Become a fan of Slashdot on Facebook


Forgot your password?

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.
This discussion has been archived. No new comments can be posted.

The Dangers of Nanotech

Comments Filter:
  • Human Nature (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Wyatt Earp ( 1029 ) on Friday November 02, 2001 @11:32PM (#2515281)
    While Human nature is one thing, I think the past 60 years...maybe 100 years have started to show a shift from using "ultimate weapons" whenever you have them, to only using them once in a while.

    Chemical Weapons - Used in mass during the First World War, then used against civilian prisoners during the Second World War. Mass produced by members of NATO and WP during the Cold War, but not used that much except by Third World nations since the Second World War.

    Nuclear Weapons - Used only twice by the United States during combat, even though the US had them for 56 years at this point. Never used in combat by any of the other nations to have them (USSR/Russia, South Africa, Israel, India, Pakistan, France, UK, China).

    Biological Weapons - Not used in combat by any nation-states that we know of in the Modern era. (Simple biological agents have been used for centuries, but nothing like the modern biological weapons have been used).

    I think that the West would not use/abuse nanotechnology unless someone else moved first. For an example...only three time since the Second World War have US political leaders or Congressmen spoke about using a nuclear device until a few weeks ago. Those times were the Chinese attack against the UN in '50, the Siege of Khe Sahn/Siege of Hue and a proposal in '81 for the US to fire a "warning shot" high above the Inter-German border.

    Mankind is getting better, slowly but surely.

  • Not so sure (Score:5, Insightful)

    by TACD ( 514008 ) on Friday November 02, 2001 @11:35PM (#2515288) Homepage
    The article states that "There's no question that if Osama bin Laden had access to nanoweapons that he'd use them."

    I thought the point that Americans are meant to be noticing is that it is low-tech which is a real danger, not high-tech. Osama bin Laden took out the WTC with fanatics, box-cutters and commercial airliners, not cruise missiles or stealth operations, or even a bomb.

    Assuming the anthrax is even down to him (which is far from certain), it is not being distributed with cluster bombs, overhead sprays or even by infecting the water supply. It is simply put in some powder in the mail.

    The point is, high-tech can be defended against. Computer systems can be secured, fighter jets can be shot down and bombs can be defused. The real danger occurs when something that is taken for granted, something that is very low-tech and forms a basic part of society, is used for ill means.

    No doubt that nanotechnology could be used for war purposes. But I consider it far more likely that a Western power would do this than Osama bin Laden.

  • by tahpot ( 237053 ) <<moc.liamtoh> <ta> <tophat>> on Friday November 02, 2001 @11:35PM (#2515291) Journal

    If all the science was open, then everyone could have an understanding of all the risks and work together to prevent anything terrible happening. If governemnts/scientists/corporations try to keep it secret, they can't. With the Internet and fast transfer of information, any small leak will be immediately available to the world.

    Instead of putting the effort into protection, put it into prevention.

    It is unrealistic to prevent information to be hidden in our modern would, instead we need to control how it can be used and by who.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Friday November 02, 2001 @11:43PM (#2515310)
    The award for the most overrated science goes to - nanotechnology. Yes I know you write IBM using atoms and a tunneling microscope; you can also write "pointless hype".
  • by yzquxnet ( 133355 ) on Friday November 02, 2001 @11:44PM (#2515311) Homepage
    There will almost always be a positive side and a negative side to just about everything. Nanotech is no different. An example is of the common #2 pencil. Positive, you can write documentation and share it, effectivly. Negatives, it hurts if you poke yourself with it. Deadly in the wrong hands. Samething for nuclear reactions. Good, power. Bad, bombs.

    The same logic can be applied to nanotech. The positives that it may help us make dramatic technological leaps (it also being a major leap).But it may also

    I don't want to bring back up the Sept 11 tragedy but it illustrates how common and usefull things can be turned against us. This will never change. There will always be that remote chance.
  • Nanotech (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Spy Hunter ( 317220 ) on Friday November 02, 2001 @11:59PM (#2515359) Journal
    Nanotech weapons? This is the kind of thing where you get visions of little machines, building each other over and over, replicating until they turn the whole world into gray goo, right?

    I can't think of anything more rediculous. First of all, how are you going to build a self-replicating machine? The obstacles are so large as to be practically insurmountable. Consider that we've never even come close to building a machine that can make duplicates of itself in the macro-sized world, even using pre-machined parts, and then think how complex it would be to make a microscopic machine that could replicate. First of all, data storage would be a problem. The machine would have to have incredibly advanced molecular-level storage technology, and incredibly advanced tiny molecular storage reading technology to read the information. Then it would have to have a computer to process this information, and very sophisticated sensors to tell where it was, and some sort of locomotion device that worked in three dimensions somehow, and some sort of advanced grabbing arm to move stuff with. Just the grabbing arm itself would be an achievement. How do you expect this machine to grab atoms? With other atoms? It would be a clumsy arm that was built with the things it was supposed to move! Plus, the arm would have to build itself as part of the replicating process, so it couldn't include any components that would be too small for it to build itself.

    And the final requirement: Power. Where is this machine going to be powered from? It's going to have to have a lot of power in order to grab atoms, since it will have to break atomic bonds to move the atoms around. It must be a steady, reliable source of power, one that is available everywhere in the world if it is going to turn the whole world into gray goo. Sunlight you say? What is going to collect the sunlight? Solar panels? These solar panels would need to be made of certain atoms which wouldn't be available everywhere. How would the machines replicate if they couldn't find the correct elements to build their solar panels? Remember that these are tiny machines that can only roam tiny distances, they can't go out searching for the elements they need.

    One must only look at nature to see what can be accomplished in terms of molecular-sized self-replicating machines. Cells are masterpieces of design, with ingenious mechanisms that are still out of our realm of understanding in some cases, and certainly way out of our ability to design and create on our own. And yet algae is in no danger of turning the whole world into "green goo." It only survives under certain conditions. I don't think man will be able to out-design nature for the forseeable future.

  • No No No! (Score:3, Insightful)

    by none2222 ( 161746 ) on Saturday November 03, 2001 @12:05AM (#2515366)
    Bill Joy is an alarmist fool. Period.

    The article is one of the most well-reasoned examinations of the issue of nanotech and the dangers in the future of technology I've ever read

    Are we reading the same article? The one Bill Joy admits was inspired by the Unabomber manifesto?

    As it stands today, humanity will only be around for a limited time. In the best case, we'll be around until the sun expands and swallows the Earth. More likely, a stray asteroid will finish us off first. Even if we decide to abandon technology, humanity will cease to exist one day.

    So, do we want to make the most of the time we have, or not? We won't do ourselves any favors by becoming Luddites. We can only maximize human potential by the continuing to advance science and technology. That's the only chance we have for long-term survival as a species; and it will make the lives of individuals a fuck of a lot more pleasant along the way.

  • Re:Nanotech (Score:3, Insightful)

    by istartedi ( 132515 ) on Saturday November 03, 2001 @12:10AM (#2515373) Journal

    First of all, how are you going to build a self-replicating machine? The obstacles are so large as to be practically insurmountable

    Yeah, men will probably walk on the Moon before we build such things!

  • by Christopher Thomas ( 11717 ) on Saturday November 03, 2001 @12:24AM (#2515401)
    First of all, how are you going to build a self-replicating machine? The obstacles are so large as to be practically insurmountable.

    It's easy to demonstrate that it's possible and to put an upper bound on the complexity of a replicater by looking for existing examples. Bacteria are self-replicating machines capable of synthesizing a wide variety of things, and while they're quite complex, understanding them is far from being an insurmountable challenge. Ditto understanding enough to design our own similar machines from scratch.
  • Re:Argh (Score:1, Insightful)

    by Ieshan ( 409693 ) <ieshan AT gmail DOT com> on Saturday November 03, 2001 @01:03AM (#2515487) Homepage Journal
    Or you could use Sarin nerve gas, which inhibits nerve firing, and works every time.

    Personally, I don't see the point of nanobots. They're hard to make, they're expensive to make, and they're useless when compared with similar toxins or biochemical agents.

    Nerve gas kills invariably, almost instantly. I don't understand why a terrorist would use something else.
  • Re:If only... (Score:4, Insightful)

    by cerberus1949 ( 118779 ) on Saturday November 03, 2001 @01:11AM (#2515501)
    Wishing that the hypothetical airplane has a "crash button critical mass" of 50% is comforting but not completely realistic. Remember the Japanese cult a few years ago that released Saran gas in the subways. Its easy to forget that their ultimate goal was to end all life on earth [not just the lives of those who were different from them]. It was part of their "religion" so don't expect that we could understand it. With the right technology you only need one such cult.

    The terrorists we're facing right now only want to destroy us. The Japanese cult wanted to kill everyone. They're both terrorists but there's a significant difference. Once we get a "lets-commit-suicide-for-everyone" cult with nanoweapons then all bets are off. Any technology as powerful as this one can and eventually will be turned against us just as every one before it.

    Secrecy and other safeguards may not be 100% effective, but they have the potential to fare better than wishful thinking. Since I don't see any guidelines or safeguards in the near future I hope I'm wrong.
  • bacteria aren't capable of turning the world into gray goo

    Oh, I don't know about that. While I agree that one strain of bacteria couldn't live everywhere and turn everything into gray goo, I wouldn't discount our capacity to destroy the planet with bacteria, three or four strains of them.

    Certainly, it would be difficult. Your world destroying bacteria would, among other things, need both massive, highly divergent redundancy in all cellular systems (to provide resistance to antibiotics and viability under diverse chemical and physical conditions) *and* have a generation time of no more than twenty minutes (less than that if we assume that other members of the human race are going to try and stop it) *and* have an unthinkably broad sweet of metabolic enzymes (depending on how much of "everything" you want to turn into goo) and, finally, have a complex, multiply redundant (again) and rapidly acting regulatory system to keep all of these features working at the same time.

    Is this a tall order? Yes. Do I think we'll have enough of an understanding of proteomics (the relationship between sequence and function of a protein) to do this by the end of the century? Probably not! By the end of the next century? Yes, I think we will.

    More to the point, we have the technology (although it would be hard) to wipe out a significant chunk of the entire human population. A bacteria which, quite simply:

    a) exposed no human antigens on it's coat

    b) survived endocytosis (being eaten) and continued to replicate inside immune cells (HIV is a *virus*, not a bacteria, but this property is still analogous)

    c) was resistant to all presently used antibiotics

    d) secreted itself into muscus and saliva before symptoms appeared

    There are bacteria that do each of those things. Getting all of those features into one bacterium would be difficult, but it doesn't require any fundamental advance in understanding over what we have now; it's a lot more realistic, as a worry, than a horde of microscopic self replicating Daleks. Just because one apocalyptic future is frankly absurd doesn't mean that our scientific advances in other areas don't allow us to destroy ourselves.

    Code while you can, for tomorrow you may die.
  • by Bowie J. Poag ( 16898 ) on Saturday November 03, 2001 @01:24AM (#2515523) Homepage

    Them: You should be afraid of nanotechnology getting into the wrong hands!

    You: Well, ok...Why? Whats there to be afraid of? Isn't the whole idea circumvented by...

    Them: Nanotechnology. Be afraid.

    You: Huh? That doesn't answer my question.

    Them: You should be afraid of nanotechnology.

    You: Err...What?? You're just repeating yourself!! You haven't given me a reason why I...

    Them: Yes. Nanotechnology--It could get into the wrong hands. Osama Bin Laden's hands!

    You: How on earth is nanotechnology a threat to anyone? What, you think someones going to introduce some sort of synthetic nano-machine virus into the water supply? Come on.

    Them: You need to be afraid of nanotechnology falling into the wrong hands. And the water supply

    You: FINE. OK. Jeezus, lets say for the sake of the argument that some "evil organization" learns how to develop nanotechnology. Fine. What good is it going to do them? What are they going to build that would be such a terrible threat to anyone? Why not simply use standard, boring old chemistry tricks to kill people? Hasn't it ever occured to you that the idea of "death by nanotechnology" is about as sensical as "And now, Batman, I will spend millions of dollars to construct a machine that lower you very slowly into a pool of imported Burmese pirahna!!"

    Them: You should be afraid of nanotechnology falling into the wrong hands.

    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. It doesn't require a knowledge of nanotechnology to make a whole bucket of....

    Them: You should be afraid of Osama Bin Laden, and nanotechnology. And benzene. And mail. And muslims. And cryptography. And steganography. And bridges. And...

    You: {click} channel...

  • by kauai_geek ( 100971 ) on Saturday November 03, 2001 @04:02AM (#2515744)
    The article states that "There's no question that if Osama bin Laden had access to nanoweapons that he'd use them."

    That's quite a statement my friend. Let's be dreadfully honest here. What is terrorism? Terrorism is violence. Violence against a group of people who are unlike us. What defines "us"? Ladies and Gentlemen, we were infected at a very early age. With a dreadful virus, a virus of the mind. From here on I will refer to a virus of the mind as a meme.

    We have all been infected with a very specific meme. The meme of race. The meme of Nationalism. The memes of "We" and "Them".

    We are all alike. Even the most beautiful and glamorous of us is forced to take a large foul-smelling crap from time to time.

    When you are born, your parents induct you into a society. They tell you the story of your Forefathers, your culture, your heritage. You are given a sense of pride in your genetic lineage. Don't panic. You have been infected. From then on, everyone around you is different. The "We" and the "Them". You can't be part of them, you're part of "Us", part of "our" "we".

    When confronted with one of "Them", you meet an alien for the first time. Where your own eyes are round, the alien's eyes are slanted. Where your skin is black, his is white. Where your hair is lusturous and black, hers is fine and white, or red, or green. See what just happened? You fell into the trap... You have denied your shared traits, your shared behaviours. You saw the differences between you, and fell into the trap of racism.

    Racism is a negative idea, Not because of the violence and hatred it breeds, but because it is wrapped up in the meme of race. The Twin memes of "We" and "Them". How am I different from any Muslim? How am I different from any Jew? How am I different from any Catholic? We all eat to survive. We all take big smelly shits. We Pick our noses and stare at our boogers. We Fart and blame it on the Dog. We all become aroused. Which incidentally brings me to the first cure for Racism.

    We all need to fuck each other.

    You heard me, say it yourself. You'll feel much better.

    "We all need to fuck one another."

    If the words taste funny in your mouth, it's cause you haven't acquired a taste yet. Try it again...

    You may be asking me now, "But Kauai_Geek, we're gonna be having a whole lot of fun with this, but how will it cure racism?" The answer? By eliminating the Visual differences, it is impossible to differentiate yourself from your neighbor. He looks just like you. He has your cocoa skin, your exotic eyes, your tall lanky frame, even your acne. He. Looks. Just. Like. Me. He is me... How can I hate myself? How can I hate my brother? How can I do naught but love my sister? My Aunt? My cousin? My Father? My Mother?

    It's okay if you still have that foul taste in your mouth. This is a difficult, and sometimes distasteful idea to stomach. How could you ever fuck a Nigger? A Chink? A Jap? A Wop? A Filthy Fucking Jew? You may not taste the sweet nectar of lust when you contemplate the differences of another. For you I have another cure.

    You are going to have to kill everyone. Well I shouldn't say that. You won't have to kill Everyone . Just those who aren't part of your "We". Gives you a funny feeling in your stomach? Wrap all of that silly queasyness in a bundle and throw it over your shoulder. You're not a Murderer. You're ending Racism! And what a glorious gift your god has given you. That's right Your God. Don't let yourself down after everyone who looks different than you is dead. You and your similar brothers have much more work to do! You've got to kill everyone one who isn't a Catholic! Who isn't a Baptist! Who isn't a Muslim! Heck, even those who aren't Buddhists! You've got a whole bunch of Jews to kill. Go on, don't be hesitant. Your God said to love all your brothers. How can you love with the unsafety of difference between you and your brothers? Go on, keep killing.

    Good work. You've killed everyone who does not share your melanin levels. Good work. Now take a good long look around. Hey.... Waitaminute John's eyes are blue. Mine are brown. Fuck, there's still a little bit of racism left to be purged... Smoke that blue eyed fuck! And his Daughter! That bitch with the Red HAIR!!! Slaughter that BiTch! Fucking murder hate kill enemy destroy slaughter maim, bite kick kill punch!

    Thank goodness, there's no racism left. Funny, weren't there more people around here? Hmmm this is interesting. You seem to be All. By. Your. Self.

    Well at least there's no more of those racist fucks left.

    As for me? I'd rather get laid in a bed of cloth than a bed of dirt. Which do you choose?
  • by Macka ( 9388 ) on Saturday November 03, 2001 @08:20AM (#2515993)

    If anything I think the worry is arse-about-face. It's the technologically advanced countries that are going to perfect nano weapons first. So if we are scared, the people of Middle Eastern countries should be terrified. Imagine a nano virus 10 times more powerful than Anthrax, geneticly keyed to only kill those of Pashtoon blood, or in order to get Bin Laden, those of Yemeni blood! It would be like using a smart nuclear bomb that would only hurt your enemies.

    Imagine what could happen if weapons like this or the technology to produce them, got into the hands of western white supremacy groups, or christian fundamentalists!

    What a nightmare for the human race!

  • Re:A good analogy (Score:3, Insightful)

    by graxrmelg ( 71438 ) on Saturday November 03, 2001 @11:21AM (#2516223)

    If you were to give a present-day person a time machine, [...] He would probably take over the world pretty freaking quickly.

    If you were to give everyone on the planet a time machine, all at the same time, nobody would be able to take over the world.

    Perhaps, but I think the world would be trashed pretty quickly. Besides, time travel is the only technology that gives you the ability to magically undo the actions of the bad guys.

    For another analogy, suppose instead you gave everyone on the planet a hydrogen bomb that they could explode wherever they wanted. How long do you think society would last? Destruction is a lot easier than creation, so I'm not so confident that defensive abilities will outpace offensive ones.

  • by tim_maroney ( 239442 ) on Saturday November 03, 2001 @01:51PM (#2516496) Homepage
    I remember fifteen years ago when I first heard about nanotechnology from a Drexler acolyte. I was told that in five to twenty-five years, we would have assemblers capable of producing anything from a computer to a hot pizza instantly on demand. I read the book and saw only a slew of completely unsupported speculations about autonomous nanobots, general assemblers, and other apparently impossible things.

    Now it's well more than half of my friend's worst-case estimate later. We have nothing approaching any of those things. What we have is exactly one thing, C 60, also called buckminsterfullerene. It's a very interesting thing, but it's a material, not a machine. Its co-inventor, Dr. Richard E. Smalley, explained in the Sept. 2001 Scientific American [] that the Drexler assembler is and always will be impossible, because molecules are not tinkertoys that you can put together an atom at a time.

    In his 1999 Senate statement [], Dr. Smalley said this about potential natural security ramifications of nanotechnology research:

    National Security. The Department of Defense recognized the importance of nanostructures over a decade ago and has played a significant role in nurturing the field. Critical defense applications include: (a) Continued information dominance, identified as an important capability for the military, will depend on U.S. nanotechnology. (b) Nanostructured electronics will provide more sophisticated virtual reality systems that enable affordable, effective training. (c) Reduction in military manpower must be compensated by the increased use of nanostructure-enhanced automation and robotics, both of which will benefit from nanostructures. The use of uninhabited combat vehicles is desired, both to reduce risk to human life as well as to improve vehicle performance. For example, several thousand pounds could be stripped from a pilotless fighter aircraft, resulting in longer missions. In addition, the fighter agility could be dramatically improved without the necessity to limit g-forces on the pilot, increasing its combat effectiveness. (d) Nanostructured materials hold the promise for the high performance (lighter, stronger) needed in military platforms while simultaneously providing diminished failure rates and lower life-cycle costs. (e) Advances in medicine and health enabled by nanoscience will provide badly needed chemical/biological/nuclear sensing, protection and improvements in casualty care. (f) Changes are also possible in the design and weight reduction of nuclear weapons and systems used in non-proliferation.

    As you can see, it promises some incremental advances, but no basic revolutions -- certainly nothing on the level of the atomic bomb. Stronger armor, lighter planes, faster computers, smaller missiles, absolutely. But hordes of nanobattlebots? Get real.

    The Drexler revolution has fallen flat on its face. We do not yet have even a semi-autonomous microbot, much less any kind of nanobot. Even at the microscale it turns out the laws of mechanics are too different from the mesoscale to allow for something as standard as a gear, and the nanoscale is much more different than that. We do not have anything vaguely resembling an assembler, and chemists say that the assembler will always be impossible.

    Yet for some reason people are still concerned with these fantasies. It's just bad science fiction, like warp drives and human-animal hybrids. It's not important. We will have nanotechnology but it will be far more modest and less dangerous than the whacked-out speculations of fake futurists. Start dealing with the technology issues we really do face, like cloning, nuclear proliferation, and social monitoring. They're important. Drexler and his cult are not.


  • by Kasreyn ( 233624 ) on Saturday November 03, 2001 @04:05PM (#2516753) Homepage
    Think about it, if a nanite that could construct more of itself went rogue and began making more rogue nanites like itself, it would overwhelm the area before humans could even draw five measured breaths. Unless, that is, it is built so that it cannot replicate more often than every x time period - and what if that measure "breaks"?

    The only protection would seem to be to have security nanite completely saturated in the surroundings (ie., the entire world), and then what if a security nanite breaks or goes Rogue? Which nanites watch others, and which watch the watchers? There needs to be a more concrete answer to this before we go releasing nanites into the wild.

  • by ppanon ( 16583 ) on Saturday November 03, 2001 @08:01PM (#2517387) Homepage Journal
    If anything I think the worry is arse-about-face. It's the technologically advanced countries that are going to perfect nano weapons first. So if we are scared, the people of Middle Eastern countries should be terrified. Imagine a nano virus 10 times more powerful than Anthrax, geneticly keyed to only kill those of Pashtoon blood, or in order to get Bin Laden, those of Yemeni blood! It would be like using a smart nuclear bomb that would only hurt your enemies.
    Oh yeah that's a good idea! You'll have to get something that's really virulent and spreads everywhere of course. And then within 5 years every genetic script kiddy will have easily obtained a sample and modified it to take out their favourite pet peeve ethnic group. Great plan!

    Imagine what could happen if weapons like this or the technology to produce them, got into the hands of western white supremacy groups, or christian fundamentalists!
    Frankly, I'm more worried about the Israeli Zionists. They have the knowledge and technology. They are effectively involved in a war and might rationalize to themselves that it's justified.

Vitamin C deficiency is apauling.