May 1, 2006 (Vol. 26, No. 9)

Shifting Political and Economic Winds, or a Firestorm of Change?

As with biotechnology, there is a global race to develop nanotechnology, the science of the very small. Nanotech is estimated to be a $1-trillion industry within five to 10 years, compared to biotechs current worldwide revenue of $55 billion. Given national security concerns, including terrorism, and a still-jittery domestic and global economy, its no wonder that policymakers are worried about competitive disadvantages, economically and militarily, if their nations lag behind.

But beyond these immediate harms, there are mid- and far-term issues that arise from our excited pursuit of nanotechnology. If global security is a top concern, then we have a duty to ask whether our current path will take us to another arms race and everything that entails. Also, if nanotechnology lives up to its hype as &#8220the Next Industrial Revolution,&#8220 how might it impact the economy, as well as nations that fail to keep up? To better appreciate and investigate these questions, we need to first consider the new capabilities that nanotechnology may give us.

Global Security Implications

As a major sector driving nanotechnology research and investments, the military has many innovations in progress or predicted, including the following:

&#8226 New offensive capabilities: Smaller, more efficient weapons, including energy weapons; greater use of robotics; hypersonic missiles and jets; precision-guided munitions, including smart bullets; and improved stealth technology.

&#8226 New defensive capabilities: Stronger, more dynamic personal and vehicle armor; better detection devices, e.g., &#8220smart dust&#8220 and biochemical sensors; better jamming capabilities against booby traps; and energy weapons to defend against missiles.

&#8226 Communications and control: Quantum computing for smaller, powerful devices as well as for better intelligence; quantum communications for greater eavesdropping and more secure messages; and greater ability to attack enemy systems.

&#8226 Other: Bionic suits for superhuman strength and capabilities; more effective battlefield medicine; more powerful and lighter energy sources; faster production of military assets, i.e., force multiplier; and enhanced weapons of mass destruction, e.g., bio-weapons that can target specific DNA.

Given just this short list of forecasted capabilities, nanotechnology clearly has the potential to take a military well into the next generation and beyond. The prospect of having this sizable advantage, as well as the fear of being surpassed by other militaries, provides a strong incentive to engage in a new arms race. Also, as with previous arms races, without an agreement or treaty among nations to moderate or curb their activities, there will be an increased risk of mistrust, misunderstanding, and catastrophic conflict.

For the U.S., it is no longer a foregone conclusion that it will be the first in this area as it was in many previous technologies. Besides losing ground to other nations in education, particularly in science, as well as in research spending, U.S. success in nanotechnology research is hindered by convoluted funding processes, intellectual property issues, and other factors, according to a recent report from Lux Research.

So its an open question as to which country might take the lead in nanotechnology and its military applications. If nanotech is developed unevenly among nations, it may lead to difficult political change and greater insecurity. Further, if a nondemocratic government, such as China, develops nanotechnology first, that would raise a host of additional worries, including becoming the target of a first-strike attack that we cannot effectively defend against or answer in kind.

Terrorists, however, are perhaps not a near- or mid-term worry in nanotechnology. The consensus among scientists seems to be that terrorists, though still very interested in new capabilities and tactics, can more easily and affordably employ conventional or biochemical weapons to achieve their goals. If nanotechnology weapons reach a point where they are easy to manufacture, or if lax security or political instability allows terrorists to acquire such weapons from a nation, then we may have good reason to worry. This, however, begs us to ask whether some research is too dangerous to conduct or publish&#8212a question that biotechnologists are becoming increasingly familiar with.

Economic Implications

In the short- and mid-term, failing to keep up with other nations in the research or adoption of nanotechnology has obvious negative consequences for an economy, both domestically and globally, as world markets are increasingly dependent on each other. As quickly as technology is advancing, following Moores Law, it will be an extraordinary challenge for any nation to catch up, if they fall too far behind. Think of the nations that missed the previous Industrial Revolution in the last century or even the Internet bandwagon today.

Additionally, like other revolutions before it, we can expect nanotechnology to radically change many elements of society in the distant future, if not earlier. Particularly, if the predictions are right and nanotechnology, in its advanced form of molecular manufacturing, can enable us to create objects from the bottom up, i.e., one molecule at a time, then whats our incentive to trade if we can create nearly anything we want? Would that make entire industries obsolete overnight and lead to massive displacement of workers? Further, would that encourage an isolationist economic and political policy, and what problems might come from that?

One source of this large debate comes from a detailed speculative design for a nanofactory that might be a portable or desktop device&#8212a black box of sorts&#8212that can create virtually any object we want, from cakes to computers. To oversimplify things, raw materials, say dirt and water, might go in one end, and a raw steak or perhaps an unmanned fighter jet might come out the other. While this may sound like science fiction, the theory behind it seems sound: if we can precisely manipulate molecules, and physical objects are only made up of molecules, then why wouldnt we be able create any physical object we want?

If this still sounds far-fetched, consider the similarities with todays 3-D printers that can print out plastic or ceramic objects one thin layer at a time. No longer limited to producing only manufacturing prototypes and machine parts, 3-D printers recently broke new ground in printing out fully functional and fashionable footwear, among an expanding and impressive array of print-on-demand products. The nanofactory operates by the same concept, except with much more precision and a mix of different materials.


The above scenarios may or may not come to bear&#8212thats the nature of making predictions. As with other technologies, chances are good that some futurists are simply over-optimistic or over-impressed with nanotechnology, while others are too conservative in their imagination and vision. But the science behind these predictions at least appears credible, moving them from science fiction to the realm of possibility and therefore deserving of our serious consideration.

So where to begin and how? For the global security issues we raised, we need to engage not only political scientists and terrorist experts, but also historians to learn relevant lessons from our past and take the proper precautions. To study the market disruption described above, we need to engage economists, as well as scientists to better understand what scenarios are plausible. Most of all, we need to engage the public in determining how their own future should unfold.

Nanoethics, or the study of nanotechnologys ethical and social implications, then must be collaborative. Besides being a highly cross-disciplinary field, it is an enabling technology that will accelerate progress in biotech, information technology, cognitive sciences, manufacturing, and many other areas. Given this convergence, as well as its broad and profound impacts, nanotechnology is looking more like a perfect breakthrough or a perfect storm, for both ethicists and all of human kind.

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