Last month, I was asked a few questions by NanoNewsNet, a web portal for nanotechnology news and research in Russia. The interview has been posted online in the Russian language. Here is the Q&A in English...
NanoNewsNet: What are, from your point of view, the most dangerous research branches in nanotechnology?
Mike Treder: Molecular manufacturing is by far the most powerful, and therefore the most dangerous, branch of nanotechnology. The ability to build devices "from the bottom up" with atomic precision, using huge numbers of automated microscopic components under computer control within a desktop-size appliance, will lead to a revolution in manufacturing. We expect this to have the equivalent impact of the steam engine or of electricity, but with all the change compressed into just a few years instead of many decades.
NNN: What can we do to control these branches?
MT: Although the development of molecular manufacturing will present serious risks, it also offers great benefits. For this reason, we do not advocate slowing or halting current research in that direction. But it is vital that research into the societal and environmental implications of molecular manufacturing, along with policy recommendations for responsible use of the technology, should be conducted in parallel.
NNN: Can we make a hypothetical gadget that can detect nano-structured materials or nano-sized devices? If that’s possible, we could make nanotechnology safe that way.
MT: The ability to detect and characterize nanoscale particles and devices at a distance would alleviate some risks. It is unknown at this point whether such detection is possible. However, molecular manufacturing will be able to make large and dangerous products, including weapons of all types, so detecting nanoscale products alone would not make nanotechnology safe.
NNN: Already humankind has many dangerous weapons that can make doomsday on Earth in weeks. Why do you think nanotechnology may be more dangerous?
MT: Despite regional wars and terrorist attacks, humans have so far managed to avoid destroying ourselves with full-scale thermonuclear war. From the dawn of the nuclear age until the present day, we have relied on two mechanisms to protect us all 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 either of these controls. The tenuous balance of MAD and the worldwide network of commercial trade are both threatened by the rise of advanced nanotechnology.
Every country that possesses unrestricted molecular manufacturing capability will have the ability to rapidly design, test, and inexpensively deploy 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 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 nations possessing it could be much higher than today’s 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.
So, the danger is threefold: decreased interdependence, advanced deadly weapons, and destabilization of the current balance of power.
NNN: If there isn't any danger of grey goo, nanotechnology seems to be safe. Is that correct? Or are there other unsafe problems?
MT: Until we understand how profoundly nanotechnology will transform civilization, and prepare effective systems to control dangers and maximize benefits, we will not be safe. In addition to the risk of an unstable arms race as described above, molecular manufacturing also will provide enough power for one nation or group of people, if they have a monopoly on the technology, to completely dominate the rest of the world. That’s a second risk: nanotech-enabled despotism. And a third risk is the turmoil that could result if no controls at all are placed on technology; if every country, corporation, group, tribe, and individual has access to unlimited manufacturing, nanotech-enabled chaos could leave millions dead, suffering, or oppressed.
Beyond these three major risks are others, including economic disruption, environmental imbalance, ubiquitous intrusive surveillance, and more. But unless we take firm and deliberate steps in advance to avert the three biggest risks, then the others may not matter. Moreover, unless these serious dangers are understood and averted, we also will forfeit the many wonderful benefits that advanced nanotechnology could bring.
Through responsible use of molecular manufacturing, we could have longer lasting, cleaner, safer, and smarter products for the home, for communications, for medicine, for transportation, and for industry; 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.
We can even imagine ending poverty and starvation, defeating disease, and extending healthy human lifespans. But none of this will be possible unless we plan wisely in advance.