[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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- Emphasis added.