security, prosperity, and world peace—from the
time of the American Revolution to the present, humankind has made remarkable
strides toward these ideals.
Today, more people live in freedom than at any time in history. Although
poverty is still a serious worldwide problem, more people are healthier and
better fed than ever before. And despite regional wars and terrorist attacks
(which have beset civilization for centuries), we have managed to avoid destroying
ourselves with full-scale thermonuclear war.
But looming just over the horizon is a grave threat. It is nanotechnology.
From the dawn of the nuclear age until the present day, we have relied on
two mechanisms to protect us from World War III: the doctrine of Mutually
Assured Destruction (MAD), and the growing interdependence of nations.
However, in the very near future we may not be able to count on these controls.
The tenuous balance of MAD and the worldwide network of commercial trade
are both threatened by the rise of advanced nanotechnology.
Fortunately, there are
things we can do now before it’s too late.
We need to seek solutions that could prevent a buildup to devastating war.
Let’s begin by
examining the problems in greater detail.
Imagine a world in which every society has the ability to achieve self-sufficiency,
making use of local materials to manufacture valuable products when and where
they are needed. Imagine that the United States and other leading industrial
nations have ample access to clean, low-cost, sustainable energy sources
and no longer rely on expensive imported oil. In such a scenario, will vanishing
trade imbalances and reduced competition lead to peace and stability?
In today’s world, even though each nation is politically independent,
they all rely to some degree on other nations for trade or security, or both.
No nation—at least no nation of even minimal significance—exists
free from this interdependence. But a proposed new form of manufacturing
making use of massively parallel, automated molecular machine systems (molecular
manufacturing), made possible by advanced nanotechnology, has the potential
to change all that.
By building “from the bottom up,” with
every molecule in a desired position, huge increases in material strength,
durability, and flexibility can be attained. Rapid prototyping, enabled
by portable manufacturing appliances that produce their own weight in high-quality
output every day, will revolutionize design and unleash innovation.
Better built, longer
lasting, cleaner, safer, and smarter products for the home, for communications,
for medicine, for transportation, and for industry—all
of that is just the beginning. Add in widely available, inexpensive, renewable
energy; cheap, ready access to space flight; and remarkably efficient greenhouses,
which reduce our agricultural footprint to a fraction of its current size
while sharply increasing output.
Sounds wonderful, right?
Unfortunately, it’s not that simple.
will be a general-purpose and dual-use technology. What that means is that
it will not only make benign products, but can create powerful weapons
as well. It promises miraculous benefits, but also dire consequences.
When individual countries are able to provide their own goods and services,
without the need for import or export trade, they will have less incentive
to maintain good relations with others. When economic security is no longer
an issue, the only remaining security concern will be military.
This scenario contains all the elements for a terrible new arms race. Every
country possessing unrestricted molecular manufacturing capability will have
the ability to design, test, and inexpensively stockpile huge numbers of
powerful weapons of any size. If nanotechnology development is allowed to
proliferate, we can expect that many countries will achieve both economic
independence and unprecedented military prowess.
Will we then see a stable equilibrium, a tenuous balance of power similar
to the Mutually Assured Destruction of the Cold War? Not likely. Nuclear
weapons require massive research efforts and industrial development, which
can be globally tracked with greater ease than nanotech arms programs.
Molecular manufacturing will enable quicker weapons optimization due
to cheap, rapid prototyping. Once a design is approved, vast numbers
of powerful new weapons could be produced overnight. It will be nearly
impossible to know how much war-making capacity your enemy or your
neighbor might possess in the near future.
Unless molecular manufacturing
capability is contained, the number of nanotech-possessing nations in the
world could be much higher than today’s number of nuclear
nations, increasing the chance of inflaming dangerous regional conflicts
that could spin out of control. Greater uncertainty of the capabilities of
the adversary could foster caution—but it also could increase the temptation
for preemptive strikes to prevent proliferation.
Decreased response time to an attack, and better-targeted destruction
of an enemy's visible resources, will make for highly unstable conditions.
Worse still, this technology opens the door for the development of rival
groups within countries. We might see repeated military coups, devastating
civil wars, and dissolution of nations into large numbers of hostile, unpredictable,
immensely powerful tribes. Another potential scenario is radical transnational
groups, bound by religious, cultural, or ideological extremism, using molecular
manufacturing toward terrorist ends.
We also must consider the potential negative impacts of advanced nanotechnology
on our current socio-economic structure.
Low-cost local manufacturing
and duplication of designs could lead to monetary upheaval, as major economic
sectors contract or even collapse. For example, the global steel industry
is worth over $700 billion. What will happen to the millions of jobs associated
with that industry—and to the capital
supporting it—when materials many times stronger than steel can be
produced quickly and cheaply wherever (and whenever) they are needed?
Productive nanosystems could make storable solar power a realistic and preferable
alternative to traditional energy sources. Around the world, individual energy
consumers pay over $600 billion a year for utility bills and fuel supplies.
Commercial and industrial uses drive the figures higher still. When much
of this spending can be permanently replaced with off-grid solar energy,
many more jobs will be displaced.
The worldwide semiconductor industry produces annual billings of over $150
billion. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that the industry employs
a domestic workforce of nearly 300,000 people. Additionally, U.S.
retail distribution of electronics products amounts to almost $300 billion
annually. All of these areas will be impacted significantly if customized
electronics products can be produced at home for about a dollar a pound,
the likely cost of raw materials. If any individual can make products containing
computing power a million times greater than today’s PCs, where will
those jobs go?
Other nations will be affected as well. For example, the Chinese government
may welcome the advent of general-purpose molecular manufacturing for several
reasons, including its potential to radically reduce poverty and reduce catastrophic
environmental problems. But at the same time, China relies on foreign direct
investment (FDI) of over $40 billion annually for much of its current economic
strength. When money to purchase Chinese manufactured goods stops flowing
in, economic turmoil could spark violent struggles.
not a pretty picture. Without wise planning, molecular manufacturing is
likely to produce severe economic disruption and social disorder, as well
as a perilously unstable new arms race that could lead to devastating acts
Approached with pessimism,
nanotechnology appears far too hazardous to be allowed to progress to anywhere
near its full potential. It’s tempting
to just say no, to urge that we shut Pandora’s Box and halt further
The possibility of technological
relinquishment was made famous by computer scientist Bill Joy in his April
2000 Wired Magazine article, “Why the
Future Doesn’t Need Us.” Joy saw great danger to the continued
existence of the human race from nanotechnology (as well as from robotics
and genetics). He advocated an enforced global relinquishment of so-called “dangerous
technologies,” which essentially would require an end to further development
of almost all new technology.
call met with some support from environmental activists and others, the
consensus reaction was largely skeptical of both the feasibility and the
advisability of such a shutdown. For one thing, it would be almost impossible
to prevent the development of molecular manufacturing technology somewhere
in the world. China, Europe, and Japan all have thriving nanotechnology
programs. The rapid advance of enabling technologies such as computing,
biotechnology, 3D prototyping, MEMS, and scanning-probe microscopy ensures
that nanotechnology research and development efforts will be both easier
and more cost-effective in the near future than they are today.
But perhaps the strongest
argument against relinquishment is the loss or delay of immense benefits.
Molecular manufacturing promises the ability to reduce stress on the environment,
alleviate most shortages, raise living standards worldwide, and eradicate
nearly all poverty, starvation, and homelessness. Nanotechnology can greatly
aid in the provision of safe drinking water, effective sanitation, and
protection from many infectious diseases. Clean, cheap, and efficient manufacturing;
medical breakthroughs; immensely powerful computers; renewable energy;
easier access to space—all these gains are simply
too good to pass up. So, what is the answer? Can we find a way to preserve
peace, security, and liberty while still enjoying prosperity and abundance?
It is a challenge of the highest order. The Center for Responsible Nanotechnology
(CRN), a nonprofit think tank that I co-founded, has studied these issues
in depth for years now, and the clearest thing we can say is that there is
no simple solution.
We are convinced, however, that two choices are untenable. The first, as
discussed above, is relinquishment; which is impractical and probably impossible.
The second bad choice is to just wait and see, or take a laissez-faire attitude.
Our analysis suggests that, if maintained, this approach leads directly to
potentially catastrophic instability.
Other solutions will be required. New mechanisms must be found to replace
Mutually Assured Destruction and economic interdependence, the historic safeguards
on which we can no longer rely.
CRN has begun the critical work of looking for solutions, producing research
papers proposing tentative answers. We have developed a catalog of thirty
in-depth studies that should be performed as soon as possible (listed on
our website). But much more needs to be done, more than any organization
can accomplish alone.
The disruptive and destabilizing implications of advanced nanotechnology
must not be underestimated. At the same time, the near miraculous benefits
cannot be forfeited. To save our way of life and usher in an even brighter
tomorrow, it will be necessary to develop and implement comprehensive, balanced
plans for responsible management of this transformative technology.