Home > Nanotechnology Columns > Lifeboat Foundation > The Politics and Ethics of the Hall Weather Machine
J. Storrs Hall's Weather Machine is a relatively simple nanofabracated machine system with significant consequences in politics and ethics.
After a brief technical description, this essay analyzes the ends, means, and circumstances of a feasible method of controling the weather, and includes some predictions regarding secondary effects.
September 17th, 2010
The Politics and Ethics of the Hall Weather Machine
The Politics and Ethics of the Hall Weather Machine
|A tiny portion of a Hall Weather Machine at 90,000 ft. This density may be able to ameliorate global warming/cooling, but would not be able to control weather.|
When a brilliant person possesses a fertile imagination and significant technical expertise, he or she is likely to imagine world-changing inventions. J. Storrs Hall is the epitome of those geniuses, and his Utility Fog  and Space Pier  are brilliant engineering designs that will change the world once they are reduced to practice. His most recent invention is the Weather Machine , which has been examined by none other than Robert Freitas and found to be technically reasonable—-though Freitas may have found an improved method for climate control that avoids some of the problems discussed below.
The Hall Weather Machine is a thin global cloud consisting of small transparent balloons that can be thought of as a programmable and reversible greenhouse gas because it shades or reflects the amount of sunlight that hits the upper stratosphere. These balloons are each between a millimeter and a centimeter in diameter, made of a few-nanometer thick diamondoid membrane. Each balloon is filled with hydrogen to enable it to float at an altitude of 60,000 to 100,000 feet, high above the clouds. It is bisected by an adjustable sheet, and also includes solar cells, a small computer, a GPS receiver to keep track of its location, and an actuator to occasionally (and relatively slowly) move the bisecting membrane between vertical and horizontal orientations. Just like with a regular high-altitude balloon, the heavier control and energy storage systems would be on the bottom of the balloon to automatically set the vertical axis without requiring any energy. The balloon would also have a water vapor/hydrogen generator system for altitude control, giving it the same directional navigation properties that an ordinary hot-air balloon has when it changes altitudes to take advantage of different wind directions at different altitudes.
Four versions of balloons are possible, depending on nature of the bisecting membrane.
• Version 1. Transparent/Opaque: The bisecting membrane is opaque, and rotates from the horizontal to the vertical in order to control the amount of solar radiation that it allows through (the membrane might be replaced by a immobile liquid crystal that has two basic states: transparent and opaque).
• Version 2. Emissivity Control: The membrane is white on one side, black on the other. When it is horizontal, either side can be presented upwards; white to scatter the solar radiation into space, black to absorb it into the upper atmosphere.
• Version 3. Reflection Control: The membrane is black on one side, with a reflective metallic coating on the other. This can direct solar energy in specific directions to increase the effectiveness of solar farms, or to steer hurricanes. Another feature of this version is that it enables the multiple reflection of light from sunlit to dark areas.
• Version 4. Advanced Photon Control: The balloon would be filled with an aerogel-density metamaterial that could not only control reflectivity via diffraction, but also control the frequency and phase of outgoing photons (with or without stimulated emission). Technically, designing and controlling these kinds of balloons would be a magnitude or two more complex than the earlier versions.
What is impressive about the Weather Machine is that by controlling a tenth of one percent of solar radiation is enough to force global climate in any direction we want. One percent is enough to change regional climate, and ten percent is enough for serious weather control.
Every human-designed system has unintended bugs, and may cause negative consequences. That is why we have professional engineering societies, non-profit standards organizations, and government bureaucracies—to help protect the public. There is, therefore, some concern that the Weather Machine will accidentally cause catastrophic weather. However, given the accuracy of weather predictions and global warming models, and the slow movement of masses of air, and the fact that humans are in the loop (and in an emergency, could use a failsafe mode to force all the balloons to drop from the sky), the danger of accidental harm is minimal. At any rate, this article is more concerned with the ethical issues, with accidental unintended consequences to be examined elsewhere.
Many people would be happy to stop global warming, though others (currently living in Siberia or Iceland) might happier without brutally cold winters. This level of climate control raises some problematic issues that may pit one group of people against another. The intended results could be taken care of the same way we normally take of similar issues in a representative democracy—we vote. This sounds nice, except that we're not just talking about the United States (or any single nation), but the entire world. And we all know how well the United Nations handles its affairs. Perhaps deciding whether or not we want global warming is a small enough decision that the U.N. can handle it. If not, we can always rely on the world government that evil geniuses want to run, and that conspiracy theorists worry about.
Within the USA, trial lawyers would be especially interested in unintended effects, including trivial ones like rain on parades, or more serious ones like floods and tornadoes. The tremendous inefficiency of this legal nightmare might be meliorated by a "weather tax" that would fund a program to recompense people who are willing to put up with bad weather.
The more advanced versions of balloons are problematic because then the Weather Machine wouldn't just control the intensity of solar and terrestrial radiation, but could also redirect and concentrate energy. In addition to increasing the effectiveness of solar farms, this would give more powerful and precise control over the weather. Unfortunately, energy concentration is exactly the capability that transforms the Weather Machine into an awesome weapon of mass destruction. Concentrated solar energy has not been used much since 212 BCE  when Archimedes used it to set fire the Roman ships that were attacking his city-state of Syracuse. However, the global coordination of the reflective Weather Machine allows bouncing concentrated solar energy around the globe, making it possible to set cities on fire. By fire, I mean the type of fire caused by dropping a nuclear bomb per second for as long as you want. The potential for abuse is rather large.
The most advanced version of the balloon is even better or worse—it contains an aerogel-density (i.e. extremely light and porous) programmable metamaterial that controls the frequency, direction, and phase of the reflected or transmitted radiation. Fully deployed, such a Weather Machine could become a planet-sized telescope—or laser. Small portions of such a system could be used as an effective missile defense system. Configured as a planetary laser, it might be able to defend Earth against stray asteroids such as Apopois, which is due for a flyby in 2029 (and might impact in 2036—especially if some terrorist group places an ion motor on it). Also, a planetary laser could push fairly large rockets rather quickly to Alpha Centari. But if you thought Version 3 was a weapon of mass destruction, Version 4 makes them, and the Transformers look like children's toys (No wait—that's what they are ). Optical divergence (currently 1 miliradian for commercially available lasers) will not keep planets from shooting at each other and frying them in their orbits, but the lack of energy density will—unless the balloons can store energy. On the other hand, even primitive laser focusing mechanisms will work fine for lunar infighting.
Given the almost unimaginable weaponization of the Hall Weather Machine, an important reaction is to ask if there any defenses against them. There are two types: those that attack the control algorithms (i.e. cyberware attacks) and those that physically attack the balloons, such as swarms of hunter-killer balloons or larger high-flying "carnivores". In addition, there are some de-weaponization strategies that will be discussed below.
In some ways, ethics is like engineering--solving big problems is most easily done by splitting the problem in to smaller pieces. This means that the best way to determine the ethics of any action (such as building and operating a weather machine) is to determine the ethical considerations of each of the ends, means, and circumstances.
As far as "ends" are concerned, the weather machine passes with flying colors, if nothing else because it can fix global warming (or impending ice ages). Depending on a number of variables, we might even increase the number of nice weekends and increase the biome sizes of certain species.
One counter to these benefits claims that by controlling the weather we would be playing God and that the Weather Machine is equivalent to eating from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. In my view, if God didn't like us messing with technology, then He should have let us know a long time ago. At any rate, the Bible doesn't speak against technology per se. Admittedly, the Bible's tower of Babel story does condemn the pride and arrogance that may result from technology, but that is another story.
A non-theistic (but just as religious) counter to the main intent of the weather machine is made by deep ecology environmentalists. They often claim that controlling the weather is unnatural, that Mother Nature bats last, or that the very idea of weather control is the reason that the global human population should be reduced to the low millions. These sort of arguments represent metaphysical differences regarding the value of individual human beings and the stewardship role we should have with the environment, and I'm not sure how we can address those issues in a book, much less in 3,500 words or less.
The "means" judges the actual methods used to control the climate and the weather. In this case, modulating the Sun's energy with many small, high-altitude balloons seems ethically neutral. Even the transformation of a 100 million tons of carbon into diamondoid balloons is ethically neutral (unless one gets the carbon from the living bodies of endangered animals, pre-born fetuses, ethnic minorities, or other humans). By some viewpoints, the sequestering of 100 million tons of atmospheric carbon would be considered virtuous (except that this particular sequestration makes the global warming problem go away, to be possibly replaced by bigger ones).
The ethical analysis leaves "circumstances" as the remaining issue, and here is where things get complicated. Circumstances include things like unintended (especially foreseeable) and secondary consequences, such as whether the means or the end may lead to other evils. In general, a consequentialist argument would likely accept some small risk of some harm, and might accept mechanisms (like lawsuits or something more efficient) to provide feedback to fix any inequities. But this is where things get really complicated.
The first possibility, and most often raised, is that building and operating the Weather Machine might result in severe, unpredictable, unintended consequences. There are a few classes of these consequences, the most obvious centered on out-of-control superstorms or droughts. After all, we aren't that great at predicting hurricane paths. On the other hand, this is because hurricane paths are inherently unstable—precisely because we don't have any weather control. If we take a car out to the Bonneville salt flats, tie a car's steering wheel absolutely straight, and then put a brick on the pedal, we cannot predict whether it will eventually circle left or right. But we allow cars on the road all the time precisely because we have such good feedback and control systems (well, except when they're getting home late on a Saturday night).
Increased predictability would ameliorate the unintended weather problem, and could be reached by using altitude control (and differently-directed winds) for the balloons to remain over a particular piece of land. Then many tests could be run better predict possible harms and to lower the risk of them ever happening. In general, almost all accidental problems caused by a misbehaving Weather Machine (including computer viruses, rogue controllers, broken balloons, and the environmental toxicology of a million tons of inert diamond falling all over the earth) can be ameliorated by good design, adequate testing, and accurate modeling .
Others classes of severe, unintended consequences are secondary effects in the environment, the world economy, politics, and other areas. For example, by successfully moving heat from the tropics to the northern areas, we might turn off the Gulf Stream and other important ocean currents? How will the stock market react to California constantly selling it's bad weather to Michigan? How will a totalitarian tropical country react if Iceland buys 20% of their neighbors' sunlight for a much higher price than for theirs?
A second possibility is that the Weather Machine is impossible, and working on it may be a waste of money that could be better spend on more worthwhile projects. Given our knowledge of physics, however, this is unlikely. A caveat is that it will be a race to 2030, when diamond mechanosynthesis should be able to crank out the 100 million tons (the equivalent of 100 miles of freeway) of diamond balloons, and when the worst-case scenarios predict the beginning of serious negative effects of anthropogenic carbon ) . Will the Hall Weather Machine be built in time to stop Florida from being inundated by the ocean? The answer depends on when nanosystems will achieve top-down bootstrapping or bottom-up Turing equivalence (which is a technical topic for another time).
A third possibility—if the balloons are not location-controllable—might occur if a nation doesn't want a foreign nation's balloons over its territory. The obvious hostile response would be to build hunter-killer balloons to destroy any invaders, as this seems to be permitted by current concepts of sovereignty. Such an arms race could (and probably will) escalate ad infinium, but open source hardware and software might help prevent it. Any military or intelligence personnel (of any country) would freak at the idea of handing the keys to a weapon of mass destruction to the public, but that may be the only viable solution if the control algorithm works using genetic or market mechanisms - maybe like American Idol or Wikipedia. After all, distributed systems should have distributed control systems. Imagine the balloons controlled by many different radio frequencies with a many different authentication algorithms with open source software. Unfortunately, if such public control is our solution against weather weaponization, we will still need to worry about the "tragedy of commons" and "not in my backyard" secondary effects.
There are other issues of international policy. Suppose we want more sunlight in the Dakotas for growing crops. We could buy it from poor tropical countries, or take it from international ocean territories, where it might affect other countries. Depending on the state of the art and it's acceleration, but especially at the beginning, it is likely that only rich countries will be able to build Weather Machines. More certainly, only rich countries will be able to fund the early experiments to understand what large numbers of balloons will actually do.
Some might object that knowledge is free and can travel anywhere via the Internet. This is true, but consider the BP disaster. Technical expertise on underwater drilling is international; marine science is international; the disaster receiving tons of press coverage; and yet there is large disagreement within the largely free scientific community about the importance of the spill, how long it will take to clean up, etc. In contrast, connecting a large base of nanofactories to the Internet will enable the global spread of atomically-precise physical devices (such as balloons) in seconds, whether or not the experiments are ever done.
A fourth possibility is that the Weather Machine could be used as a weapon of mass inconvenience—a means of unjust coercion by making possible the threat of bad weather. But the ethics of this application use the same principles as the ethics regarding weapons of mass destruction. I have already pointed out the possible use of the Weather Machine as a weapon—the ethical issues surrounding the more advanced versions of the Weather Machine are basically the same as those concerning weapons of mass destruction, though amplified somewhat by their power (tens of megatons of TNT equivalents per second) and precision of control (+/- one degree Fahrenheit).
Fifth, there is the possibility that psychologically, being in control of the weather is not good for developing character. What if human beings are supposed to cower in their caves when lightning and blizzards strike? After all, that is how we evolved, and there are many things we enjoy that are bad for us . Perhaps having so much control and power over the vicissitudes of life is psychologically bad for us. For evidence, look at the rates of depression in advanced nations.
Finally, what is the cost of not building a Weather Machine? If the cost drops low enough, some nation with the chutzpah will build one. And if they are at all successful, the rest of the world will jump in. But what will the cost be if they design it wrong?
Are the Ethics of the Hall Weather Machine Relevant?
The main problem with thinking about the ethics of the Hall Weather Machine is that by the time we can build 100 million tons of atomically precise anything, controlling the weather is going to be the least of our problems. This is because the nanotechnology revolution will bring about a new set of big, hairy problems—some of which I've written about elsewhere , but I fear that most of them we can't even imaging yet.
May we live in interesting times!
Thanks to James Bach and Chris Dodsworth for valuable contributions.
 J. Storrs Hall, Utility Fog: The Stuff that Dreams are Made Of, http://autogeny.org/Ufog.html
 J. Storrs Hall, The Space Pier: A hybrid Space-launch Tower concept, http://autogeny.org/tower/tower.html
 J. Storrs Hall, The Weather Machine, (transcript from Global Catastrophic Risks 2008 conference, posted by Jeriaska on December 20th, 2008), http://www.acceleratingfuture.com/people-blog/?p=2637
 Robert A. Freitas, Diamond Trees (Tropostats): A Molecular Manufacturing Based System for Compositional Atmospheric Homeostasis, 2010 IMM Report 43, 10 February 2010; http://www.imm.org/Reports/rep043.pdf
 Before the Christian Era :-)
 The details will be examined elsewhere (as time permits)..
 Coincidentally, it is also when the USA Social Security System is supposed to collapse.
 "The killer app for medical nanotechnology will be compensating for poor lifestyle choices like overeating and indiscriminant sex—i.e. diabetes II and AIDS" - a grad student at the 2010 Gordon Conference on Nanostructure Fabrication.
 T. Toth-Fejel, "Humanity and Nanotechnology". National Catholic Bioethics Quarterly, V4N2, Summer 2004.
 T. Toth-Fejel, "A Few Lesser Implications of Nanofactories: Global Warming is the least of our Problems." Nanotechnology Perceptions, March 2009