Going Too Far?

Why the peace movement should worry about nanotechnology

By Sean Howard and Lee-Anne Broadhead | 2004-07-01 12:00:00

The last few years have seen a burgeoning of interest and investment in 'nanotechnology' - an umbrella term covering a diverse range of manufacturing and engineering techniques applied to the unimaginably small atomic 'nanoscale.' A 'nanometre' is one billionth of a metre, about one-thousandth of the width of a single human hair; as defined by the Oxford Canadian Dictionary, nanotechnology deals with "dimensions and tolerances of less than 100 nanometres, esp. the manipulation of individual atoms and molecules."

Across this tiny tightrope, many argue, lies a bright new world of beneficial, liberating technologies: superstrong materials, supersmart medicines, unlimited computer power, etc. Beneath the tightrope, however, others warn of a yawning chasm: new means and methods of mass destruction; fascistically selective biological and 'genetic' weapons; the further dramatic miniaturization of nuclear weapons, creating new options for both use and proliferation; a new 'technobreed' of 'supersoldiers,' half-drone half-human; ghastly new means of torture, interrogation, and surveillance.

The Two-Edged Sword

Neither the benefits nor perils of nanotechnology can yet be proven or predicted with confidence. The highest expectations - bordering on visions of extreme human longevity and the abolition of disease, poverty, and pollution - may prove, in the tasting, mere 'pie in the sky.' Equally, dire predictions that the sky may fall - the spectre of rapid, irreparable damage to the atomic fabric of the globe - may prove wildly pessimistic. Even if neither of these extremes materialize, however, both its champions and detractors would agree that nanotechnology has the potential to reshape economies, societies, environments and militaries in far-reaching and powerful ways.

The major bone of technical contention in the field is over the prospects for 'self-replicating' molecular machinery: 'nanobots' programmed to assemble, reproduce, and even refine their own designs. Known as 'bottom-up' or 'wet' engineering, such a 'technorganic' process would theoretically allow for the exponential proliferation of artificial systems capable of radically altering the surrounding, natural atomic environment.

As with nuclear weapons/energy, such a 'nanosword of Damocles' would inevitably be two-edged. As nanotech visionary Ray Kurzweil, recipient of the National Medal of Technology from President Clinton, wrote in 1999:

"What happens if a little software problem fails to halt the self-replication? We may have more nanobots than we want. They could eat up everything in sight. ... I believe that it will be possible to engineer self-replicating nanobots in such a way that an inadvertent, undesired population explosion would be unlikely. ... But the bigger danger is the intentional hostile use of nanotechnology. Once the basic technology is available, it would not be difficult to adapt it as an instrument of war or terrorism."

The Perfection of Extreme Evil

Writing in Wired Magazine in April 2000, Sun Microsystems co-founder Bill Joy warned that the creation of such self-replicating nanotechnology would inevitably lead to "the further perfection of extreme evil ... well beyond that which weapons of mass destruction bequeathed to the nation states."

Many scientists, however, believe that self-replication is physically impossible: that individual atoms or molecules are simply too elusive and unwieldy, too 'fat' and 'sticky,' to perform like macroscale, assembly-line machines. In contrast, they argue, 'dry' or 'top-down' engineering - the comparatively painstaking manipulation of molecules by humans in the laboratory - is both feasible and capable of producing a vast range of new products and devices.

Top-down nanotechnology, however, does not remove the 'sword' or change its double-edged nature. The biotechnology revolution of recent decades has dramatically expanded the capacity of science to modify - 'manmake' - the genetic basis of life. In so doing, it also transformed the capacity for weapons scientists and terrorists to convert easily-available genetic material into new strains and types of 'deliverable' disease.

At present, biotechnology is rapidly merging with nanotechnology to push ever deeper into the heartland of life, opening yet more 'territory' to human control and exploitation. Of course there are gains as well as losses, 'miracles' as well as 'monsters', but hasn't the nuclear age taught us that the old scales of cost-benefit analysis no longer suffice to weigh our decisions?

Public in the Dark

But whose decisions, in fact, are we talking about? A recent poll in Britain showed that less than three in ten people had even heard of nanotechnology - a terrifying level of public ignorance presumably common in all those states, including Canada, now busy pouring money and resources into the field.

The Bush administration, for example, is requesting $982 million for its National Nanotechnology Initiative in 2005, $276 million of which is earmarked for the Department of Defense (compared to $89 million for the National Institutes of Health, $5 million for agriculture, and $1 million for homeland security). And this is just the beginning: from new weapons to new armor, battlefield integration to prisoner interrogation, nanotech is being touted by the Pentagon as the royal road to military supremacy, the 'cutting edge' of future wars - and occupations.

The view of most political and military-industrial establishments (including universities) is thus clear: but how should the peace movement respond to the challenge of nanotechnology? To begin with, we suggest, by supporting the call of Winnipeg's ETC Group (Action Group on Erosion, Technology and Concentration, www.etcgroup.org) and others for a nanotech moratorium to allow for an adequate public and political debate. This is not only a reasonable, democratic request; given the current pace of scientific developments, it is urgent and pressing.

In 1999, surveying the horrendous military implications of recent 'progress' in biotechnology, Dr. Robin Coupland, senior medical adviser to the International Committee of the Red Cross, wrote: "Who is going to say - 'now we humans have gone too far; we do not have the collective wisdom to have this in our hands'?" In 2004, it is high time to ask those same questions about nanotechnology. Disaster, after all, may be less than a hair's-breadth away.

Peace Magazine Jul-Sep 2004

Peace Magazine Jul-Sep 2004, page 11. Some rights reserved.

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