szczesny Says:

    hello to all, ever since i heard about NANO anything, ive been researching and understanding whats its all about, it was only a matter of time to see it used/abused in a very dangerous area “the military”…..this scares the hell out of me im still a college student and last semester i had a chance to write a paper on Nanotech well to make a long story short i had to give a presention in front of my class and only one person in my entire class had any clue what i was talking about, this is the scary thing about anything Nano the general public has no clue what it is/ what it involes…this new technology with out proper understanding has the potental to be a disaster, this technology in an arms race could be the beinging of the end

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