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Document created: 1 September 06
Air & Space Power Journal - Fall 2006

Molecular Nanotechnology and
National Security

LCDR Thomas D. Vandermolen, USN

Editorial Abstract: The author asserts that the manipulation and control of matter roughly the size of the diameter of a small molecule, known as molecular nanotechnology, will spawn a technological revolution that not only will create benefits but also will cause an avalanche of unprecedented problems and threats. Commander Vandermolen suggests that the United States take the lead in creating a strategy of international regulation.

In rare instances, revolutionary technology and associated military innovation can fundamentally alter long-established concepts of warfare. . . .

Some disruptive breakthroughs . . . could seriously endanger our security.

—The National Defense Strategy of the United States of America, 2005

Molecular Nanotechnology (MNT), when fully developed, will provide the basis for the next technological revolution, possibly the most beneficial and yet most disruptive in human history. By allowing inexpensive mass production with atomic-level precision, this infant technology has the potential to create whole new classes of weapons and economic, political, and social disruptions serious enough to threaten international security. To minimize the threats while maximizing the benefits of MNT’s impending development, the United States should take the lead in creating a cooperative strategy of international regulation and do so as soon as possible. MNT’s arrival will cause an avalanche of problems and threats, many of which the human race has not yet encountered; the control strategy must therefore be ready before that day arrives.


Nanotechnology (NT) is the manipulation and control of matter at the scale of the nanometer (one-billionth of a meter)—roughly the diameter of a small molecule. Unlike its predecessor, microtechnology, which deals with the relatively gargantuan scale of amoebas, nanotechnology represents human engineering at the atomic or molecular level. But NT entails much more than just taking well—understood microtechnology engineering techniques down another step in size: it abruptly and vastly expands of the limits of what is possible. NT works with the basic building blocks of nature—atoms and molecules—allowing for an unprecedented level of engineering precision and matter control. Also, the effects of the “regular” Newtonian physics that govern everyday human experience and the “weird” quantum physics that govern the atomic and subatomic worlds begin to overlap in the nanometer scale (or nanoscale). Working at the nanoscale will thus permit human engineers to take advantage of the benefits of both realms of physical law simultaneously.

It is not surprising that government and business interest in NT is significant and growing rapidly. The US National Nanotechnology Initiative, which coordinates US government research and development (R&D) efforts, expects to have a budget exceeding $1 billion in fiscal year 2006, a ninefold increase over its 1997 budget of $116 million.1 But this increasing R&D budget also illustrates that today’s nanotechnology “is still almost wholly on the drawing board.”2 Nanoscience is in its infancy, and the characteristics of even familiar, exhaustively studied materials (such as common metals) may hold surprises at the nanometer scale.3 Thus, despite the introduction of new NT-based products to the marketplace, NT’s true practical potential is still being discovered.4

Some disagreement exists within the NT R&D community about the ultimate potential of the field. One school of thought promotes MNT, also called molecular manufacturing (MM), the brainchild of Dr. K. Eric Drexler, originator of the term nanotechnology itself.5 MNT is “extreme” NT, with engineering so precise that it approaches the theoretical limits of nature by exerting “thorough, inexpensive control of the structure of matter based on molecule-by-molecule control of products and byproducts of molecular manufacturing.”6 Whereas mainstream NT focuses on creating small-scale components to be incorporated into larger products in a conventional manner, MNT products will be human scale or larger, built from start to finish by MNT processes.7 Because the degree to which NT will disrupt human affairs is still unclear, this article will focus on MNT, the most potentially dangerous manifestation.

MNT’s promise depends on a few key capabilities. The first is the ability to mechanically guide chemical reactions at the molecular level, called mechanochemistry.8 In MNT, mechanochemistry will be accomplished by molecular fabricators: essentially tiny, controllable, mechanical tools capable of physically “grabbing” specific molecules and putting them together in useful ways.

A single fabricator, however, is not very useful for building large objects, as it would take thousands of years for one to build an object large enough to see with the naked eye. Therefore, the second key capability is exponential manufacturing, or the ability to create large numbers of fabricators that will work in unison. This is accomplished by having the fabricators build more fabricators—the number of which will thus grow exponentially.

Note that fabricators are autoproductive—capable of building other fabricators, but only with extensive outside assistance. They do not self-replicate—that is create copies of themselves without direct outside assistance like cells and bacteria. Fabricators are limited in this way by design. Original MNT concepts envisioned the use of free-floating, self-contained microscopic robots called assemblers, which would be able to self-replicate.

Assemblers, much more complex than fabricators, require not only their own molecular fabricator tools, but also the associated control, propulsion, communications, and navigation systems necessary to coordinate with other assemblers on production tasks. The inherent replication ability of assemblers also makes them a potential danger (see the discussion of gray goo below), and more recent MNT theories focus on the use of fabricators as an intrinsically less complex, more efficient, and less dangerous solution.9 The final key capability is convergent assembly, which enables the mass of fabricators to build large objects by first building tiny parts, putting those tiny parts together to build larger parts, and then repeating the process until a complete, human-scale product has been constructed. By some estimates, if the size of the parts doubles at each stage, it will take only 30 such stages to go from parts just a few atoms in size to objects as big as a meter.10

Thus, the MNT fabrication process will first require the production of at least one fabricator, an environmental system conducive to its operation, and a control system. The first fabricators will begin to construct copies of themselves, helped along by the externally controlled feed-and-control systems, exponentially growing their number as necessary. The final mass of fabricators will then create progressively more complex molecular building blocks, ultimately assembling them into the final desired product. In contrast to even today’s microtechnology—which, as advanced and impressive as it seems, still handles atoms “in unruly herds” of billions or trillions—molecular fabricators will permit (and likely demand) molecularly precise engineering, which accounts for each atom or molecule and places it in a specific location.11 Because of this increased precision, nano-fabricated materials can be designed to be simultaneously stronger, lighter, and more feature dense—that is, capable of carrying out multiple functions due to fewer “wasted atoms.” For example, rather than have a steel girder that only provides structural support in a building, a girder could be created that is not only lighter and stronger than its steel counterpart, but also infused with stress sensors or even computer processing capability. The combination of exponential manufacturing and the more efficient use of a product’s physical structure will also allow for the rapid creation of prototypes; follow-on manufacturing can then begin at any time, as the assembly process is the same as for the prototype.12

Possible applications of MNT are potentially limitless. Virtually every aspect of human life would be affected: for example, tiny robots could be sent into the human body to locate and destroy cancerous cells or viruses, or even correct failing organs at the cellular level, leading to indefinite extension of the human life span. Dangers posed by MNT are also nearly limitless: cheap, fast mass production would enable spasmodic arms races, and improved smart materials could make current weapons systems much more capable—or permit creation of entirely new classes of weapons.

Perhaps the most publicized danger from MNT is the so-called gray-goo problem, whereby self-replicating nanomachines essentially overwhelm Earth’s naturally occurring life forms. First postulated by Drexler in his 1986 book Engines of Creation, the gray-goo scenario describes the release (either accidental or deliberate) of a resilient, omnivorous, artificial “bacteria” that is able to outcompete all life on Earth and which subsequently “reduce[s] the biosphere to dust in a matter of days,” leaving behind only a worldwide mass—or gray goo—of microscopic replicators.13 Drexler himself has since repeatedly asserted that such an event is extremely unlikely to happen accidentally, particularly with the MNT community’s conceptual shift away from assembler-based production, and would be a tremendously difficult undertaking in any case.

Not surprisingly, however, dramatic possibilities like this have exerted an overshadowing and somewhat hysterical influence on public perception.14 This “science fiction” perception of MNT—plus the lack of a working molecular fabricator—has prompted the mainstream nanotech community to downplay or ignore MNT. Some of the most vocal detractors—including the late Nobel Prize–winning chemist Richard Smalley—have claimed that MNT-style assemblers are impossible and that discussion of them hurts “real” NT development by scaring the public, diverting attention and funding from more legitimate research with a proven track record.15

Is Nanotechnology a
National-Security Concern?

If MNT is not technically practicable, then is it—or even the more “mainstream” NT—a national-security concern?16 Whether or not strict Drexler-type MNT is viable, a convergence of less technologically challenging mainstream nanotech and other technologies could result in MNT-like capabilities, necessitating serious consideration of the potential impacts on national security. Much of the debate over MNT focuses on which research efforts will pay off sooner (and therefore deserve more resources), rather than confronting the issue of final capabilities. Consider, however, that every day a form of MM occurs around the world. Nature itself has been using MM for billions of years to convert cheap resources (dirt and water) and cheap energy (sunlight) into useful building materials (timber). Regardless of which development path is used to get there, an MM-like technology is demonstrably possible.

But should MNT or MM prove too difficult to achieve or not cost-effective for some reason, mainstream NT will still create a tremendous impact on every field that affects national security. Even a National Science Foundation report expresses doubt about MNT’s feasibility: “It may be technically impossible to create self-reproducing mechanical nanoscale robots . . . [while conceding that] nanotechnology will fundamentally transform science, technology, and society.”17 Kwan S. Kwok, Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency program manager, echoes the foundation’s sentiment: “It is widely accepted that the potential impact of nanotechnology may be larger than that of any scientific field humankind has previously encountered.”18

Finally, consider the possible emerging trend of personal fabrication (PF), a concept created by Dr. Neil Gershenfeld of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Center for Bits and Atoms (CBA). Gershenfeld and his colleagues have been establishing a network of fab-labs: small facilities set up in areas with little or no access to regular sources of technology, such as rural India. Fab-labs are equipped with computers and tabletop micromachining equipment that enables users to design and create objects of their choosing. Products so far have included computer circuit boards, diesel-engine flywheel sensors, and even works of art—all these from users with limited experience with high-tech equipment.

Currently the fab-lab equipment setup costs approximately $26,000. Gershenfeld and the CBA continue to work on improving the fab-labs’ setup in terms of cost, capability, and efficiency: “We’re approaching being able to make one machine that can make any machine.” Eventually Gershenfeld expects NT to become a viable basis for fabrication tools.19 In fact, the PF paradigm may present the most significant long-term application of MNT.

MNT-based personal fabricators will embody the ultimate fusion of the industrial and information-technology revolutions: the ability to move data such as design plans cheaply and instantaneously to virtually any location and then convert that data into real-world, solid objects at roughly the cost of raw materials and power. This concept logically leads to that of inexpensive distributed manufacturing, tailored to the needs of the organization or even the individual. Overall, there appear to be many paths and no outright “show-stoppers” on the road to an MNT-like capability.

Threats from Molecular

MNT is a potentially enormously powerful technology that will generate both direct and indirect threats to US security. Given the potential dangers, it would be irresponsible not to prepare for MNT’s emergence.

Direct Threats

The most obvious threats posed by MNT are those based directly on the application of the technology itself, as a source for both better weaponry as well as faster and more widespread arms production.

State-Based Arms Races. Intentional misuse of MNT will probably pose the greatest direct threat to national security. MM will allow anyone with access to the technology to quickly and economically create weapons of virtually any description. The aspiring arms producer would have to provide only designs, power, and basic materials. If the arms producer is a state, then the resulting flood of extremely high-quality military equipment will enable that state to promptly and easily overwhelm any non-MNT-equipped enemy.

With the rapid prototyping capability provided by MM, the time period for such a buildup could be on the order of weeks or months; multiple, rapid arms races could surface with regularity around the world.20 Such races would likely not be limited to conventional weapons as we know them today. An arms race based on “smart” weapons of mass destruction (WMD) would be possible, such as a smallpox virus engineered to kill only people with a certain genetic trait.21

Individual-Based Arms Races. States may not be alone in weapons-production activities. MNT-enabled personal manufacturing could allow WMD production to shift from governments to small groups or even to individuals; this democratization of arms production is the darker side of PF. Bill Joy, cofounder and chief scientist of Sun Microsystems, has dubbed this capability knowledge-enabled mass destruction, calling it “a surprising and terrible empowerment of extreme individuals.”22 Given the predilection of some hackers to create harmful computer viruses just for the thrill of it, it is not a great conceptual leap to imagine that “nanohackers” might decide to do the same with actual viruses.

Perhaps the most frightening weapon of all—and thus no doubt a natural aspiration for potential nanohackers—is the infamous self-replicating gray-goo assemblers. Designing a gray-goo replicator would be an extra-ordinarily complex undertaking, however, and would require solving a multitude of extremely difficult engineering challenges; accordingly, some have argued that such an effort would be either impossible or highly unlikely.23 However, a dedicated and concerted attempt could conceivably fall short of the goal but still come up with something extremely dangerous and uncontrollable. To help ensure that the accidental creation of a gray-goo nanomachine remains a practical impossibility, Drexler’s Foresight Institute, a nonprofit organization he founded to “help prepare society for anticipated advanced technologies,” has prescribed guidelines for the safe development of NT. The institute recommends avoiding the use of replicators (i.e., assemblers) entirely, or at a minimum, designing them so that they cannot operate in a natural environment.24

Surveillance. An early application of MNT and NT will likely be inexpensive yet advanced microsurveillance platforms and tools. Mass produced, these disposable sensors could be used to blanket large areas, providing ubiquitous surveillance of the people within. Although obviously a battlefield concern, such surveillance could also be employed against any group or population, raising privacy and legality issues.25

Environmental Damage. MNT was originally perceived as a potential cure-all for a variety of environmental problems: nanobots in the atmosphere, for example, could physically repair the ozone layer or remove greenhouse gases. Recently, however, NT is increasingly seen as a potential environmental problem in its own right. Both NT and MNT are expected to produce large quantities of nanoparticles and other disposable nanoproducts, the environmental effects of which are currently unknown. This “nanolitter,” small enough to penetrate living cells, raises the possibility of toxic poisoning of organs, either from the nanolitter itself or from toxic elements attached to those nanoparticles.26

Indirect Threats

We can expect severe disruptions from MNT since it gives “little or no advantage to the entrenched leader of an earlier technological wave.”27 Thus, it has the potential to radically upset the geopolitical playing field and pose powerful indirect threats to national security.

Economic. Glimpsing the potential economic change triggered by MNT, Bill Joy has estimated that the wealth generated by fusing the information and physical worlds in the twenty-first century will equal a thousand trillion US dollars. As former US House Speaker Newt Gingrich observed, this is equivalent to “adding 100 US economies to the world market.”28

No one can be quite sure what an MNT-based economy would look like, but most speculations seem to agree that it would probably resemble the software economy with product design being the most difficult and expensive part of production—distribution and manufacturing being very inexpensive. A current analogy would be the millions of man-hours and dollars expended to create a computer word-processing program, compared to the ease with which users can “burn” copies of the program with their home computers and distribute them to friends. This analogy also points out the problems with piracy and intellectual property rights that would almost certainly plague an MNT economy.29

Essentially a highly advanced manufacturing process emphasizing distributed, low-cost manufacturing, MNT directly threatens economies that are heavily dependent on mass production. For example, China’s economic growth depends on using mass human labor to produce inexpensive, high-quality goods; in 2004 it provided over $18 billion worth of manufactured goods to the Wal-Mart department-store chain.30 But what will happen to China’s economy when Wal-Mart is able to use its own MNT-enabled fabrication facilities at home to produce higher-quality goods at even lower cost? For that matter, when consumers are able to produce their own high-quality, low-cost, custom-designed products in their own homes, who will need Wal-Mart?

MNT is also expected to improve energy technologies such as solar energy by making solar cells tougher and much more efficient; combined with more efficient manufacturing and lighter but stronger vehicles (carbon-based materials can be up to 60 times as strong as steel), the requirements for petroleum--fueled energy supplies may decline rapidly. This would obviously have significant impact on oil companies and countries with oil-based economies; a correspondingly significant disruption is likely for the shipping industry, which last year ordered petroleum-shipping tankers valued at $77.2 billion.31 In addition, if distributed manufacturing were to allow most people or communities to construct what they need locally, international trade in physical items may also decrease, which casts some doubt as to whether globalization’s “peace through interdependence” effect will be as powerful in the future. Indeed, isolationism may become a more attractive policy option for many countries.

Social. MNT’s medical applications may present some of the greatest social and ethical challenges in human history. Issues of cloning, genetically modified crops, abortion, and even cochlear implants have created political atomic bombs in recent years—MNT offers a completely new level of control over the human body and its processes. Accordingly, MNT has been embraced by the transhumanist movement, which advocates using technology to intellectually, physically, and psychologically improve the human form from its current “early” phase to a more advanced “posthuman” phase. Reactions to transhumanist concepts range from enthusiasm to indifference to outright fear and hostility. Historian Francis Fukuyama has declared transhumanism one of “the world’s most dangerous ideas.”32

Revolutionary. The final threat discussed here essentially results from a synergy of the other threats. Prof. Carlota Perez has advanced a model of technological revolution composed of two periods: (1) an installation period, during which the new techno-economic paradigm (TEP) gains increasing support from business, and (2) a deployment period, when the paradigm becomes the new norm. During the installation period, investor enthusiasm for the new TEP grows into a frenzy leading to an increasing gap between the “haves,” who are profiting from the new TEP, and the “have-nots,” who are still invested in the old TEP.33 Ultimately the investment frenzy forms a stock bubble, which bursts and brings on the turning point, usually a serious recession or even a depression. It is during the turning point that society and the judicial system are forced to reform and shift to meet the characteristics of the newly established TEP.34

If this model of technological revolution is correct—and it appears to match the last five technological revolutions well enough—then sometime during the development of MNT there will be a period of social, political, and economic unrest as the world system is pulled in two directions, embracing the new TEP versus clinging to the old. Given the staggering array of changes that MNT can bring, this period may be particularly stressful. Moreover, if MNT has already enabled some of its more dangerous potential applications—such as knowledge-based mass destruction—before proper political and social control structures have been established, this period could be catastrophic.

What Strategy Should the
United States Pursue?

There are three basic strategy courses that the United States can pursue to deal with MNT:

International Regulation

Two strategic approaches have relevance to international regulation of MNT:

In either case, regulation will succeed—if it does—only by removing the majority of reasons nations will have to develop “uncontrolled” MNT.

The basic premise in regulation should be to maximize public access to the benefits of MNT while eliminating independent (i.e., unregulated) development by minimizing access to, or interference with, the manufacturing technology itself. Ideally, freely providing the fruits of MNT to the world population will decrease the urge to develop unregulated alternative R&D programs and may simultaneously reduce the impetus for civil and/or resource-related conflicts by virtually eradicating the effects of poverty.35

The Center for Responsible Nanotechnology, a nonprofit think tank “concerned with the major societal and environmental implications of advanced nanotechnology,” has proposed a solution based around a nanofactory, a self-contained, highly secure MM system—in effect a highly advanced NT version of Gershenfeld’s desktop fab-lab apparatus.36 In this strategy, a closely guarded crash development program would be set up as soon as possible to develop the MM expertise required to build a nanofactory. It is essential that the nanofactory be developed before any possible competing MNT R&D program can come to fruition. Nanofactories would then be reproduced and distributed to nations and organizations (at some point possibly even to individuals) around the world, with emphasis placed on the most poverty-stricken regions. This “standard” nanofactory would be the only approved MNT manufacturing apparatus in the world and would even have internal limitations as to what could be constructed (no replicating assemblers, for example, except under very carefully controlled and monitored conditions).

The advantages of this strategy are that it would offer a very large carrot—with the stick of regulation—in the form of the nanofactories. They could act as valid tools of humanitarian assistance, as leverage to prevent balking governments from pursuing their own rogue MNT development programs, or even as assurance that citizens’ needs are being met.37 The appeal of (and the demand for) the nanofactories would likely be enormous, particularly if they are produced for personal use. As Gershenfeld has noted about his conceptually similar fab-labs, “The killer app for personal fabrication is fulfilling individual desires rather than merely meeting mass-market needs.”38 By restricting nanofabrication methods to the standard nanofactory alone, the threat of gray-goo replicators would be minimized probably as much as is possible.39

Of course, there are disadvantages and risks in this strategy as well. Although widespread availability of nanofactories may reduce the desire for independent MNT R&D programs, “noncomplying” groups will try to hide their projects, thus making compliance even harder to verify. A significant risk is inherent in distributing the nanofactories; the units will require extensive, built-in security to protect both their inner physical workings and their operating software. Every hacker in the world (not to mention rogue organizations or governments) would be dying to crack nanofactory security. As a possible solution, the nanofactories must be programmed to destroy themselves if any attempt to access the classified areas of the unit occurs. This will lead to many, many broken nanofactories, but since they can be created relatively easily and cheaply, replacing them should not be an issue.

In order for this strategy to have a decent chance of working, the United States should not attempt to assume a hegemonist stance and become the sole governing body of this system. Such a strategy would require a US‑only nanofactory development program. Furthermore, US efforts to dominate nanofactory technology will likely result in a “nanofactory race” that the United States could lose. Europe, Japan, Korea, China, and India are all conducting research into nanotechnology.40 However poorly the US national image is perceived throughout the world today, it could grow exponentially worse if the United States emerged as the sole MNT superpower. Therefore, for both technical and diplomatic reasons, the US primacy option is not the best solution.

However, the United States should play a major role in establishing an international control organization to formulate and carry out the regulation strategy. Such an organization would have a better chance of actually developing a working nanofactory before competing efforts do so (although maintaining security would be horrendously difficult) as well as encouraging international legitimacy for the nanofactory plan, which in turn would likely result in greater buy-in by the world community. There are already some rumblings of international support for an arms-control-like containment structure for NT. For example, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s special report on emerging technologies notes that “the need for control of these new technologies is more important now than in previous times of scientific development.”41

An organization like the one described here will be supremely difficult to establish and maintain and will require many years of diplomatic maneuvering to secure the proper agreements. As economist David Friedman notes,

We don’t have a decent mechanism for centralized control on anything like the necessary scale. . . . Our decentralized mechanisms . . . depend on a world where there is some workable definition of property rights in which the actions that a person takes with his property have only slight external effects, beyond those that can be handled by contract. Technological progress might mean that no such definition exists—in which case we are left with zero workable solutions to the coordination problem.42

We must determine whether a workable solution exists and do so quickly. MNT could be 50 years away—then again, perhaps only 10.

Do Nothing

A valid alternative to the difficulties of regulation would be just letting the technology emerge as international-market and social forces dictate. Proponents of this strategy would rely on the involved parties (governments and multinational corporations conducting the majority of the R&D) to self--regulate the use and distribution of MNT. It is also possible that NT research will hit an intellectual brick wall and that the sheer difficulty of mastering nanoscience and its applications will slow the arrival of MNT such that a disruptive technological revolution never occurs or is drastically mitigated.

This strategy holds the highest level of risk and is essentially a strategy of hopeful optimism. Multiple R&D programs will likely lead to multiple successes, which could very well lead to competition at the national military level as well as an MNT arms race. Multiple programs will mean varying levels of success, and the leading organization or state will be less likely to agree to regulation, particularly if such regulation would decrease or eliminate its lead. Given MNT’s tremendous potential for both peaceful and violent applications, controlling it with a “do nothing” strategy is analogous to providing nuclear reactors to every country under the assumption that none will use them to develop nuclear weapons. This strategy is unlikely to work and is in fact highly dangerous.

Forbid Research and Development

If MNT is so dangerous, then why allow it to be developed at all? Why invent another nuclear-bomb equivalent? Proponents of this strategy—such as the aforementioned Bill Joy—would advocate at a minimum the following: (1) adoption of a voluntary moratorium on the part of the scientific community against further MNT-related research, and ultimately, (2) the establishment of an international set of laws to forbid any R&D into MNT. Mr. Joy believes that the US unilateral abandonment of biological-warfare research is a “shining example” of the beginnings of such a strategy.43

In many ways this path is almost as dangerous as the do nothing strategy, except it might take longer for the dangers to emerge. There are two main problems with this strategy: verification and the dual-use nature of MNT. Even if every country agreed to the research ban, how would the other nations verify compliance? Unlike nuclear technology, MNT doesn’t require exotic materials that can be detected at a distance to create deadly weapons, and nuclear weapons can’t make millions of copies of themselves. Detecting non-state-actor programs would be even more difficult. We are left with the same problems faced by biological-weapons-control agencies, except that biological weapons are desired only by certain types of organizations. Virtually everyone—states, organizations, and individuals—will want NT. The potential benefits of MNT make it very attractive, particularly for poorer countries; it not only enables nations to make weapons easily, but also to purify and desalinate water, create inexpensive yet sturdy homes, provide distributed and reliable power, and possibly even expand or improve their food supplies. In short, MNT can help a poor country provide the basic necessities of life, which leaves no economic or military incentive to comply. In fact, such a strategy would only push development to noncomplying countries.44 This creates another problem: there would be no “complying” country capable of defending against a rogue, MNT-equipped nation unless complying countries maintained covert and illicit R&D programs. To paraphrase the National Rifle Association slogan, if nanotechnology is outlawed, only outlaws will have nanotechnology.


Based on the radically unprecedented direct and indirect threats to US national security posed by MNT, the United States should adopt a cooperative strategy of international regulation to control and guide R&D. The regulation should maximize the security of the processes but should not constrict innovation or liberal distribution of the technology’s benefits. The United States should immediately begin investigating forms of potential regulatory regimes for employment and begin laying the educational and diplomatic framework necessary to create the most appropriate international control group.

As the most recent national defense strategy notes about disruptive technological advances, “As such breakthroughs can be unpredictable, we should recognize their potential consequences and hedge against them.”45 Whatever form US strategy takes to deal with MNT, it must not be reactive in nature. The threats enabled by MNT will likely evolve faster than bureaucratic solutions can cope.

[ Feedback? Email the Editor ]


1. National Nanotechnology Initiative, “How Much Money Is the US Government Spending on Nanotechnology?” http://www.nano.gov/html/facts/faqs.html (accessed 2 May 2005).

2. J. S. Brown and P. Duguid, “Don’t Count Society Out: A Response to Bill Joy,” in Societal Implications of Nanoscience and Nanotechnology, ed. Mihail C. Roco and William Sims Bainbridge (Arlington, VA: National Science Foundation, 2001), 33.

3. An aluminum atom, for example, has physical and chemical characteristics quite different from those of aluminum powder or an aluminum ingot.

4. Recent products include smaller, more capable computer processors and hard drives, improved cosmetics and sunscreens, automobile windshield coatings, and water-repellant cotton pants from Eddie Bauer.

5. After the term nanotechnology came to mean any technical endeavor at the nanoscale, Drexler switched to the terms molecular nanotechnology and molecular manufacturing to avoid confusion and emphasize the manufacturing aspects of his theory. Rudy Baum, “Point-Counterpoint: Nanotechnology,” Chemical and Engineering News 81, no. 48 (1 December 2003): 37–42, http://pubs.acs.org/cen/coverstory/8148/8148counterpoint.html (accessed 8 May 2006).

6. K. Eric Drexler, Christina Peterson, and Gayle Pergamit, Unbounding the Future (New York, NY: William Morrow and Company, 1991), http://www.foresight.org/UTF/Unbound_LBW/Glossary.html (accessed 8 May 2006).

7. Chris Phoenix, “A Technical Commentary on Greenpeace’s Nanotechnology Report,” Center for Responsible Nanotechnology, September 2003, http://www.crnano.org/Greenpeace.pdf (accessed 4 May 2005).

8. K. Eric Drexler, “The Future of Nanotechnology: Molecular Manufacturing,” EurekAlert! April 2003, http://www.eurekalert.org/.

9. Chris Phoenix and K. Eric Drexler, “Safe Exponential Manufacturing,” Nanotechnology, no. 15 (9 June 2004): 869–72, http://stacks.iop.org/Nano/15/869 (accessed 25 November 2005).

10. Ralph C. Merkle, “Nanotechnology,” Zyvex Corporation, n.d., http://www.zyvex.com/nano/ (accessed 1 May 2005).

11. K. Eric Drexler, Engines of Creation (New York, NY: Anchor Books, 1985), 4.

12. “Powerful Products of Molecular Manufacturing,” Center for Responsible Nanotechnology, n.d., http://www.crnano.org/products.htm (accessed 25 November 2005).

13. Drexler, Engines of Creation, 172–73.

14. Dozens of science-fiction novels, episodes of The X-Files and Star Trek: The Next Generation television series, as well as popular fiction such as Michael Crichton’s novel Prey (New York: HarperCollins, 2002) have all featured Drexler-style nanorobots.

15. Dr. Richard Smalley was awarded the 1996 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for the discovery of fullerenes, a class of carbon molecule that holds enormous promise in NT-related applications. Baum, “Point-Counterpoint,” 37–42. William Illsey Atkinson, Nanocosm (New York: AMACOM, 2003), 6–8, 33, 124–39, 145, 171, 179, 203, 251, 255, 257, 259, 266–67, 271–72.

16. It is important to note that, despite 20 years of attempts, there are still no compelling arguments that MNT is physically impossible—even Dr. Smalley’s arguments appear inconclusive. (To complicate matters, the debaters often seem to be arguing past one another.)

17. Societal Implications of Nanoscience, iv, 11.

18. Quoted in Daniel Ratner and Mark A. Ratner, Nanotechnology and Homeland Security (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 2004), 82.

19. Neil Gershenfeld, “Personal Fabrication,” Edge, 23 July 2003, http://www.edge.org/3rd_culture/gershenfeld03/gershenfeld_index.html (accessed 21 December 2005).

20. Such arms races could actually stabilize some international situations if production were limited to conventional weapons and each side’s stockpiles matched the other’s—but depending on such an unlikely situation is naive at best.

21. This arms race capability would undoubtedly be a boon for those bent on ethnic cleansing. Other unpleasant possibilities are only limited by imagination and human DNA structure.

22. Bill Joy, “Why the Future Doesn’t Need Us,” Wired, 8.04, 8 April 2000, http://www.wired.com/wired/archive/ 8.04/joy_pr.html/ (accessed 28 April 2005).

23. Drexler, who originated the idea, is now among those who dismiss it.

24. Neil Jacobstein and Glenn Harlan Reynolds, “Foresight Guidelines on Molecular Nanotechnology Version 4.0,” Foresight Institute, October 2004, http://www.foresight.org/guidelines/current.html (accessed 3 May 2005).

25. For further reading on the issues raised by the emergence of ubiquitous surveillance, see David Brin’s The Transparent Society (Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley, 1998).

26. Future Technologies, Today’s Choices (London: Greenpeace Environmental Trust, 2003), 36.

27. Ratner and Ratner, Nanotechnology and Homeland Security, 114.

28. Newt Gingrich, “The Age of Transitions,” in Societal Implications of Nanoscience, 24–25.

29. David Friedman, “What Would a Nanotech Economy Look Like?” (presentation abstract for 1st Conference on Advanced Nanotechnology, 22–24 October 2004), Foresight Institute, http://www.foresight.org/Conferences/AdvNano2004/Abstracts/.

30. Jiang Jingjing, “Wal-Mart’s China Inventory to Hit US$18B This Year,” China Business Weekly, 29 November 2004.

31. Will Kennedy and Haslinda Amin, “World-Wide’s Sohmen Says Tanker Rates May Have Peaked,” Bloomberg.com, 26 April 2005, http://www.bloomberg.com/apps/news?pid=10000087&sid=aq7iV9wV1Nqc&refer=top_world_news (accessed 2 May 2005).

32. Francis Fukuyama, “Transhumanism,” Foreign Policy, no. 144 (September/October 2004), http://foreignpolicy .com/story/cms.php?.

33. Interestingly, this investor enthusiasm provides the means to lay down the new TEP’s infrastructure and therefore helps ensure its eventual success. The extensive transoceanic fiber-optic cable runs laid during the investment boom in information technology have been essential for current Indian successes in this business.

34. Carlota Perez, Technological Revolutions and Financial Capital (Northampton, MA: Edward Elgar Publishing, 2003), 47–59.

35. Paul Collier, “The Market for Civil War,” in Strategy and Force Planning, ed. Richmond M. Lloyd (Newport, RI: Naval War College Press, 1995), 461–68.

36. “About CRN,” Center for Responsible Nanotechnology, http://www.crnano.org/about_us.htm (accessed 20 April 2005).

37. Author Joe Haldeman’s 1997 science-fiction novel Forever Peace (New York: Penguin Putnam, 1997) describes a future world where access to nanofactories—or “nanoforges” in the book—is used by the United States and its allies as leverage against poorer nations.

38. Gershenfeld, “Personal Fabrication.”

39. It might also be advisable to limit the nanofactories by design to use feedstock only with a particular controlled additive and then impose limits on the feedstock supply as an additional source of leverage. However, this would make the feedstock as valuable (or even more so) than oil; additionally, it would essentially defeat the whole purpose of freely available MNT. The trade-off is that freely available feedstock would be a major blow to bulk-shipping companies. Further, it possibly entails a corresponding drop in relevance for sea lines of communication—which in turn would remove some of the justifications for the Navy’s force structure.

40. China’s NT research program, for example, is rapidly growing, trailing the US National Nanotechnology Initiative budget by only $100 million. See Catherine Brahic, “China Encroaches on US Nanotech Lead,” Science and Development Network, 8 April 2005, http://www.scidev.net/News/index.cfm?fuseaction=printarticle&itemid=2035& language=1 (accessed 2 May 2005).

41. North Atlantic Treaty Organization, Special Report: Emerging Technologies and Their Impact on Arms Control and Non-Proliferation (Brussels: NATO Parliamentary Assembly Science and Technology Committee, 2001), 16.

42. Quoted in Richard A. Posner, Catastrophe: Risk and Response (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004), 19–20.

43. Joy, “Why the Future Doesn’t Need Us.”

44. Assuming, of course, that the poor country’s government is willing to allow such distribution of wealth.

45. Department of Defense, The National Defense Strategy of the United States of America (Washington, DC: DOD, March 2005), 4.


LCDR Thomas D. Vandermolen, USN LCDR Thomas D. Vandermolen, USN (BS, Louisiana Tech University; MA, Naval War College), is officer in charge, Maritime Science and Technology Center, Yokosuka, Japan. He was previously assigned as a student at the Naval War College, Newport Naval Station, Rhode Island. He has also served as intelligence officer for Carrier Wing Five, Naval Air Facility, Atsugi, Japan, and in similar assignments with US Special Operations Command, US Forces Korea, and Sea Control Squadron THIRTY-FIVE, Naval Air Station, North Island, California. His essay “A Smarter INTELINK” was awarded first prize in the Director of Naval Intelligence Essay Competition, while at the US Naval War College.


The conclusions and opinions expressed in this document are those of the author cultivated in the freedom of expression, academic environment of Air University. They do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Government, Department of Defense, the United States Air Force or the Air University

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