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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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  • Argh (Score:5, Interesting)

    by ekrout ( 139379 ) on Friday November 02, 2001 @11:17PM (#2515258) Journal
    It looks like everyone has already brought up the point that the danger in putting a "self-destruct" mechanism in a nanite. With millions or billions of nanites, even if the odds of one of them surviving that self-destruction are one in a million, those odds are too high. And if that nanite is designed to construct other nanites (or, worst case, copies of itself) then you have a problem on your hands.

    If nanotechnology ever reaches the total control of matter, self-replicating machine, Diamond Age "Seed" level (I don't have enough information to argue either way, but it seems to me that it'd be easier to create macroscopic Von Neumann machines than microscopic ones, and we haven't even done that yet) we're going to need more protection than a self destruct mechanism.

    What I'd like to see, in a world swarming with potential nanotech viruses, is an analogous nanotech immune system to take care of them, nanites which can be set to recognize and rip apart other nanites which meet certain parameters. Got a rogue oil-spill cleaning nanite ripping up asphalt in San Francisco? Get the standby security nanites in Oakland to kill it.

    There was an interview with a somewhat apocalyptic tech giant (a veep at Sun? I forget) who believed that the ever increasing technological power available to humanity (nanotech, biotech, and AI being three examples I remember) would cause the world to be ripped apart by terrorism in the coming century. He likened it to an airplane in which every passenger had a "Crash" button in front of their seat, and only one psycho was necessary to bring everyone down with him.

    I don't think it will be that way. With nanotechnology specifically, if our available defenses are kept up to the level that our potential offenses would require, then having a small set of nanites go rogue wouldn't be a concern; they would be overwhelmed by their surroundings. Going back to that analogy, if everybody had a "Crash" button in front of their airplane seat, but the plane was guaranteed to survive unless 50% of the passengers voted to crash, that would be the safest flight in history.
  • by Murdock037 ( 469526 ) <tristranthorn AT hotmail DOT com> on Friday November 02, 2001 @11:18PM (#2515259)
    Bill Joy, cofounder and chief technologiest of Sun Microsystems, wrote an article for Wired awhile back called "Why the Future Doesn't Need Us."

    He said there were three looming dangers to humanity's future: genetics, robotics, and nanotechnologies, largely because they were so accessible to those with less money than it'd take to, say, develop a nuclear weapon.

    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, and it's given extra weight simply by the position and history of the author himself. Check it out at It's long, but it's certainly worth the read.
  • Grey Goo Theory (Score:2, Interesting)

    by Ashcrow ( 469400 ) on Friday November 02, 2001 @11:25PM (#2515269) Homepage
    I belive that is the term used for it. It is a theory that states if one nanotech bot is formed incorrectly and reproduces at a much faster rate the entire world can be turned into whatever it is supose to be fixing. IE: If the nano's are creating a certian protien the whole world would become replicas of the protien (and nanos changing eachother into them). The biggest problem would be how to stop it since putting it into conatinment would just turn the containment into the protiens as well.
  • Wrong hand? (Score:2, Interesting)

    by {X-Frog} ( 122801 ) <{cedric} {at} {}> on Friday November 02, 2001 @11:33PM (#2515284) Homepage
    Who said that it was in right hand right now..?
  • by HanzoSan ( 251665 ) on Friday November 02, 2001 @11:38PM (#2515299) Homepage Journal

    Impossible if you dont have an unlimited energy source. This is why the energy source for nano technology should be RESTRICTED to say solar energy, or special laser based energy so it only works in certain lighting.
  • Bebop Movie and Nano (Score:2, Interesting)

    by hakker ( 11892 ) on Friday November 02, 2001 @11:41PM (#2515304) Homepage
    The Cowboy Bebop movie now playing in Japan is very poinient with this issue.
  • by HanzoSan ( 251665 ) on Friday November 02, 2001 @11:46PM (#2515316) Homepage Journal

    The first use for nano technology will set the tone for the type of technology it is.

    We have laser technology but i dont see people using laser guns which burn through bullet proof vests. WHy? Because lasers arent usually USED for that.

    Nano Technology should be used for hospitals, to heal people, to ACT as the bullet proof vest meaning, realtime cell repairing, this may make it so people are harder to kill, but isnt that the point of all technologies? To extend and improve the quality of life?

    If you have Nano cell repair and Nano technology in hospitals, Nano structures, then making a nano virus or weapon is going to be hard as hell, your best bet would be to exploit bugs in the current nano defensive structures such as turning a persons cell repairing nano bots against them.

    Then it will come down to, repairing bugs, instead of a virus problem where we are caught off guard.

    In this way, yes people will still die, but it will be freak accidents instead of millions of people dying over a nano plague
  • by HanzoSan ( 251665 ) on Friday November 02, 2001 @11:51PM (#2515334) Homepage Journal
    Most people who are evil arent intelligent enough to create a nuclear bomb or use genetic technology
    but in the information age, this all changes, evil people become genius's.

    Nano technology will be as simple as writing a computer virus,

    The best way to control this is to write anti virus, create nano bots which have no purpose at all but to destroy other nano bots

    When a nano virus hapens, release the destroy bots which simple using say magnets attach themselves to nano bots and in the same way that a virus attacks human cells, this can attack nano bots which are bad, attach to them, and either reprogram them, or make them cease to function somehow.
  • by HanzoSan ( 251665 ) on Saturday November 03, 2001 @12:10AM (#2515370) Homepage Journal

    Telepathy will be possible soon with brain to computer interface, and this connected to some nanites could do EXACTLY what you are talking about.

    Programming would be as simple as THINKING it, the whole art of programming would accellorate so fast that millions of programs would be written by one person in a day.

    imagine if programs were created via the speed of thought and these programs could materialize via nanites.
  • Re:Human Nature (Score:4, Interesting)

    by dragons_flight ( 515217 ) on Saturday November 03, 2001 @12:40AM (#2515433) Homepage
    It's simple. Human kind is in race between the forces that make weapons of mass destruction easier to make and more accessible and the forces that bring international community and universal peace.

    So far only a few people have access to nuclear weapons and those people have managed to act with reasonable, intelligent constraint. More people have access to anthrax and unfortunately not all of them are so enlightened. Similarly it is not hard to make a truck bomb and certainly some people with that skill still carry malice in their hearts.

    The progress of technology seems to be such, that some day the knowledge and tools needed to make a weapon capable of killing millions will fall into the hands of common adults. The question is whether humanity can progress in the pursuit of sanity and mutual respect before we bring doomsday down on our heads.

    I'm an optimist about human nature and a pessimist about nanotech and genetic weapon tech, so I'd like to hope we have a chance.
  • Re:Human Nature (Score:2, Interesting)

    by Wyatt Earp ( 1029 ) on Saturday November 03, 2001 @01:22AM (#2515521)
    I don't agree.

    The current "generations" in Western Europe, the Americas, Russia/CIS, China...have had nothing happen to them like what happened 1 or 2 generations ago.

    So I don't understand the "getting used to the next invention of attrocity" bit?

    Life has gotten alot safer and much less dangerous in Europe, Pacific Rim, China, and the Americas than it was...oh just 11 years ago.

    It almost seems that with each "super-weapon" the nations that deploy them become more and more restrained.
  • Re:Argh (Score:2, Interesting)

    by whereiswaldo ( 459052 ) on Saturday November 03, 2001 @04:39AM (#2515790) Journal
    You say nature has had billions of years to evolve into something that would... what? destroy everything on the planet? What good would that do a species? It would never evolve that way (assuming evolution is true). Anyway, all living things need stuff to stay alive. Food, water, heat... nanites wouldn't really need anything special. Plus, they wouldn't even have to defeat our natural immune systems... they could just take the raw materials that make up our immune systems and other flesh and turn them into more nanites. And please elaborate on why you think the gray ooze theory could never be?

    One major point I would also like to make, because you and people who think like you have missed it, is that human beings have for centuries had the best intentions but are NOT always right, not matter how right we think we are! There's always that chance. Remember when nuclear bombs seemed like a good idea for clearing mountains out of the way and thank goodness they didn't go ahead with the plan? The planners were CERTAIN I bet that nothing could go wrong. Someone probably thought "well, what if it DID create a disaster? Is it worth the risk?" Now we know it would have been a catastrophy.
    If one thing's for sure humans are not always right. We are OFTEN not right in fact. We must act accordingly and accept that we are imperfect beings incapable of making perfect decisions and calculations in Earthly matters.
  • Re:Argh (Score:2, Interesting)

    by juhaz ( 110830 ) on Saturday November 03, 2001 @09:38AM (#2516086) Homepage
    What makes you think nanites don't require any of the "stuff"? They need matter (and suitable one at that, just any molecule doesn't do) to replicate themselves, and they need energy to function, "food", water, heat, whatever you call it.

    And as other poster told, using our own matter to make copies of itself, viruses do exactly that, or actually more, nanite has to do all the work itself - while the virus takes over existing factory (one of yours sells) and reprograms it with its own DNA to make more viruses - virii way is certainly more energy efficient, yet immune system can deal with most of them.

    Only one thing is true, and probably pretty important one at that is the thing that all natural living things (yeah, I'd say self-replicating nanites can certainly be classified as living things) have some kind of self-preservation method, which the nanites don't, but genetically engineered microbe of mass destruction wouldn't need to have that either.
  • Unfortunately for Mr. Maroney, Dr. Smalley doesn't know what he is talking about. Everything that one sees in nature, including Mr. Marony & Dr. Smalley, is assembled atom by atom or small molecule by small molecule. The ribosome found in bacteria and eukaryotic cells IS an assembler. We don't have semi-autonomous microbots yet because computers with sufficient capacity to operate one aren't yet small enough to fit in them. However when the computers are built using molecular electronics, we will certainly be able to build 1-10 micron scale autonomous machines. I would urge Mr. Maroney and others who disbelieve the Drexlerian perspective to read the detailed responses to the Smalley & Whitesides articles in Scientific American at A Debate About Assemblers [].

    I've recently finished a detailed analysis [] of what is required to achieve the full vision of molecular nanotechnology via the wet (biotechnology enabled) path (in contrast to the dry path being pursued by Zyvex []). It will require significant improvements in both computer capacity and tools for the computer-assisted, and eventually automated, design of enzymes. Currently our abilities to design enzymes is limited, but we can expect these capabilities to increase significantly within the current decade. Within the period from 2010-2020, the costs for the design of assembly lines for nanoscale parts should fall low enough that the design and assembly of nanorobots should become feasible. So Drexler's estimates may yet prove to be right on the money.

Loose bits sink chips.