The nanobot will always get through

[Cross-posted at Revise and Dissent.]

Nanotechnology is now starting to move out of science fiction and into the real world, though currently it's more advanced chemistry than the molecular-scale engineering foretold by K. Eric Drexler more than two decades ago. So no Strossian cornucopia machines yet, no swarms of nanobots swimming in our blood to clean out the cholesterol. But some people are already trying to think through the implications of what might lie over the technological horizon.

The November/December 2007 issue of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists contains a review, by Mike Tredar of the Center for Responsible Nanotechnology (blog here), of Jürgen Altmann's Military Nanotechnology: Potential Applications and Preventive Arms Control (Routledge, 2006). The 'potential applications' of the book's title are both direct, for example 'specially designed warfare molecules'; and indirect, with the application of nanotech manufacturing techniques to the production of weapon systems of all types.

Thus, he [Altmann] warns, "MNT [molecular nanotechnology] production of nearly unlimited numbers of armaments at little cost would contradict the very idea of quantitative arms control," and would culminate in a technological arms race beyond control.

This is because anyone could -- with access to a nanofactory and the requisite blueprints -- construct vast quantities of very lethal weapons in very little time. Rogue states, terrorist groups, Rotary clubs. Anyone. There would be no way to police this. No hope for the future. Unless ...

The book’s most controversial thesis is not that MNT is plausible and should be taken seriously; it is that the only coherent response to this technology’s military implications is to develop global governance structures that supersede existing national powers. "The traditional way of guaranteeing national security -- namely the threat of armed force -- may no longer be compatible with the advance of technology,” he argues. And since security “can no longer be reliably ensured by national armed forces," he prescribes "strengthened international institutions and international law, in particular criminal law with prosecution of perpetrators, moving into a direction toward an international monopoly of legitimate force, strong enough to prevent or punish threats or use of illegal force."1

This idea that technology has become so dangerous that the world needs a sort of international military organisation, with a 'monopoly of legitimate force' to guard it against destruction, is one that keeps coming up. Robert Heinlein suggested something similar in the age of the atom; Lord Allenby and (more hesitantly) Stanley Baldwin did likewise in the age of the aeroplane. They certainly weren't the only ones. (And see also Anthony Eden and Ronald Reagan on the extraterrestrial threat). And arguably, even before Kitty Hawk, there was Alfred, Lord Tennyson, in "Locksley Hall" (1842):

For I dipt into the future, far as human eye could see,
Saw the Vision of the world, and all the wonder that would be;

Saw the heavens fill with commerce, argosies of magic sails,
Pilots of the purple twilight dropping down with costly bales;

Heard the heavens fill with shouting, and there rain'd a ghastly dew
From the nations' airy navies grappling in the central blue

Far along the world-wide whisper of the south-wind rushing warm,
With the standards of the peoples plunging thro' the thunder-storm;

Till the war-drum throbb'd no longer, and the battle-flags were furl'd
In the Parliament of man, the Federation of the world

There the common sense of most shall hold a fretful realm in awe,
And the kindly earth shall slumber, lapt in universal law.1

Though Tennyson is actually speaking of a world government, this is clearly very closely associated with a world military: in practice it would be hard to have one without the other, in some form at least.

So, we keep getting told that we must unify in the face of some dire new threat: bombers, bombs, 'bots. And admittedly we've actually survived quite well (OK, maybe 'well' is not quite the right word here) so far, despite remaining approximately as fractious as ever. The doomsayers have all been wrong, thus far. Does that mean that they always will be? As I've suggested recently, in a different context, as a species we quite naturally tend to avoid taking the hard choices, at least until we are right up against it. So what happens if we ever do face a threat that really does require our unity -- maybe nanotech, maybe something else? It probably won't happen until it's too late.

Am I being too pessimistic? I sure as hell hope so.

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  1. Emphasis added. [] []

11 thoughts on “The nanobot will always get through

  1. I was horrified enough when a friend who works for a shall-remain-nameless military development company told me about the research they were doing with computer models of swarm behaviour (like the ones Neurophilosophy talked about recently in The collective brain). I think nanotech weaponry is probably even creepier to my completely unscientific mind.

    While the idea of a world government can seem like poetry, it is far easier to envisage the advent of yet another anti-utopia. I don't think you're being too pessimistic. We are what we are, and we stumble through the things we create. I'm not sure if we have ever learned much from them, but perhaps we've learned a little.

  2. Post author

    Yes, I must admit to being a fan of the one world state idea when I was much younger. But the problem is, what happens if everything goes horribly wrong? There'd be nowhere else to go to, nobody else to turn to. Better to take our chances ... except that one day that might not be enough. There may be a middle way, governments pooling some of their sovereignty against specific threats (e.g. Kyoto). I guess we'll see!

  3. John B

    Thanks to Mike Treder for pointing me this way from crnano...

    I think you're too optimistic, if anything. *wry grin* Your premise that things happen or attempt to happen prior to problems is broken when you look at the real world. From Love Canal to the rounding error in the Pentium to many other historical problems, there was no such thing as prior decision - rather there's only spin control, remediation, and recovery.

    The main problem I have with most utopian ideals is a very basic one. It assumes that everyone is rational. We humans - well, we ain't. *wry grin*


  4. Post author

    Thanks for dropping by! I don't think you can argue that we've never taken collective action to prevent a problem. There are some examples -- banning CFC emissions to prevent the ozone hole from widening, and the effort to fix or at least prepare for Y2K (whether or not one concludes that this was a non-problem, a lot of time and money was poured into fixing it) both come to mind. Kyoto is another. On the whole, however, our record is not good ...

  5. John B

    Fair correction - we have performed proactive decisions before with varying degrees of success (the disarmament of Germany after WW I, for instance), but I'd offer the counterpoint that the CFC example is *after* there was significant evidence that CFCs were causing the ozone hole. IE - problem, uproar, attempted remediation. Which fits into a grey area between proactive and reactive responses, I guess you could say.

    *wry grin* And thanks for the site. Interesting stuff...


  6. Brett, I agree with you that there are some good examples of collective global action to head off calamities. Besides the recent ones you mentioned, I usually cite the Geneva Conventions (especially the Protocol against the use of chemical weapons), the IAEA, and the general environmental movement started in the 1960's and 70's. These can give us reason for optimism.

    On the other hand, as you suggest, creating an overarching structure of global governance that supersedes state sovereignty does lead to worries about absolute power corrupting absolutely. See the essay linked below for thoughts on the problem from a nanotech perspective.

  7. John B

    Mike -

    Looking at and specifically browsing through the alphabetical list of prohibitions/protocols/agreed-to stipulations makes me scratch my head. Which of these rules has NOT been broken? As such, is this really a good example?

    If the IAEA is a good example, why are there so many more nuclear capable nation-states?

    I would also argue that, similar to the CFC example above, there's more of a grey area involved between proactive and reactive for the general environmental movement.


  8. JB - The fact that you can name exceptions to observance of the Geneva Conventions basically proves the point; they are exceptions, not the general rule, which almost everyone else follows. On the IAEA, consider that it's been over six decades since the bomb was developed, and instead of having dozens of nuclear-capable nations, there are instead only eight. That's a pretty remarkable record of maintaining non-proliferation through multilateral diplomacy.

  9. Post author


    Yes, the CFC ban came after there was evidence of ozone depletion -- but, crucially, before it had reached the point where there were substantial increases in skin cancers, cataracts, etc. (At least, that's my understanding.) So at least we didn't have to wait until the disaster was actually taking place before collective action could happen, a strong scientific consensus was enough (and also the fact that the costs to industry were manageable and the fixes were obvious). As you say, it's in the gray area.

    But in general, I think 'problem, uproar, attempted remediation' is on the money -- not least because it fits in with my own historical research :) That focuses on the way that public understanding (in Britain) of the threat of strategic bombing was driven by periodic media panics, which themselves kicked off from various triggers -- evidence of German rearmament, say, or the Japanese bombing of cities in China. That feeds into public support for various policy responses like appeasement, civil defence and so on. But I note that these dynamics did occur before the real thing happened (the Blitz) so, again, that's some comfort!


    Yes, those are some good examples -- even if they're not wholly (or even at all) effective, as John rightly points out; but I think the fact that the efforts were made at all is very significant. (Their failure could be put down to poorly designed protocols, or more realistically and less hopefully, sabotage by major powers lest their own interests be compromised.) The UN and the League of Nations themselves could be added to the list, and maybe the Kellogg-Briand Pact outlawing war (which was doomed to failure, but was a nice idea ...). The international air force concept is another (as I alluded to in my post), which is one of my interests -- but though it had some significant support in the early 1930s (eg by France), it never got up. Neither did the Baruch plan for the internationalisation of nuclear energy and weapons. Of course there are hugely important political factors in all of this, and international solutions may not be the only ones on offer. (Eg in the 1930s, the other solution to the problem of the bomber than an international air force, was just to build more of them for yourself!)

    So yes, I think there's enough historical evidence that "something" could be done, but of course that leaves open the questions of who, what, how, and perhaps most importantly when: will it take a catastrophe first?

  10. John B

    Mike -

    You've got a good point that exceptions to the Geneva Conventions are noted as just that, exceptions to be noticed and commented on.

    Given the site, I'd point out that others disagree with the degree of spread, but you're in the same general ballpark at least.

    I sit corrected.

    Brett -

    Given the timescale of the CFC problem, I don't know quite how best to characterize it. Add in that I've not spent research time on that problem in about a decade and I fear I'm going on mental fumes here *wry grin*. As such, I'll take your timing statement at face value.

    I'd agree that efforts to remediate the various problems are critical, but would not say that the record of success should be discounted - there are IMO very important lessons to be learned from those efforts which failed, with a goal of making future efforts more effective. Unfortunately there's no major agreement (as far as I know) as to the lessons to be learned - should we be finding alternatives with their own, unacknowledged problems? Should we be doing without? Should we be improving efficiency? Etc. Lots of options, no clear 'winning solution'.

    Note that this isn't necessarily a bad thing, as there are 'shades of grey' to most problems that need addressing pretty much on a case-by-case basis. The gotcha is where you draw the lines. Do you include power plants in automotive pollution, and why or why not?


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