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« The Results of Accelerating Progress | Main | CRN goes to Missoula »

February 12, 2004


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Matthew Cromer

Cool pipe dreams!

Sure, miniaturized mosquito-sized assassination robots will probably be built at some point (at a stupendous cost affordable only to a Hyperpower), but the Drexlerian molecular assembly stuff belongs with the time machine and warp drive on the SF section at your local library.

Daniel Golding

Sure, its scifi, but Military Grade Nano (MGN) and Military Complete Paste, which Greg Bear wrote about (Queen of Angels, Slant),. show the promise and peril of nano weaponry.


Much more plausable and much more likely in the short term are some very simple "spring trap" weapons.

The idea here is a very simple molecular structure that can easily be breathed into your lungs and then it snaps or reconfigures itself into a structure that damages your lungs. Think puffer fish. These type of weapons could be very easily produced in the trillions, put into an arasol can and released in a public place.

used like this would be very hard to detect, a bitch to clean up and could kill a lot of people.

Peter Vogel

Stupendous cost? Maybe for the initial R&D, assuming that none of the ground work has been laid for you already (which is one hell of an assumption.) But thirty years after that? I doubt it.

Brett Bellmore

It's true that nanotech should reduce interdependence, but isn't that something of a wash? Dependence on foreign resources is as much a motive for agression, as it is a limit on military power.

Also, nanotech, by making space colonization feasible, provides an alternate, less risky, outlet for territorial expansion.

Joel Mackey

Well, as Neal Stephenson obliquely referred to in his novel, the diamond age, by the time we have the technology to do nano weapons, we will hopefully have the technology to do nano weapon countermeasures.

The question is, will nano weapons make fire arms obsolete, and if so, does the 2nd amendment become obsolete.

Karl Gallagher

I disagree with McCarthy on the practicality of autarky. "Bits" (software, movies, music) are a steadily increasing portion of international trade. When MNT is available that trend will go asymptotic. International trade will consist of trading nanodevice designs for entertainment.

Think of it as the Napster future--instead of downloading an mp3 and burning it onto a CD, you get a design file and your assembler turns it into a device.

Autarkic states can avoid that trade but they'll rapidly fall behind the rest of the world as new advances proliferate. The biggest danger is missing the latest anti-spam and anti-virus (comp or bio) techniques. That "arms race" may be more crucial to survival than the military contests. A new North Korea could find itself devastated by a teenage hacker with a five-year lead in tech.

Unfortunately the "arms races" will probably make the world less stable even as interdependency makes us all richer.

Chris Phoenix, CRN

Matthew seems to have been listening to the wrong scientists. Some good (and bad) science fiction has been inspired by Drexler's work, but there's nothing science fictional in Nanosystems. And if Nanosystems is correct--and no significant error has been found in it yet--then manufacturing of large quantities of nanostuff will be very cheap.

Karl-- very interesting and creative suggestion that autarkic states will fail through lack of subscription to "antivirus software." I hope we don't get to the point where "antivirus software" is needed, but we probably will, sooner or later.

There are two problems with this. First, people in the autarkic state will probably get hurt. Second, the lawless region will spawn those who have the means, motive, and opportunity to hurt others.

It's like letting your next-door neighbors run a chemical manufacturing plant in their garage. Even if you don't think their kids should be protected from the parents' stupidity (and yes, there are good arguments and slippery slopes on both sides of that question), an industrial accident is likely to poison you as well.


Bravo Romeo Delta

The destabilizing influences are twofold, even wiithout getting into the business of worrying about the effect of the technology on lethality itself.

First, almost by definition, all nanotech is essentially dual use - so non-proliferation is a non-starter.

Second, all nanotech-built arsenals are essentially invisible until the baloon goes up.

At first blush, it would seem that the only way to handle this would be to treat it like the naval pseudo-warfare we saw during the Cold War.

David Govett

Nanowar could be incredibly specific. Nanoscans of an individual's genome could allow the targeting of specific subsets of humans (or any other species, for that matter). Also consider nanofactories that independently design, deploy, and activate nanoweapons--or other nanofactories. It's a good thing we're exploring Mars. We might need a new home soon.

Mr. Farlops

I agree with the CRN: it's very unwise to dismiss the weapons potential of nanotechnology (Which has become a term so vague as to be almost useless.).

A few points to consider:

* The borders between early nanotechnology, current biotechnology and MEMS research are very blurry. Weapons potential in one area, say some gene-tweaked Ebola, might synergize with advances in another area, say tiny, or cheap, MEMS-based bioreactors, to become a serious problem. All this seems possible before molecular manufacturing is developed.

* The military in the United States, and elsewhere I am certain, is already conducting research into the weapons potential of things that purists might disagree is *real* nanotechnology but may serendipitously lead to real nanoweapons. Sure, this research is still dismissed as blue-sky, but remember that radar and nuclear weapons started the same way.

* Sure, these weapons may be expensive to start with, but economies of scale being what they are, they will not remain so for long. For example, EMP weapons are within the means of developing countries to build and use (http://www.newscientist.com/news/news.jsp?id=ns9999698) and we already speak off germs as the poor man's nuclear weapon. It seems likely that whatever lead one side has over another will be very fleeting.


Nanotech doesn't just transform the way humans live, it transforms humans as well. The potential for nano-weaponry makes it very clear that we humans will have to change. The illusion of individuality is what makes "us vs. them" duality and consequent cruelty possible. By increasing the bandwidth of interfaces between people (using direct neural connectivity), the illusion of individuality will evaporate, and commiting violence will make as much sense as taking a hammer to one's own toe (or committing suicide, for that matter).

Brett Bellmore

Short of developing some kind of non-Einsteinian, non-local communications system, nanotech will probably NOT lead to a loss of individuality. Consider that, while nanotech can indeed link my head to your head at high bandwidth, it can equally link the neurons in one part of my head with the neurons in another part. And enhance the neurons themselves. By the time people are willing to use high bandwidth direct brain to brain communication, their nanotech enhanced brains will be running so fast that that brain to brain communication will be no more significant than regular telephones,in terms of relative bandwidth.

More than that, if people's brains are enhanced to run many times faster, speed of light delays become very significant even across short distances.

Leaving this aside, I dare say that only a fool would utilize high bandwidth brain to brain communication without incredibly powerful anti-viral analogs mediating the communication. You really do NOT want to give malicious people the ability to insert dubious notions into your head without your having a chance to consider them first.

When you said that nanotech transforms humans, I thought at first that this was the sort of thing you meant. Ultimately, the solution to defending people against nanotech weapons will be for humans to become nanotech. A process which will probably start with nano-medical systems, and "immune systems" defending against external attack, but will eventually lead to our entire bodies being replaced.

Nanotech isn't, ultimately, technology. It's the next form biology will take.

Chris Phoenix, CRN

Brett, individuality isn't a binary thing. The different parts of your brain combine to create the illusion that you are an individual. But that's only partially true. I'm not sure there'd be a loss of individuality so much as a shared connection. Perhaps similar to what you feel at a prayer meeting or rock concert, but with far richer information content.

It doesn't take a lot of bandwidth to put people "in sync" with each other. In fact, they're already doing experiments with monitoring and displaying biometrics, and finding that it improves group efficiency to know each other's physiological state.

As for mental anti-virus software: we get along today without it. Memes can be very dangerous, and we generally haven't even found it desirable to train our own children in how to resist or filter advertising and demagoguery. I agree that a very high-bandwidth and influential connection could be problematic, but a connection with the bandwidth and intrusiveness of a TV set could give great insight into someone else's mind while not necessarily being more dangerous than a TV set.


Greg Trocchia

I think that in the case of nanotech weaponry, whether the situation will be stable or not depends upon questions like: "will MNT give the advantage to offense or to defense?". Weapons can be made more numerous and powerful by MNT, but with MNT targets can also be made much harder. Toxins may become considerably less effective against a nanomedically enhanced immune system. An individual with implanted armor (say a nanotech version of chobham) protecting the vital organs and a vasculoid http://www.imm.org/Reports/Rep031.html (something Chris should know a thing or two about ) would be considerably less vulnerable to gunfire than we are today. "No sparrow shall fall" sensor networks making liberal use of smart dust can make even non metal aircraft easier to spot and track using a variety of types of sensors.

The reason that nuclear technology needed the four factors cited to make the second half of the 20th century (barely) militarily stable was that it was an offensive technology. If defensive technology were to dominate, you may not need as many factors to have stability. Consider the great castles of Europe which were, by and large, beyond the ability of armies to attack with any decent chance of success until the advent of gunpowder. A substantial proportion of these castles never even had to deal with an attempt at a siege from the time of their building until the end of the age of chivalry. I would contend that the prospect of trying to take such a castle was so daunting that it deterred would be opponents from even trying.. Now, to a certain extent, your technological base will determine if offense or defense dominates: In the middle ages it was much simpler to throw up a curtain wall than to knock down a defended section of curtain wall, whereas in the latter 20th century it was far simpler to design a ballistic missile than a system to shoot such a missile down. This bias, however, can be influenced by where research and procurement money is spent. Let me give a counterfactual to illustrate this point. Post SALT 1/ABM treaties, the US and USSR were allowed 100 anti-ballistic missiles, if I recall correctly, and thousands of offensive ballistic missiles each. Suppose we had reversed the two and allowed thousands and thousands of ABM's but only 100 offensive missiles each. I would argue that there would have been just as much incentive not to start a nuclear war (you could go through your stock of offensive missiles rather quickly, perhaps with little to show for it in addition to inviting retaliation, if you do). In addition to keeping this deterrence, what you get as a bonus by doing things this way is that the risk should that deterrence fail is significantly lower than we actually faced in the 20th Century (the worst case is that you face 100 missiles coming your way and have thousands of ABM's with which to shoot at them, not a desirable state of affairs but much better than facing thousands of missiles with little or no defense possible).

What I am suggesting is that a vigorous, open source, collaborative effort to develop defensive technologies by the leaders in MNT may be able to bias the playing field in favor of defense, which I contend makes for an inherently more stable equilibrium than if offensive technologies are more potent. While this means that any flaws in a particular defensive scheme are likely to be well known and potentially exploitable, it does not preclude the use of layered defenses where the layers compensate for each other's known weaknesses. There is also nothing precluding one from supplementing whatever there is in the open source by using defensive technology developed in secret. One potential drawback to this scheme is that some types of defenses need to be designed with a particular threat in mind. Even this drawback can be made to be a stabilizing factor with a sufficiently vigorous collaboration to develop defenses. If you develop an offensive weapon in secret, you know that if you use it then it will be secret no longer and you have just provided a reference threat for the rest of the world. This "use it and lose it" dynamic can itself be a disincentive to the use of offensive nanoweapons developed in secret, whether in compliance with or contravention of arms control accords, unless it is perceived to be absolutely necessary

Brett Bellmore

The fundamental problem is that, destruction being easier that construction, offense is generally easier than defense. A fake mosquito carrying botulism toxin, (Or even a real one gene engineered to produce the toxin instead of anti-coagulants, and with a nanotech guidance system stuck on it.) is worlds easier than a nanomedicine system, or even worse, the vasculoid.

Greg Trocchia

Assuming, for the sake of argument, that offensive nanoweapons are inherently simpler to devise than defensive nanosystems (and this may well be the case in general), there are still things that can compensate for this. For one thing, there are very strong commercial imperatives quite apart from any arms race considerations that will drive the development of the sort of advanced nanotechnology that provides inherent target hardening.. Nanomedicine system development may, in large part, end up being driven by the need to deal with natural pathogens and toxins and providing a counter to offensive nanoweapons as either a side benefit of the nanomedical system you have developed or, at worst, a variant of this technology. Development of an offensive system would much less likely to get this kind of free ride. An example of this comes from the field of computing. Initially, purpose built military computers were the best around (at the very outset, they were the only computers around). Once the commercial market for computing became established, civilian computers became so good relative to what the military had that the military started incorporating COTS (Commercial Off The Shelf) computers into their systems because they could not afford to produce one as good on a "roll your own" basis.

To this you can add the ability to collaborate and spread the expenses of developing defensive systems over all the participants as well as the ability to use open source methodology to improve the robustness of the system developed plus the ability to test such systems in the open as best you can and you have some considerable equalizers.

Finally, in a layered defense scheme, not all defensive layers have to be equally high tech. We could start off with a defense consisting of bug spray (DDT, anyone?), mosquito netting, and widespread distribution of anti-toxin (once you find what toxin is being used) hypodermics. In an intermediate tech level layer you might find bio/NEMS-engineered hunter killers designed to find and eliminate killer mosquitos before they do any damage, perhaps paired with an implantable, upgradable, system to detect toxins and auto-administer anti-toxins. A full-up nanomedical/vasculoid system would, of course, be a very valuable layer to have, but you don't need to wait for the technology base to build one before you can produce a viable defense

Anticipatory Retaliation

The biggest edges that nanotech provides are not necessarily mosquitos carrying toxins. In the great scheme of things it's still easier to do someone in with a 5.56 mm cerebral hemorage than to futz around with mosqitoes.

If you want answers about warfare, ask questions about logistics. That's where some of the biggest things will come into play fastest. Water purification from waste streams. Medical nanotech (to cut down on the logistical strain of shipping wounded to hospitals). Lighterweight, precision-guided, GPS-using, everything.

When you start getting to the point that you're quite adept at nanomanufacturing, then why not just start building seeds? An ounce of paste and a couple of kilos of plastic tossed onto the wreck of one of your tanks and you get a new tank - no repair depot. Spray down an shipload of automobiles and get destroyers.

With this stuff, you can actually stockpile production capacity which is going to have some pretty freaking bizzare effects on conflict.

Greg Trocchia

The primary advantage that weapons like the killer mosquitos and even smaller kill bots (my term for them- SmartPlague) has over a 5.56, 55 grain kinetic kill vehicle is the potential for not requiring the shooter to be within 1 km of the target. Here's another nasty concept that I have yet to hear anyone else discuss. I remember reading on sci.nanotech a point made by JoSH (who was both the moderator and the inventor of the ideo of utility fog) that making the foglets out of diamond or carbon nanotubes or such would be a bad idea because of the extreme amount of surface area per unit of mass inherent in the utility fog idea. He felt that combustion of the fog might well be akin to a fuel-air explosion, depending on the density of foglets in the air. It struck me that while this would be a bad thing for the usual purposes one has for utility fog, it would have some qualities very desirable in a weapon. Even if you do decide a 5.56 round is the way to go, you will almost certainly want it to incorporate its own seeker technology (just like the smart rounds in Vinge's The Peace War http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/tg/detail/-/0765308835/qid%3D1077205069/sr%3D1-7/r/102- 5799998-2523339).

A caution about blithely asserting that "an ounce of paste and a couple of kilos of plastic" will be enough to transform a wrecked tank into a newly remade tank. Assuming that you are using the wrecked tank plus some of the plastic as feedstock for the reborn tank, you will still need to supply lots of energy from the outside for all but the most limited re-manufacturing. Even if you were to use all of the chemical energy from the plastic, the most you could get would be on the order of 10^8 Joules, which might suffice to rebuild from scratch a few kg of your tank (just how much you can repair depends upon how efficient your nanoassembly system is at capturing energy liberated in exoergic reactions and using it to power endoergic ones. Then there is the matter of time, Drexler's (conservative) estimate of the amount of time necessary for a nanomanufacturing system to process a mass equal to its own is ~1 hour. This implies that .1 kg worth of active nanopaste could totally remanufacture a 70,000 kg M1 Abrams tank in ~700,000 hours, just shy of 80 years. Even allowing for Drexler's intentional conservatism, you would need the paste to be able to self-replicate (for which, remember, you will still need a source of power and feedstock) in order to be able to do the kind of rebuild that you are talking about in any kind of reasonable time. I am a stickler about stuff like this because over hyping what MNT will be able to do makes it easier for folks like those at the NanoBusiness Alliance to make the charge of our being "flakes" stick.

All that said, I can envision something like an MNT field depo as a large scale ( >1,000 kg) desktop factory on steroids (I like to call nanofactories on this scale "fabs"). Perhaps it is intended to be powered by a downlink from a solar power satellite (which should be quite viable in a world with advanced MNT) to which you bring truckloads of feedstock and make, or remake, what you need on site. Alternatively, you can provide the fab with the capability to collect feedstock from the surroundings in a "live off the land" mode, at the likely cost of speed of manufacture. The military grade nano in Greg Bear's Slant (http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/tg/detail/-/0812524829/103-5992044-2348623) is a more portable, less flexible version of this

Brett Bellmore

I recall reading that they were quite suprised to find that, in the presence of oxygen, nanotubes burned when subject to flash photography. So, yes, you'd have to be careful how you built your utility fog.

The chief advantage of the nanotech weaponry, in this instance, is stealth. You get bit by a mosquito, you slap it, you don't think, "My God, I'd better get to a hospital!". Since the botulism toxin COULD be in the form of a precisely time delayed dose, or radio triggered, your mosquitos go flying around, doing their dirty work, and then a month later tens of thousands of people drop dead in their tracks.

It's the up close and personal version of planting nukes in your enemy's cities. The potential for subversion in particular is high.


If nano technolgy is used it will breed a whole new kind of haccker and terorrsit the nanites could be used to hack nukler missles and other guided weapons.

deje la muerte del planeta de tontos comenzar

Chris Phoenix, CRN

Wow, great discussion! A few comments:

Anticipatory's comment about stockpiling production capacity is right on--but note that production capacity will itself be going obsolete rather quickly. Newer-model nanofactories will be more efficient and flexible. Probably the best thing to stockpile will be high-carbon feedstock, and the best system to maintain will be not idle nanofactories, but computers inventing better nanofactories and products.

Greg and Brett: We don't yet know whether offensive or defensive nanotech will be easier. I think if you put enough work into it, offense has to be easier because of the possibility of relativistic projectiles (which doesn't strictly depend on nanotech). Whether subtle nano-scale attacks can be detected depends largely, I think, on whether non-proximal sub-wavelength imaging works.


Bravo Romeo Delta

The thing is that you just keep up with the exponential growth thing. Granted commercial versions may keep evolving quickly, but really once you've built a nanofactory, upgrading it won't be to fearsomely difficult. Tell the factory to produce microbots to go around and make modifications as needed.

But more signficantly is that military nanofactories may always be less advanced than their civilian counterparts because designing equipment for military use is a gigantic pain in the ass - the formal term is ruggedizing something.

hans-Ole from Denmark.

Why does the chinese spend a hell of a lot of money on nano-weapons research. ???.


I'm hearing alot of references to killer mosquitos used in conjunction with nanotech. Mosquitos are a real nightmare in tropical environments and the military has already spent millions on different methods to counter them. It's not just disease. They bite you alot, they're annoying, and they affect morale. Worse case scenario they can even cause notable blood loss. The most expensive solution to date has been an air conditioned suit that resembles something a hazmat team would wear; the rationale being that if it isn't air conditioned you wouldn't last two minutes in high temperature environments.

My point is simple. If we have the technology to produce nano-tech guided mosquitos then we'll have the technology to produce self contained climate controlled armor. It's not as if countering mosquitos or robotic toxin delivery systems would be it's only purupose; it would also keep you cool and protect you from conventional weapons. Heat stroke is a major issue in Iraq right now, for example. Hell, perhaps our body temperatures would be nano regulated thus negating the need for any kind of air conditioning.

I'm not saying eleminating the mosquito threat is going to make nanotech a non issue. I'm just saying mosquitos will be a non issue, at least as far as delivering toxins are concerned.

As for nanotechnology in general, I feel it will be limited to surveillance, mass production, and enhancing the physical defenses and immune systems of individual soldiers. As several posters have already mentioned the potential for virus and hacker disruption is just too severe. It's also woth noting that to date we've yet to see two super powers duke it in an all out cyber-war. There's your typical espionage of course, but two fully developed nations have yet to come to blows in the information arena. In other words, we have no clue how effective mass hacker attacks and CIA engineered (computer) viruses really are because the worlds super-powers have only been willing to smack around countries like Iraq in recent years.

There's also the "use it or lose" it mantra to consider. Deploying nano-weapons risks seeing them captured and reverse engineered, where as using them to mass produce hundreds of thousands of cruise missiles does not.

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