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The Dangers of Nanotech 236

Krees writes "Small Times talked with the Foresight Institute's Christine Peterson, Ralph Merkle of Zyvex, and Ray McLaughlin of Carbon Nanotechnologies about the potential of nanotechnology, which has benefited greatly from open source research methods, and nanotech weapons in particular falling into the wrong hands. Recent recognition of potential abuses will likely lead to incrased secrecy in nanotech research." This topic comes up every so often - what happens when nanotech falls into the wrong hands? I think that's a "when", not an "if", as that happens with almost everything.
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The Dangers of Nanotech

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  • by Shant3030 ( 414048 ) on Saturday November 03, 2001 @01:14AM (#2515508)
    I was just reading The Age of Spiritual Machines by Ray Kurweil, and I ended with a brief discussion on nanotechnology and terrorism. He brings up points that are very important to consider. Nanotechnology can be one where it is self-controlling. It can self-replicate, but embedded within that a means of destroy the negative components. I do not have the book handy, but it is a good read and Kurzweil explains it so simply, my mom could understand it.
  • by WillWare ( 11935 ) on Saturday November 03, 2001 @01:32AM (#2515534) Homepage Journal
    The Foresight Institute (with which Drexler and Peterson are associated) has come up with a set of development and design guidelines [] for nanotech. These would go far to prevent most accidents, but they depend on developers to self-police, as has happened in the area of genetic engineering. Regrettably they don't prevent acts of terrorism.

    The commonly cited "gray goo" scenario is a sort of nanotech worst case: nanites that can convert almost any naturally occurring matter (including biomatter) into more identical nanites. Robert Freitas has done some analysis [] concluding that gray goo would either work very slowly, or throw off a huge amount of heat which could be detected by a thermal monitoring system of geosynchronous satellites. Drexler has observed that making a gray goo nanite is likely to be an enormous engineering challenge.

    These kinds of topics pop up on sci.nanotech with some frequency. Here are some discussions: November 1996 [], March 1997 [], September/October 1997 []. My own thinking is that we want to ensure that the development of defensive measures outpaces the development of offensive weapons. A step in the right direction would be for the good guys to maintain a development/design/simulation effort that clearly outpaces anything the bad guys can do. (This obviously sidesteps the issue of who gets to define "good guys" and "bad guys", and whether the good guys become corruptible given a commanding technological lead.)

  • by wayne606 ( 211893 ) on Saturday November 03, 2001 @04:03AM (#2515745)
    To us, jets aren't some kind of exotic rarely-seen technology. They may be hi-tech but they are familiar hi-tech, and that familarity is what makes them dangerous. Rather than nanobots, what if somebody developed a virus that made pigeons become homocidal. That would be the equivalent.

    And I think most of us had thought at some point "gee, a suicidal person could crash a plane into something and cause a lot of damage. I wonder why it doesn't happen". Just idle speculation ...
  • Re:Argh (Score:2, Informative)

    by wayne606 ( 211893 ) on Saturday November 03, 2001 @12:41PM (#2516384)
    The real question is, how hard is it to make a replicating machine. It's extremely hard. That is what evolution is - replicating machines trying to get better and out-replicate other machines. Even the simplest cell is far more complex than any machine we have created (with the possible exception of Windows XP :-) The biological model for replication - basically grow and then split in two - seems to me like the only feasible way to do it. At atomic scales you can't have little robot arms that pick up atoms and put them in place, for one thing because the atoms will tend to stick to the arm tighter than to where you are trying to put them. (There was an article about that somewhere recently - I forget where.)

    And consider how we make nanotech now. With silicon fab lines. It takes a huge billion dollar factory to create one tiny machine. Imagine shrinking down all that power into the machine itself so it can reproduce. I have never seen any plausible proposals on how this might be done.

    If you look at the chemistry, the best basis for self-replication (i.e. life) is carbon, oxygen, hydrogen, and nitrogen. If that weren't the case some other basis would have evolved. This means proteins, lipids, carbohydrates, etc - the building blocks of organic life. Nanotech already exists and it works pretty well.
  • Benzene - JFYI (Score:2, Informative)

    by jdoeii ( 468503 ) on Sunday November 04, 2001 @03:30AM (#2518110)
    > You: Hasn't it occured to you that a single
    > drop of benzene is enough to kill a room full
    > of people? All Benzene is, is just a ring of 8
    > carbon atoms.

    Benzene is C6H6. It's no more toxic than aceton or asbestos. One drop of benzene cannot kill a roomful of people. You can wash your hands in benzene, swallow a small amount of it (certainly a few drops) and suffer no immediate health problems. Benzene MAY cause cancer in some people. Just like asbestos.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Sunday November 04, 2001 @05:12PM (#2519838)
    You can also listen to an interview with Bill Joy where he discusses his ideas around the dangers of democratizing genetic engineering, robotics and computer technology.

    Check it out [] (realmedia courtesy of Vancouver Indymedia).
  • by cphoenix ( 55235 ) <> on Monday November 05, 2001 @03:38PM (#2524035) Homepage
    Gray Goo is not a "key part" of Foresight's story. It's not even all that important. You may want to take another look at Foresight--it sounds like you haven't looked at them for several years.

    I think you're right about self-replication not being so important. A single desktop factory with fractal converging assembly lines is much easier to program than a mass of individual free-floating assemblers. And in fact, in Nanosystems (written in 1992) Drexler proposes just such a factory.


"Conversion, fastidious Goddess, loves blood better than brick, and feasts most subtly on the human will." -- Virginia Woolf, "Mrs. Dalloway"