In the current issue of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists -- the people responsible for the famous Doomsday Clock -- I have published a review of Jürgen Altmann's important new book, Military Nanotechnology: Potential Applications and Preventive Arms Control.
Here are a few excerpts from my review:
Deeply researched and carefully worded, Military Nanotechnology is an overview of an emerging technology that could trigger a new arms race and gravely threaten international security and stability. Jürgen Altmann's academic style allows the reader to assess nanotechnology's perilous military implications in plain, dispassionate terms. What we face might sound like science fiction, but, in this book, we have the facts laid bare, and they are hair-raising enough without embellishment. . .
Altmann appropriately separates his assessments of nanotechnology's military implications into separate categories: those relating to current or conventional nanotechnology, and those concerning futuristic molecular nanotechnology (MNT). Although there is a continuum from today's nanotech work to near-future atomically precise manufacturing and eventually to nanoscale machinery making powerful products, the comparative impacts on society (and on the military) may not follow a smooth line. Altmann convincingly argues that the profound implications of MNT, while "necessarily general, speculative and incomplete," must be taken into account. Moreover, MNT's fundamentally new control of physical materials and manufacturing could lead to "qualitatively new means and methods of warfare" . . .
But beyond the weapons themselves, MNT's greatest impact on future warfare may come from low-cost, high-volume, exponential manufacturing of weapons systems and related infrastructure. Altmann speculates that if "the production facilities for raw material, feedstock, energy and final products as well as the transport systems are themselves produced by MNT, a very fast increase of the production and distribution of military goods is possible." Thus, he warns, "MNT 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.
Given how much may be at stake, Altmann says it "is remarkable that the mainstream science community has practically ignored MNT and related ideas." By bringing scholarly attention to MNT, Altmann provides a valuable service. But while that effort is sure to encounter opposition from business and academic interests who prefer to discount such apocalyptic scenarios (in hopes of limiting public fears and preserving their funding streams), it is not actually the most contentious one he makes.
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. . .
You can download the full review here as a PDF, or look for November/December issue of the magazine at your local bookstore or library.