We continue our look at CRN's thirty essential studies with the final section, which covers "Policies and Policymaking". Recommended studies in this section assume the existence of a general-purpose molecular manufacturing system. All preliminary answers are based on diamondoid nanofactory technology.
Next on our list is a very significant study, #20: "What effect will molecular manufacturing have on military and government capability and planning, considering the implications of arms races and unbalanced development?"
It has been predicted that a sufficiently advanced and general-purpose molecular manufacturing (MM) technology could have a significant destabilizing effect. This must be explored.
Subquestion A: How quickly can new weapons be invented, designed and deployed?
Preliminary answer: Very quickly. (See the previous few studies.)
Subquestion B: What new theatres or contexts for conflict will be created? (Outer space, cyberspace, underground, other?)
Preliminary answer: It will become quite important to be able to detect very small devices—perhaps even sub-microscopic devices. Outer space will become much easier to reach. Millionfold increases in computer power will create new opportunities. Extremely large-scale sensor networks, backed by large-scale computers, may make some environments (such as the ocean) less opaque. Living organisms (especially humans) are high-value and perhaps high-resource targets, and may require advanced engineering to monitor and protect without excessive disruption. Data-mining from massive sensor arrays and human transaction monitoring may be crucial; this will probably be limited more by software than by hardware. The sensor networks themselves, and disrupting or hiding from them, may be a focus of conflict, but one that is likely to be won by the sensors (see David Brin, The Transparent Society).
Subquestion C: To what extent will portable manufacturing allow forces to be autonomous of supply?
Preliminary answer: Manufacturing of just about anything from clothing to missiles should be feasible with only raw materials. Advances in thermal depolymerization technology may allow conversion of local plant matter into feedstock with a relatively small (man-portable) chemical plant.
Subquestion D: To what extent will advanced technology allow forces to be remotely or autonomously controlled?
Preliminary answer: Any algorithm that can be run on a supercomputer today will be able to run onboard even a bullet or insect-format robot. This implies rather good image recognition. Also, the ability to field as many UAV or smart dust relays as desired will allow very high-bandwidth networking. Improved robotics, displays, and sensory or even neural interfaces can greatly enhance telepresence.
Subquestion E: What impacts will human augmentation (including direct brain interface) have?
Preliminary answer: Unknown at this time, but probably includes significantly improved reaction time, situational awareness, telepresence, teleoperation of robots, fully immersive VR, and enhanced memory/cognition.
Subquestion F: What impacts will advanced data gathering and data processing have?
Preliminary answer: A full-coverage sensor network with full storage seems plausible. This would give the ability to see and hear anything from any angle at any time in the present or past (after the network was installed, of course). Image processing should allow tracking of people through time. Data mining based on image processing should allow connections to be found and highlighted (for example, full speech-to-text conversion of all conversations, followed by text searching to determine where the other end of a phone call went).
This could greatly surpass DARPA's TIA, and enable DARPA's LifeLog: "an electronic diary to help the individual more accurately recall and use his or her past experiences to be more effective in current or future tasks."
Subquestion G: To what extent will rapidly advancing technology reduce the enemy's predictability?
Preliminary answer: If a full sensor network can be installed, the enemy may be come extremely predictable. However, in the absence of direct sensing, the speed with which new products and new types of weapons can be conceptualized, developed, and deployed argues that it will be very hard to know what the enemy's capability is or will be.
Subquestion H: How quickly and effectively can new doctrine be invented or adapted to new capabilities on either side?
Preliminary answer: This is an institutional question. Note that a failure of human institutions will tempt the development of automated or adaptive threat detection and response, comparable to automated computer virus characterization. Note further that such automated response systems could be extremely dangerous.
Subquestion I: Will offense or defense be fundamentally stronger?
Preliminary answer: Since this question must be answered for each possible class of weapon, and since MM makes many new classes of weapon possible, it appears that offense will probably win. However, this analysis is shallow; and because of the crucial importance of this question, it should be studied carefully.
Subquestion J: How well can military targets be protected?
Preliminary answer: Military targets can be dispersed, miniaturized, hardened with advanced materials, and rebuilt quickly. The main vulnerability will be people, which again argues for automation.
Subquestion K: How well can civilian targets be protected?
Preliminary answer: Billions of toxin-carrying insectoid nanobots could fit in a small packing crate. Orbital or UAV-based weapons can be deployed on a large scale. It looks like civilians and civilian property may not be defensible without major lifestyle changes. It's possible that a comprehensive shield could protect against some forms of attack, possibly including nano-scale robots, but long-range high-energy weapons may require impractical amounts of shielding.
The alternative is to prevent the deployment of such weapons in the first place, but this would be quite difficult to achieve by any means. A control-freak approach would be hugely oppressive (for the protected civilians as well as non-citizens) and may not be sustainable, and an effective policy-based approach will be difficult to design.
Subquestion L: Is an arms race likely to be unstable?
Preliminary answer: Yes. The nuclear arms race was stable for several reasons. In virtually every way, the nano-arms race will be the opposite.
Nuclear weapons are hard to design, hard to build, require easily monitored testing, do indiscriminate and lasting damage, do not rapidly become obsolete, have almost no peaceful use, and are universally abhorred. Nano capability will be easy to build (given a nanofactory), will allow easily concealable testing, will be relatively easy to control and deactivate, would become obsolete very rapidly, almost every design is dual-use, and peaceful and non-lethal (police) use will be common. Nukes are easier to stockpile than to use; nano weapons are the opposite.
Also, as Mark Gubrud pointed out, a deployed rapid-response net would be unstable. (A hair-trigger complex system eventually will suffer a false alarm.) One observer has argued that immune systems are not generally unstable, and humans should be able to do even better. We disagree on three counts. First, humans aren't close to understanding the immune system yet, and we may have to design military systems before we do understand it. Second, what's needed is not very comparable to a biological immune system, so we'll be doing a lot of new engineering that'll be hard either to test or to analyze. Third, the instability that Gubrud analyzed is not from one defensive system reacting to disorganized and localized threats—it's from two defensive systems reacting to each other. The closest analogy from immunology would be graft-vs-host disease, which is a great example of instability.
Subquestion M: How hard will it be to recover from a nanotech gap?
Preliminary answer: At the point where a nanofactory or equivalent system is developed, even a few months difference could be unrecoverable. The more advanced side would have access to vastly better computers, and the technology would advance as rapidly as their creativity allowed. There is no obvious plateau in capability that would allow a laggard to catch up. Also, the advanced side would be in a much better position to thwart development in its opponents, with or without all-out war.
Subquestion N: Could a non-nano power defend itself against a nano power?
Preliminary answer: No. And even a nuclear power might not be able to deter a nano power: aerospace superiority (with rapid prototyping and cheap manufacturing) could make it much easier to build an effective missile shield.
Subquestion O: How could governments use molecular manufacturing in their own countries?
Preliminary answer: This deserves a whole study of its own. Abusive and oppressive governments could become far worse. Any country could modernize (and militarize) very fast, depending on how much expertise it can buy or train locally. MM could enhance national character, for example: Americans could become more independent / off-grid (which could reduce vulnerability to terrorism); others could become more socially linked through high-bandwidth connection and data-sharing; there'll be plenty of opportunity for both laziness and productivity.
Provisional conclusion: Military practice and planning will have to change a lot. An unstable arms race looks like a definite possibility. Substantial innovation will be required to even begin to protect civilians. Development of molecular manufacturing may have a crucial impact on national strength.
Our initial basic findings (preliminary answers and provisional conclusions) for all thirty studies should be verified as rapidly as possible. Because our understanding points to a crisis, a parallel process of conducting these studies is strongly preferred.
We are actively looking for researchers who have an interest in performing or assisting with this work. Please contact CRN Research Director Chris Phoenix if you would like more information or if you have comments on the proposed studies.