Military Nanotechnology: Potential applications and preventive arms control
Jürgen Altmannn, Contemporary Security Studies, 2006, $105, 229 pages, ISBN 0-415-37102-3
Nanoscience, the study of interactions and dynamics at the scale of a few to a hundred nanometers, is hardly a new field. Materials scientists, chemists, and biochemists can lay claim to having helped uncover the workings of nature at these small scales. On the other hand, nanotechnology—the effort to apply this knowledge to produce useful products—is a field that has exploded in recent years. The American National Nanotechnology Initiative (nanoscience is meant to be included in the initiative, but with somewhat less prominence) will fund well over $1 billion in research this year, split among 23 agencies. One of a short list of items that have been supported with equal enthusiasm by Presidents Clinton and Bush, the National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI) has grown rapidly over the past decade.
The NNI represents an agreement among scientists, policymakers, and the technology-based industries that have lobbied for it. In exchange for the money disbursed, which is on the scale of the math and physical sciences budget of the National Science Foundation or the high energy physics budget of the Department of Energy, nanotechnology researchers have promised to deliver a product.
Computers are at the center of this promise. With Moore’s Law quickly edging towards physical limitations, faster computers will soon require new technologies at small scales. Coupled with speculative ideas of self-assembly and massive parallelism, many suspect that nanotechnology will dominate a new economy; governments are scrambling to ensure that they are included in that economy.
However, the nanoscientists’ promise has a darker side. This year one-third of American nanotechnology research was funded by the Department of Defense; nanocomputers may be closely followed by nano-weapons.
These military applications attract Jurgend Altmann’s attention in “Military Nanotechnology: Potential applications and preventive arms control.” Altmann, a physicist by training, is an arms control expert, and this book is part of the German joint projects on preventive arms control, an effort to guide policy makers to consider the future proliferation implications of decisions they make today. Altmann gives a history of nanotechnology and a detailed overview of funding trends, proceeding to exhaustively list and describe potential military applications. His dry style and attention to detail make this a reference book for policy-makers, but not a pleasure read.
Altmann refers to specific goals of military groups such as DARPA, but he considers any physically possible technology. Computers for simulating nuclear weapons tests and codebreaking seem unimaginative next to clothing that provides camouflage in any surroundings, delivers medication to injured body parts, and stiffens to brace broken bones or increase a soldier’s strength. Wilder ideas include armies of tiny self-replicating robots that can destroy equipment or fly undetected into a building for surveillance.
Ethical or legal concerns raised by these devices are largely ignored; Altmann is interested only in arms control implications. He challenges governments that are paying dearly to develop these new technologies to weigh the benefits against the dangers of proliferation. Altmann believes that the best way to prevent the proliferation of weapons is to avoid developing them in the first place. He offers specific criteria for determining which technologies should be allowed and which should not. A technology worth developing should not endanger existing arms control agreements or humanitarian laws; it should promote stability, and not arms races; and it should protect people, the environment, and society. Altmann judges the list of technologies he has compiled by these criteria. For example, non-metal weapons are likely to be more useful to terrorists than to soldiers; he advocates that no such weapons be developed. Some cases are more ambiguous; small, self-sufficient sensors could help arms control through verification. However, Altmann worries that undetectably small sensors would be destabilizing—such sensors could improve targeting so that a counter attack becomes impossible, and the incentive for preemptive attacks or hair-trigger responses would consequently grow. He also acknowledges that already existing technology must be permitted to remain in use for his prescription to be practical. From these concerns, Altmann arrives at a carefully worded ban of self-sufficient sensors below a certain size, leaving the way open for verification tools and existing devices.
Speculative systems that integrate small machinery within a human body for the purpose of improving memory, reaction time, endurance, or even controlling moods are discussed, but Altmann shies away from tackling questions that quickly become ethical ones. He advocates a moratorium on such systems until civilian society can reach a consensus on what is appropriate.
For each type of military nanotechnology, Altmann finds possible realizations that could break his rules of stability and protection, and he suggests a strategy for outlawing the worst implementations. He carefully avoids interference with helpful devices or products already in use, as such interference would make his proposals difficult to accept. To these recommendations he helpfully adds suggestions for verification of compliance, rounding out a complete arms control paradigm for nanotechnologies yet to be invented.
Many would argue that it is impossible to develop the good technologies without the bad, and that chance will determine the products of the nanotechnology initiative rather than design. But physicists have entered into a dangerous bargain in selling nanoscience as a product-driven endeavor. When research is so tightly linked to technological results, researchers accept a greater obligation to consider the real-world consequences of their work. One cannot justify research with promises of positive technologies, and then refuse to take responsibility for negative technologies resulting from the same science. There is a price to be paid for the generous NNI budget: ensuring that the work is driven by products that society wants to have.
Altmann’s attempt to identify worthwhile nanoresearch within the military is a clear framework by which to judge the impact of technology before it has arrived, and to better steer our efforts towards positive outcomes. As such, it offers a good starting point for informing a necessary discussion on the goals of nanotechnology.
University of Chicago