Nanotech Scenario Series
Results of Our Ongoing Research
These pages, marked with
GREEN headings, are published for
comment and criticism. These
are not our final findings; some of these opinions will probably change.
LOG OF UPDATES
CRN Research: Overview of Current Findings
Dangers of Molecular Manufacturing
manufacturing (MM) will be a significant breakthrough, comparable perhaps
to the Industrial Revolution—but compressed into a few years. This has the
potential to disrupt many aspects of society and politics. The power of the
technology may cause two competing nations to enter a disruptive and unstable
arms race. Weapons and surveillance devices could be made small, cheap, powerful,
and very numerous. Cheap manufacturing and duplication of designs could lead to
economic upheaval. Overuse of inexpensive products could cause widespread
environmental damage. Attempts to control these
and other risks may lead to abusive
restrictions, or create demand for a black market that would be very risky and
almost impossible to stop; small
nanofactories will be very easy to smuggle, and
fully dangerous. There are numerous severe risks—including several different
kinds of risk—that cannot all be prevented with the same approach. Simple, one-track solutions cannot work. The right answer is unlikely to evolve
without careful planning.
manufacturing suddenly will create many risks.
benefits of molecular manufacturing (MM) are immense, but so are the dangers. In order to
avert the dangers, we must thoroughly understand them, and then develop
comprehensive plans to prevent them. As explained in our
MM will allow the rapid prototyping and
inexpensive manufacture of a wide variety of powerful products. This
capability will arrive rather suddenly, since the final steps of developing
the technology are likely to be much easier than the initial steps, and many
of them can be pre-planned. The sudden arrival of molecular manufacturing
may not allow time to adjust to its implications. Adequate preparation is
CRN has identified several separate
and severe risks.
The first step in understanding the dangers is to identify
them. CRN has begun that process here, listing and describing several
separate and severe risks. Although probably incomplete, the list is
Some of the dangers described here are
risks, that is, they may threaten the continued existence of humankind.
Others could produce significant disruption but not cause our extinction. A
combination of several risks could exacerbate the seriousness of each; any
solution must take into account its effect on other risks.
||Some of these
risks arise from too little regulation, and others from too much
regulation. Several different kinds of regulation will be necessary in
several different fields. An extreme or knee-jerk response to any of these
risks will create fertile ground for other risks. The temptation to impose
apparently obvious and simple solutions to problems in isolation must be
avoided. Other pages address the possibilities for
regulation; this one is
concerned with discussing and analyzing the dangers.
Disruption of the
basis of economy is a strong possibility.
of a manufactured product today is paying for its design, raw materials, the
labor and capital of manufacturing, transportation, storage, and sales. Additional money—usually a fairly low percentage—goes to the owners of all
these businesses. If personal nanofactories can produce a wide variety of products
when and where they are wanted, most of this effort will become
unnecessary. This raises several questions about the nature of a
post-nanotech economy. Will products become cheaper? Will capitalism
disappear? Will most people retire—or be unemployed? The flexibility of
nanofactory manufacturing, and the radical improvement of its products,
imply that non-nanotech products will not be able to compete in many areas. If nanofactory technology is exclusively owned or controlled, will this
create the world's biggest monopoly, with extreme potential for abusive
anti-competitive practices? If it is not controlled, will the availability
of cheap copies mean that even the designers and brand marketers don't get
paid? Much further study is required, but it seems clear that molecular
manufacturing could severely disrupt the present economic structure, greatly
reducing the value of many material and human resources, including much of
our current infrastructure. Despite utopian post-capitalist hopes, it is
unclear whether a workable replacement system could appear in time to
prevent the human consequences of massive job displacement.
firms are conscious of potential economic impact.
||In the mainstream financial
community, there is growing recognition that nanotechnology represents a
significant wave of innovation with the potential to restructure the
economy. Here, for example, is an excerpt from an analysis prepared for investors by
Suisse First Boston:
||Nanotechnology is a classic, general-purpose
technology (GPT). Other GPTs, including steam engines, electricity, and
railroads, have been the basis for major economic revolutions. GPTs
typically start as fairly crude technologies, with limited uses, but then
rapidly spread into new applications.
||All prior GPTs have led
directly to major upheavals in the economy—the
process of creative destruction. And nanotechnology may be larger than any
of the other GPTs that preceded it. Creative destruction is the process by
which a new technology or product provides an entirely new and better
solution, resulting in the complete replacement of the original technology
or product. Investors should expect that creative destruction will not only
continue, but will also likely accelerate, and nanotechnology will be at the
||What does this mean from a
practical standpoint? Because of the advent of nanotechnology, we believe
new companies will displace a high percentage of today's leading companies.
The majority of the companies in today's Dow Jones industrials Index are
unlikely to be there 20 years from now. (Excerpted with permission from "Big Money in Thinking
Small", authored by Michael Mauboussin and Kristen Bartholdson.)
||Along those same lines, Josh
Wolfe of Lux Capital, editor of the
Forbes/Wolfe Nanotech Report, writes: "Quite simply, the world is
about to be rebuilt (and improved) from the atom up. That means tens of
trillions of dollars to be spent on everything: clothing... food... cars...
housing... medicine...the devices we use to communicate and recreate...the
quality of the air we breathe...and the water we drink, are all about to
undergo profound and fundamental change. And as a result, so will the socio
and economic structure of the world. Nanotechnology will shake up just about
every business on the planet."
Nano-built products may
be vastly overpriced relative to their cost, perpetuating unnecessary
||By today's commercial
standards, products built by nanofactories would be immensely valuable. A monopoly would allow the
owners of the technology to charge high rates for all products, and make
high profits. However, if carried to its logical conclusion, such a practice
would deny cheap lifesaving technologies (as simple as water filters or
mosquito netting) to millions of people in desperate need. Competition will
eventually drive prices down, but an early monopoly is likely for several
reasons. Due to other risks listed on this page, it is unlikely that a
completely unregulated commercial market will be allowed to exist. In any
case, the high cost of development will limit the number of competing
projects. Finally, a company that pulls ahead of the pack could use the
resulting huge profits to stifle competition by means such as broad
enforcement of expansive patents and lobbying for special-interest industry
The price of a
product usually falls somewhere between its value to the purchaser and its
cost to the seller. Molecular manufacturing could result in products with a
value orders of magnitude higher than their cost. It is likely that the
price will be set closer to the value than to the cost; in this case,
customers will be unable to gain most of the benefit of "the nanotech
revolution". If pricing products by their value is accepted, the poorest
people may continue to die of poverty, in a world where products costing
literally a few cents would save a life. If (as seems likely) this
situation is accepted more by the rich than by the poor, social unrest could
add its problems to untold unnecessary human suffering. A recent
example is the agreement the World Trade Organization was working on to provide
affordable medicines to poor countries—which the Bush administration
partially prevented (following heavy lobbying by American pharmaceutical companies)
furious opposition from every other WTO member.
terrorists could make effective use of the technology.
||Criminals and terrorists with
stronger, more powerful, and much more compact devices could do serious
damage to society. Defenses against these devices may not be installed
immediately or comprehensively. Chemical and biological weapons could become
much more deadly and easier to conceal. Many other types of terrifying
devices are possible, including several varieties of remote assassination
weapons that would be difficult to detect or avoid.
||As a result of small integrated
computers, even tiny weapons could be aimed at targets remote in time and
space from the attacker. This will not only impair defense, but also will
reduce post-attack detection and accountability. Reduced accountability
could reduce civility and security, and increase the attractiveness of some
forms of crime.
||If nanofactory-built weapons
were available from a black market or a home factory, it would be quite
difficult to detect them before they were launched; a random search capable
of spotting them would almost certainly be intrusive enough to violate
current human rights standards.
and abusive regulations may be attempted.
patchwork of extreme solutions may
be created in response to the other risks described here. This would not be
a good idea. Many of these problems appear to have an obvious solution.
However, in each case, that solution, applied to the extreme necessary to
impact the target problem, would exacerbate another problem and make the
overall situation worse. A collection of extreme solutions will surely be
undesirable; it will either be ineffective (and ineffective policies can
still be quite harmful) or will create massive human suffering or human
||There is a possibility that abusive
restrictions and policies may be attempted, such as
surveillance of every citizen. Such surveillance might be possible with AI
programs similar to one under development at MIT, which is able to
analyze a video feed, learn familiar patterns, and notice unfamiliar
patterns. Molecular manufacturing will allow the creation of very small,
inexpensive supercomputers that conceivably could run a program of constant
surveillance on everyone. Surveillance devices would be easy to manufacture
cheaply in quantity. Surveillance is only one possible kind of abuse. With
the ability to build billions of devices, each with millions of parts, for a
total cost of a few dollars, any automated technology that can be applied to
one person can be applied to everyone. Any scenario of physical or
psychiatric control that explores the limits of nanotechnology will sound
science-fictional and implausible. The point is not the plausibility of any
given scenario; it is that the range of possibilities is limited mainly by
the imagination and cruelty of those with power. Greed and power are strong
motivators for abusive levels of control; the fear of nanotech and other
advanced technologies in private hands adds an additional impetus for
Society could be
disrupted by the availability of new "immoral" products.
and lifestyles may cause significant social disruption. For example,
medical devices could be built into needles narrower than a bacterium,
perhaps allowing easy brain modification or stimulation, with effects similar
to any of a variety of psychoactives. Most societies have found it
desirable to forbid certain products: guns in Britain, seedless watermelon
in Iran, sex toys in Texas, various drugs in various societies such as
hashish in the United States and alcohol in Muslim societies. Although many
of these restrictions are based on moral principles not shared by the
majority of the world's population, the fact that the restrictions exist at
all indicates the sensitivity of societies—or at least their rulers—to
undesired products. The ability to make banned products using personal
factories could be expected to be at least somewhat disruptive to society,
and could provide an impetus for knee-jerk and overly broad restrictions on
the technology. New lifestyles enabled by new technology could also cause
social disruption. Whereas demand for banned products already exists,
lifestyles develop over time, so the effects of lifestyle change are likely
to be less acute. However, some lifestyle possibilities (particularly in
the areas of sex, drugs, entertainment, and body or genetic modification)
are likely to be sufficiently disturbing to onlookers that their very
existence would cause disruption.
would be extremely powerful and could lead to a dangerously unstable arms
||Molecular manufacturing raises the
possibility of horrifically effective weapons. As an example, the smallest
insect is about 200
microns; this creates a plausible size estimate for a
nanotech-built antipersonnel weapon capable of seeking and injecting toxin
into unprotected humans. The human lethal dose of botulism toxin is about
100 nanograms, or about 1/100 the volume of the weapon. As many as 50 billion
toxin-carrying devices—theoretically enough to kill every human on
earth—could be packed into a single suitcase. Guns of all sizes would be far
more powerful, and their bullets could be self-guided. Aerospace hardware
would be far lighter and higher performance; built with minimal or no metal,
it would be much harder to spot on radar. Embedded computers would allow
remote activation of any weapon, and more compact power handling would allow
greatly improved robotics. These ideas barely scratch the surface of what's
An important question is whether nanotech
weapons would be stabilizing or destabilizing. Nuclear weapons, for
example, perhaps can be credited with preventing major wars since their
invention. However, nanotech weapons are not very similar to nuclear
weapons. Nuclear stability stems from at least four factors. The most
obvious is the massive destructiveness of all-out nuclear war. All-out
nanotech war is probably equivalent in the short term, but nuclear weapons
also have a high long-term cost of use (fallout, contamination) that would
be much lower with nanotech weapons. Nuclear weapons cause indiscriminate
destruction; nanotech weapons could be targeted. Nuclear weapons require
massive research effort and industrial development, which can be tracked far
more easily than nanotech weapons development; nanotech weapons can be
developed much more rapidly due to faster, cheaper prototyping. Finally,
nuclear weapons cannot easily be delivered in advance of being used; the
opposite is true of nanotech. Greater uncertainty of the capabilities of
the adversary, less response time to an attack, and better targeted
destruction of an enemy's visible resources during an attack all make nanotech arms
races less stable. Also, unless nanotech is tightly controlled, the number
of nanotech nations in the world could be much higher than the number of
nuclear nations, increasing the chance of a regional conflict blowing up.
Admiral David E. Jeremiah,
Vice-Chairman (ret.), U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, in an
address at the 1995
Foresight Conference on Molecular Nanotechnology said: "Military
applications of molecular manufacturing have even greater potential than
nuclear weapons to radically change the balance of power."
Tom McCarthy (unaffiliated
with CRN) explores these points in more detail. He discusses the ways that
nanotechnology can destabilize international relations: molecular
manufacturing will reduce economic
influence and interdependence, encourage targeting of people as opposed to
factories and weapons, and reduce the ability of a nation to monitor its
potential enemies. It may also, by enabling many nations to be globally
destructive, eliminate the ability of powerful nations to "police" the
international arena. By making small groups self-sufficient, it can
encourage the breakup of existing nations.
Collective environmental damage is a natural
consequence of cheap manufacturing, as are health risks.
||Molecular manufacturing allows
the cheap creation of incredibly powerful devices and products. How many of
these products will we want? What environmental damage will they do?
The range of possible damage is vast, from personal low-flying supersonic
aircraft injuring large numbers of animals to collection of solar energy on
a sufficiently large scale to modify the planet's albedo and directly affect
the environment. Stronger materials will allow the creation of much larger
machines, capable of excavating or otherwise destroying large areas of the
planet at a greatly accelerated pace. It is too early to tell whether there
will be economic incentive to do this. However, given the large number of
activities and purposes that would damage the environment if taken to
extremes, and the ease of taking them to extremes with molecular
manufacturing, it seems likely that this problem is worth worrying about.
Some forms of damage can result from an aggregate of individual actions,
each almost harmless by itself. Such damage is quite hard to prevent by
persuasion, and laws frequently don't work either; centralized restriction
on the technology itself may be a necessary part of the solution. Finally,
the extreme compactness of nanomanufactured machinery will tempt the use of
very small products, which can easily turn into nano-litter that will be
hard to clean up and may cause health problems.
Grey goo was an early concern of
manufacturing was first proposed, a concern arose that tiny manufacturing
systems might run amok and 'eat' the biosphere, reducing it to copies of
themselves. In 1986, Eric Drexler wrote, "We cannot afford certain kinds of
accidents with replicating assemblers." More recent designs by Drexler and
others make it clear, though, that replicating assemblers will not be used
will be much more efficient at building products, and a nanofactory is
nothing like a 'grey goo' robot.
||Grey goo would entail five
capabilities integrated into one small package. These capabilities are:
Mobility – the ability to travel through the environment; Shell –
a thin but effective barrier to keep out diverse chemicals and ultraviolet
light; Control – a complete set of blueprints and the computers to
interpret them (even working at the nanoscale, this will take significant
space); Metabolism – breaking down random chemicals into simple
feedstock; and Fabrication – turning feedstock into nanosystems. A
nanofactory would use tiny
fabricators, but these would be inert if removed or unplugged from the factory. The
rest of the listed requirements would require
substantial engineering and
Grey goo won't happen by accident, but eventually could be
developed on purpose.
||Although grey goo has
essentially no military and no commercial value, and only limited terrorist
value, it could be used as a tool for blackmail. Cleaning up a single grey
goo outbreak would be quite expensive and might require severe physical
disruption of the area of the outbreak (atmospheric and oceanic goos deserve
special concern for this reason). Another possible source of grey goo
release is irresponsible hobbyists. The challenge of creating and releasing
a self-replicating entity apparently is irresistible to a certain
personality type, as shown by the large number of computer viruses and worms
in existence. We probably cannot tolerate a community of
"script kiddies" releasing many modified versions of goo.
||Development and use of
molecular manufacturing poses absolutely no risk of creating grey goo by
accident at any point. However, goo type systems do not appear to be ruled
out by the laws of physics, and we cannot ignore the possibility that the
five stated requirements could be combined deliberately at some point, in a
device small enough that cleanup would be costly and difficult. Drexler's
1986 statement can therefore be updated: We cannot afford criminally
irresponsible misuse of powerful technologies. Having lived with the
threat of nuclear weapons for half a century, we already know that.
||We wish we could take grey goo
off CRN's list of
dangers, but we can't. It eventually may become a concern requiring
special policy. Grey goo will be highly difficult to build, however, and
may be substantially more dangerous and more imminent.
NOTE: In June 2004,
Eric Drexler and
Phoenix published a new paper on "Safe
Exponential Manufacturing", which puts the perceived grey goo threat
Too little or
too much regulation can result in unrestricted availability.
availability of nanofactory technology can result from either insufficient or overzealous
regulation. Inadequate regulation would make it easy to obtain and use an
unrestricted nanofactory. Overzealous regulation would create a pent-up
demand for nanotech products, which if it gets strong enough, would fund
espionage, cracking of restricted technology, or independent development,
and eventually create a black market beyond the control of central
authorities (nanofactories are very smugglable). Note that
sufficiently abusive or restrictive regulation can motivate internal
espionage; at least one atomic spy in the US was idealistically
motivated. Uncontrolled availability of molecular manufacturing greatly
increases many of the dangers cited above.
programs increase the danger.
to develop molecular manufacturing greatly increases some of the risks listed above. Each program provides a separate opportunity for the technology to be stolen
or otherwise released from restriction. Each nation with an independent
program is potentially a separate player in a nanotech arms race. The
reduced opportunity for control may make restrictions harder to enforce, but
this may lead to greater efforts to impose harsher restrictions. Reduced
control also makes it less likely that a non-disruptive economic solution
these risks, there will be a strong temptation simply to outlaw the
technology. However, we don't believe this can work. Many nations are
already spending millions on basic nanotechnology; within a decade, advanced
nanotech will likely be within the reach of large corporations. It can't be
outlawed worldwide. And if the most risk-aware countries stop working on
it, then the less responsible countries are the ones that will be developing
it and dealing with it. Besides, legal regulation may not have much effect
on covert military programs.
||Molecular manufacturing may be
delayed by strict regulation, but this would probably make things worse in
the long run. If MM development is delayed until it's relatively easy, it
will then be a lot harder to keep track of all the development programs. Also, with a more advanced technology base, the development of
could happen even faster than we have described, leaving less time to adjust
to the societal disruptions.
problems won't be easy.
||Some of these
risks arise from too little regulation, and others from too much
regulation. Several different kinds of regulation will be necessary in
several different fields. An extreme or knee-jerk response to any of these
risks will simply create fertile ground for other risks. The risks are of
several different types, so a single approach (commercial, military,
free-information) cannot prevent all of them. Some of the risks are
sufficiently extreme that society cannot adjust to the risk while testing
various approaches to prevent it. A single grey goo release, or unstable
nanotech arms race, is intolerable. Threading a path between all these
risks will require careful advance planning.
CRN is completely dependent on small
grants and individual contributions. If you want
this dialogue and research to keep moving ahead, we need your help! Donations to CRN are deductible as
charitable contributions for income tax purposes.
DEVIL'S ADVOCATE —
Submit your criticism, please!
You're assuming only the bad guys will have nanotech.
No. We're assuming that some bad, or just irresponsible,
groups might get nanotech and misuse it before every good guy has all the
technology they need to prevent every problem. In some cases the
counter-technology won't be invented yet. And even if the counter-technology
does exist, it probably won't be used as widely as it should be—like computer
anti-virus programs today.
But this is decades in the future.
We think it's
less than fifteen years off—maybe less than ten. That's not much time to
analyze the problems, and then design and implement solutions. If you knew
that a year from now, you would have to walk a tightrope without a net, how
soon would you start practicing?
Nanotech won't really be that sudden or dangerous.
Read our Timeline and
to see why we think it will.
(From Michael Vassar) Japan managed to prohibit guns for
centuries, before Perry's gunboat finally forced a change.
did not confer an overwhelming military advantage. Each gun required highly
skilled labor and much time to make. No one could hope to take over the
country even with guns, and they would have been destroyed by the Emperor for
trying. By contrast, once the first nanofactory is made, it will be pretty
easy to use and very easy to duplicate, and will provide an immense military
advantage to its owners.
This whole analysis is really too simplistic.
Well, we have to
start somewhere. Please contact us and tell us what we're missing; we promise to listen to and
think about all (polite) feedback.
(submitted in February 2008) You need to explore the
whole issue of toxicity of nanomaterials in greater depth. The widespread use of
molecular manufacturing would by extension lead to an increase in the volume of
nanomaterial waste. Would something manufactured on an atomic scale have the
potential to penetrate cell walls or alter DNA? How quickly would nanoscale
waste spread if released into the ecosystem? How would one set up a responsible
recycling system for used nanoscale products and assure its effectiveness?
First, we addressed the issues from your question about waste
disposal in our October 2006 science essay on
Also, in our Essential Study #26,
we state that "environmental devastation by overproduction" could be disastrous
and should be studied. However, that study outline did not originally include
the potential health impacts that you bring up, and that's an oversight that we
have corrected. Thanks!
Next Page: No Simple
Previous Page: Medical
Benefits of Molecular Nanotechnology
Overview of Current Findings