TCS Daily

Preventing Nanoterror Now

By Glenn Harlan Reynolds - December 27, 2001 12:00 AM

As various publications produce their recaps of the year that was, one point is going almost unnoticed. 2001 was the year that people started to get serious about the promises and dangers of nanotechnology.

Nanotechnology - by which I mean true, molecular-level systems of the sort envisioned by pioneers like Richard Feynman and Eric Drexler, not simply the improved chip-making techniques that sometimes also travel under that name - has been getting attention for years in come circles. But in 2001, the character of the attention went from gee-whiz to serious.

Scholarly journals began publishing articles on the environmental impacts of nanotechnology, and mainstream journalists began to worry after 9/11 about the potential of nanotechnology for terror and other forms of abuse. The American Association for the Advancement of Science even sponsored a day-long symposium in December on nanotechnology and terrorism.

It is certainly true, as Drexler said at that conference, that nanotechnology is a technology of extremes: extreme downsides, and extreme upsides. We've heard about the upsides for years: cures for most known diseases - including aging - along with superstrong materials, inexpensive solar power, easy space travel, etc. We're now hearing more about the downsides: not only the venerable (and, as it turns out, unlikely) "gray goo scenario," in which life on earth is devoured by tiny robots that turn everything else into copies of themselves, but also about artificial "diseases," or mind-control devices that would manipulate brain chemistry to make their victims truly love Big Brother. (Such devices are not merely speculation on my part, but were discussed at the AAAS symposium by Sandia National Laboratory scientist Gerald Yonas).

All of this, of course, is some decades away (exactly how many is the subject of heated disputes among nanotechnology critics and opponents alike). But the existence of a symposium sponsored by the rather stodgy AAAS, at which the head of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy gave the keynote address, is enough to demonstrate that the issue has moved from the fringe to the center.

The question is, what do we do about this? The AAAS conference is a good step toward addressing the "extreme downsides" of nanotechnology, as are the Foresight Guidelines that came out of a similar, though much smaller, conference a couple of years ago. But I would recommend that the federal government, or perhaps a couple of suitable nonprofits, consider following up in a less public fashion.

The military has already used Hollywood screenwriters as part of its effort to anticipate terrorist threats. It may be time to try something similar in the area of nanotechnology: get together technical experts, leading science fiction writers, experts on terrorism, and some people who have thought about the social impacts of nanotechnology, and have them brainstorm on the kinds of threats that might emerge. From this, we could then move to a consideration of how to prevent those threats from becoming realities.

If such exercises were repeated several times, and their results carefully examined by people who understand threat assessment, such an exercise might produce a pretty good outline of the kinds of threats that we might face in the future. To broaden the idea base, we might also solicit suggestions from the general public - perhaps through technology-oriented websites like this one, or the nanotech-specific site, NanoDot. I imagine that such an effort would yield thousands of ideas, from which experts could evaluate the best. Such an effort would also serve a valuable educational function, getting many bright minds to increase their awareness of the issues, and making them more likely to contribute useful ideas in the future.

Our greatest advantage over terrorists, dictators, and other evildoers is that we have an open society. That open society is not merely the product of freedom, but its greatest strength, which is why people like Arthur Kantrowitz speak of the "weapon of openness." While terrorists and dictators, by their nature, can draw on only a few minds (and those often kooks or sycophants), an open society can bring literally millions of minds to bear on a problem.

Where this powerful technology is concerned, a nanogram of prevention is worth a kilogram of cure. Let's start thinking about nanoterrorism now, while we have the luxury of time. It's a luxury that won't last forever.

Contributing Editor Glenn Harlan Reynolds is professor of law at the University of Tennessee, and publishes InstaPundit.Com.

TCS Daily Archives