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Facing up to military nanotechnology

A new book by German physicist Jürgen Altmann of Dortmund University looks at Military Nanotechnology: Potential Applications and Preventive Arms Control (Routledge, 2006). Both near-term and long-term applications are examined. From the abstract:

NT applications will likely pervade all areas of the military…By using NT to miniaturise sensors, actuators and propulsion, autonomous systems (robots) could also become very small, principally down to below a millimetre – fully artificial or hybrid on the basis of e.g. insects or rats. Satellites and their launchers could become small and cheap, to be used in swarms for earth surveillance, or for anti-satellite attack. Whereas no marked change is expected concerning nuclear weapons, NT may lead to various new types of chemical and biological weapons that target specific organs or act selectively on a certain genetic or protein pattern. On the other hand, NT will allow cheap sensors for chemical or biological warfare agents as well as materials for decontamination. Most of these applications are ten or more years away.

The concept of “molecular NT” would be characterised by universal molecular assemblers, self-replicating nano-robots, super-human artificial intelligence. Applied for military purposes, fast exponential growth of armaments would become possible, with weapons on all size scales, acting against all kinds of targets, selectively or for mass destruction. In this still hypothetical scenario, even human control would be at risk…

As the leader in military NT R&D, the USA has a crucial role. Since the most dangerous military NT applications in the hands of opponent states or terrorists could threaten also the USA, preventive limits could be in its enlightened national interest.

In the long term, preventing misuse of NT and associated powerful technologies will require very intense inspection rights and criminal law, calling for strengthening civil-society elements in the international system.

Sounds right to me. I’ll be requesting a review copy so we can let you know more about this possibly important book.

Is this a topic that Foresight should more actively take on at this time? We will at some point: the question is when. Currently we have the Foresight Guidelines, and are working with the IRGC to bring the topic to greater prominence. Your views welcome. —Christine

12 Responses to “Facing up to military nanotechnology”

  1. Anonymous Says:

    it will be nice to have nano things for the military. dont u think so?

  2. Kyle Haviland Says:

    The problem with weaponised nanotechnology is that at some point the individual will have the ability to assemble and deploy it. At this point the only good offense is a good defense. There has to be some type of equilibrium between all groups with nanotechnology. From my point of view the best equilibrium that could be developed is a focus on the defensive applications of nanotechnology. The ability to rebuild cells and defend the body against foreign threats is the most crucial function of this science. The sooner the defensive applications are realized the sooner the weaponised threats of nanotechnology will can be overshadowed and forgotten.

  3. Jamie Henderson Says:

    Utopian sentiment Kyle, unfortunately. The same could be said of nuclear weapons, but, despite witnessing their destructive capability, they have simply been refined, the world over, Nanotechnology has the most terrific and terrifying potential for the future; as you state, the ability to heal (and possibly augment) the body, but also the capacity to attack on a cellular, molecular, even genetic level. Imagine the availability of such weapons to e.g. a vehmently apartheid state?
    So much promise, yet so much to be held in check.

  4. C.F. Says:

    There is an important, humanitarian challenge for nanotechnology that has not been published by The Foresight Institute, in ‘Nanotechnology Challenges’. That challenge is preventing civilian, or maybe even human, casualties of war.

    In all forms of war, be it the use of weapons, economic constraint, denial of essential resources, forced human displacement, etc., there is potential for innocent civilian/human casualties. Indeed, this product is too rarely avoided and often sought.

    The use of new technology for weapons is naturally contentious; however it is surely beyond contention that preventing civilian/human casualties of war is a worthwhile humanitarian goal that is consistent with the mission of The Foresight Institute.

    How then to meet such a challenge? It seems to me that the most effective method, besides preventing every form of conflict forever (which is probably impossible, arguably undesirable, and definitely beyond the scope of nanotechnology), would be to develop weapons and defence systems that reduce the risk to civilians/humans while remaining, albeit regrettably, effective instruments of war.

    So “Cry havoc! and let loose the…” soft, cuddly bunny rabbits of war? Not really… but extremely smart, covert bunnies maybe.

  5. Christine Peterson Says:

    Very interesting point, C.F. I expect this idea will be debated a great deal in the decades to come.

  6. Kyle Haviland Says:

    I think regulating the type of weaponry created and deployed by groups researching nanotechnology is just as impossible as preventing conflict. Researchers will stumble onto new techniques to exploit this science with every passing year. As I understand this is why the field is progressing so slowly as is. There has always been a major fear that an accident could happen that would turn us all into grey goo.

  7. John DeCicco Says:

    Good thought, Chris, but we now live in a different world. No longer do armies line up in the fields and mow each other down. I do agree that “…it is surely beyond contention that preventing civilian/human casualties of war is a worthwhile humanitarian goal.” The problem arises that not all share the same view, and not all states “play” by the same rules. It is some society’s aim, as we know, to maximize civilian and human casualties. What to do?


  8. Jason Grimes Says:

    I think that knowledge is our best bet in preventing some sort of nanotechnological catastrophy. This is why I’m hoping that we do not put to many hasty limits on the development of nanotechnology. The first thing we would need to worry about is the detection of a threat. If we have not fully explored as much of the various aspects of nanotechnology as we can, a threat could slip through without our knowledge. Next we would need to develope an answer for the threat. Again, if we don’t fully understand everything we can about nanotechnology it is going to be that much more difficult to develope responces to the threat. I’m not saying that we don’t have any controls of the development, just that we put in these controls prudently. The bad guys creating the threat will not be putting any of the same kind of controls in their research. As long as we try and stay on top of the knowledge curve as best we can, the better off we will be I think.


  9. Lucaria Chavez Says:

    I work for a National Laboratory and one of my staff would like a copy of the new book by German physicist Jürgen Altmann of Dortmund University, “Military Nanotechnology: Potential Applications and Preventive Arms Control (Routledge, 2006). If it has not been released, he’s asked that I request a review copy if possible. Can you direct me to who I should contact to get this book? Thank you for your help.

    Lucaria Chavez
    Sandia National Laboratories
    Albuquerque, NM

  10. C.F. Says:

    John and Christine – thank you for picking up on those points.

    John, I think you’re right, that some societies may be faced with aggressors whose aim it is “…to maximize civilian and human casualties”. I guess it is a question of morals and politics, concerning how said societies form their policies towards this kind of aggression, and this forms a new debate.

    However, it brings us to the point that society would do well to equip itself against a broad range of conflict, from trivial to apocalyptic, and all possible forms of attack. I think you and Jason are expressing this point in a similar way, right?

    It is my hope and objective that those governments in control of new and powerful technology equip their militarily in ways that meet the kinds of humanitarian missions described by the Foresight Institute with the addition of the challenge that I mentioned previously.

    With the right weapons and defences, one hopes that conflict is settled primarily through diplomacy, but when military action is needed, that:
    a) all form of aggression and conflict can be met and neutralised thoroughly and appropriately
    b) conflict is resolved without loss of life
    c) less damage is inflicted by wayward foreign policy during times when governments act carelessly
    d) foreign nations are given less cause for further or renewed aggression.

    So what to do? In my opinion, it is paramount that military research using NT be conducted urgently and carefully, that military and foreign policies be coupled to guide that research, that those policies recognise and encourage the possibility that we may build positive, lasting relationships between nations, and that we may forget why we ever needed weapons in the first place.

  11. Ben Tippmann Says:

    Excellent article I think it’s really difficult to say how much role ultimately something like nano technology can or can’t do for military operations but the idea is definitely interesting.

  12. Arileo Says:

    The use of new technology for weapons is naturally contentious; however it is surely beyond contention that preventing civilian/human casualties of war is a worthwhile humanitarian goal that is consistent with the mission of The Foresight Institute.

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