Dangers of Molecular Manufacturing
Overview: Molecular 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.
Molecular manufacturing suddenly will create many risks. The potential 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 Timeline and Products pages, 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 essential.
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 worrisome already:
Economic disruption from an abundance of cheap products
Economic oppression from artificially inflated prices
Personal risk from criminal or terrorist use
Personal or social risk from abusive restrictions
Social disruption from new products/lifestyles
Unstable arms race
Collective environmental damage from unregulated products
Free-range self-replicators (grey goo)
Black market in nanotech (increases other risks)
Competing nanotech programs (increases other risks)
Attempted relinquishment (increases other risks)
Some of the dangers described here are existential 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. The purchaser 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.
Major investment 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 Credit 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 core.
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 poverty. 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 restrictions.
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) despite furious opposition from every other WTO member.
Criminals and 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.
Extreme solutions and abusive regulations may be attempted. A 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 rights violation.
There is a possibility that abusive restrictions and policies may be attempted, such as round-the-clock surveillance of every citizen. Such surveillance might be possible with AI (artificial intelligence) 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 abusive rule.
Society could be disrupted by the availability of new "immoral" products. New 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.
Nanotech weapons would be extremely powerful and could lead to a dangerously unstable arms race. 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 possible.
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."
An excellent essay by 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. (MORE) 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 nanotechnology. When nanotechnology-based 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 for manufacturing—nanofactories 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 integration.
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.
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