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The Superswarm Option

by John Robert Marlow

The Superswarm Option was first published as an appendix to the novel Nano, by John Robert Marlow (Forge/St. Martin's Press; February, 2004), and is copyright © 2004 by John Robert Marlow. This document can be found on the web at

John Robert Marlow Author NANO
Click to enlarge
John Robert Marlow
John is a novelist, freelance journalist,
and screenwriter with a strong interest in
advanced/disruptive technologies.
Nano is his first novel.

Published in hardback in February 2004, John Robert Marlow's techno-thriller Nano tells a story of humanity's close brush with extinction at the hands of "the Final Technology." This page is an adjunct to our Superswarm Interview.
—Rocky Rawstern, Editor Nanotechnology Now, February 2004

"For in much wisdom is much grief; and he that increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow." Ecclesiastes 1:18


In researching and writing Nano, I found myself unsatisfied with K. Eric Drexler's seemingly suicidal active shields concept--but it troubled me that I could propose no viable alternative to Drexler's idea. It is easy to say that something will not work; less easy, by far, to propose something which will. After considerable thought, I devised the proposal outlined below, which I call "The Superswarm Option."

I am not proposing that the superswarm option be implemented; rather, I present it for due consideration and improvement. (The surest path to survival is the immediate expansion to colonization of other worlds--which will be made feasible by nanotechnology.) It is, in its own way, insane--but, I believe, somewhat less seemingly suicidal than the active shields concept. To paraphrase James Cameron (via Sarah Connor in Terminator 2: Judgement Day): In an insane world, it may be the sanest choice.

As mentioned in the afterword, the world's best minds must be brought to bear on the safest possible implementation of nanotechnology. Unfortunately, what are generally considered to be the world's best minds do not always come up with the world's best ideas (witness Edward Teller's Project Chariot, also mentioned in the Afterword)--else the world wouldn't be the mess it is. Ideas and inventions devised by "common" men and women have often changed the world, and continue to do so today. Surely, when it comes to saving the world, no voice should go unheard. Debate must be open and public. (Comments can be sent via the NN Contact Form, and will be posted to the Superswarm Interview page. Private comments may also be sent to See more comments at sci.nanotech and Responsible Nanotechnology)

The Superswarm Option


Problem: Nonlimited or defectively-replicating nanites can multiply swiftly enough to outpace all subsequently-implemented countermeasures and so destroy the earth.

Proposed Solution: Create an ubiquitous "superswarm" which covers the globe, is in place before the "nanoevent" (whether accidental or deliberate) occurs--and which reacts instantaneously by attacking and disassembling the "rogue" nanites from all directions simultaneously.


The Challenge

From a global threat standpoint, the most troubling aspect of a "nanoevent" (accidental or deliberate release of nonlimited nanites possessed of disassembly capabilities) is the speed with which the nanite swarm or "nanoswarm" increases its size. This speed is exponential, or nearly so. This means that, once a certain swarm-size/swarm rate-of-expansion threshold is attained (and such a threshold will be attained very rapidly), no mitigating response is possible.

Early-Stage Interventions--Nuclear, Plasma, nanite

Early-stage interventions (and it must be remembered that the timeframe being referenced is inhumanly short) with some chance of successfully terminating a nanoevent (the term "control" will not be used, as there is no control short of event termination) include thermonuclear detonation, plasma attack, and nanoattack. Each of these options will succeed only if it completely destroys the reproductive capabilities of every single nanite within the targeted swarm. A single escaped nanite--carried away from the site on a blast wave, for example, will begin the process anew, requiring another response in a new location, and so on. Several nanites carried away in different directions would require several new responses ad infinitum.

Additional intervention options which remain impractical for the moment (and perhaps forever) include the employment of antimatter and of singularities.

Plasma Intervention

Highly mobile, instantaneous plasma-generation capability is nonexistent. The feasibility of creating a sufficient quantity of fixed-point instantaneous plasma-generation devices to protect the entire globe--even with the use of nanoassemblers--is dubious, to say the least.

Nuclear Intervention

Nuclear weapons are highly mobile and rapidly retargetable. Even so, their deployment is unlikely to be swift enough to accomplish the desired end. To begin with, there are political considerations; not all nations possess nuclear weapons, and those which do possess them will placed in the position of employing them upon other nations or their own with no practical advance warning.

Next comes the issue of verification. To be effective, launch must be immediate. There is no time for verification; to delay is to die. To launch in error is to kill millions and risk revolution or global conflict. The time it takes the President or other authorized official to open the briefcase and enter the appropriate launch codes could be the difference between life and death for the earth itself.

To place verification and launch procedures in the virtual hands of an artificial intelligence or computer program for sake of speed puts us on the road to active shields (weapons of mass destruction controlled by impartial, non-human intelligences or "NHIs"), and subjects us to the unacceptable possibilty of computer error and/or malevolent intent. Lastly, the flight-time of nuclear-equipped weapons will in some cases be unacceptably long; even if launched within seconds of swarm detection, by the time the nuclear package arrives, it will not have the desired effect because the swarm will be too large to destroy. Again, the feasibility of placing the practical equivalent of a ready-to-blow nuclear warhead on every streetcorner is, at best, dubious.


The points raised above eliminate all possible methods of early-stage intervention save one: intervention by nanites. An additional point not raised above also leads to this conclusion: namely, the fact that a nanoevent can begin anywhere. Neither nuclear weapons nor plasma guns are likely to prove effective in rapidly reaching and then destroying a nanoswarm which begins beneath an ocean, or deep within the earth.

Again, however, speed of response is a critical issue; because of the exponential expansion rate of a rogue swarm, there will be no time to transport the elements of a nanocounterattack to the scene of the event. The counterattacking force must already be in-place and ready to act in response to a threat.

Fortunately, the very capabilities which make a rogue swarm so extraordinarily dangerous in the first place also serve to facilitate the erection of an extraordinarily swift and effective nanotechnology-based response.

The Superswarm


The proposed "superswarm" would be composed entirely of antinanite nanites--nanoassemblers/disassamblers specifically programmed to disassemble only hostile nanites (but not each other) and to assemble as many additional antinanites as may be required for mission completion. Instructing the antinanites to disassemble only hostile nanites (as well as inanimate environmental elements--rigidly prioritized to minimize collateral losses--to aid in antinanite swarm expansion) accomplishes two important objectives: it allows for an instantaneous and automatic threat-response without the cumbersome and time-consuming burden of elaborate verification procedures, and; it completely eliminates the massive collateral damage inflicted by nuclear or plasma responses--thus lessening if not eliminating entirely the negative consequences of responding to a false threat-alert.

In the interests of maximizing threat-response speed--and also as a method of turning the superswarm against itself should that prove necessary--there can be no centralized superswarm command center or "brain." Such a centralized control center would slow threat-response time, be subject to attack (crippling the entire superswarm should the attack prove even partially successful), and prevent portions of the superswarm from attacking other portions of the superswarm (including any such control center) which may become defective or errant or somehow fall under hostile influence.


To be effective, the superswarm must be universally deployed over and above the surface of the earth, throughout the oceans, and deep within the planet--in short, the swarm must be present everywhere it is possible for nanites to be present, for only in this manner can it stand ready to react instantaneously to any nanoevent, regardless of point-of-origin. An effective reaction time of zero will ensure that there is no possibility the rogue swarm will attain critical size/expansion rate values; it will itself be under exponentially-expanding attack from all sides by a larger force.


The superswarm will be, in essence, a single massive nanoswarm which covers and permeates the globe. As in all warlike efforts, communication among friendly forces will be critical to mission success. This appears at first to present somewhat of a dilemma, however, in that an exponentially-expanding rogue swarm may well consume and destroy proximate members of the superswarm before they can transmit a warning of the danger and so trigger the superswarm's "immune response." Simply put, if the sentries are killed before they can scream for help, and the attacker continues destroying friendly forces faster than any alert can be communicated to outlying friendly forces in a position to respond before themselves being attacked and destroyed--the entire scenario ends in defeat.

This situation can be avoided only if every single member of the superswarm continually transmits an all-is-fine signal which is continually monitored by all other superswarm members within a reasonable distance. If the signal ceases or falls below a certain signal strength (indicating a rapid friendly force reduction), counterattack begins. This arrangement has the additional benefit of rendering signal jamming by the rogue swarm ineffective; if the signal is jammed, the counterattack begins. Signal duplication is another matter, which will have to be addressed through encryption and/or other means, perhaps including superswarm calculation of the number of legitimate individual transmitters operating in any given area at any given time.

Note that each individual member of the superswarm must be a transmitter; otherwise, the attacking rogue swarm can simply disassemble (and perhaps impersonate) nontransmitting superswarm members and so continue to expand without triggering a response.

For sake of redundancy, there should be a localized and/or regional signal-detection hierarchy to ensure that a rapid local or multi-local rogue attack does not prevent a rapid and overwhelming counterattack. Ideally, there will, in addition to the ubiquitous transmitter antinanites, be roving covert nanoscouts which continually roam about in search of anomalies and things which are not as they should be.

These nanounits, also, must report to local/regional detectors, via either encrypted burst-transmissions or physical presence, or both. The need to physically report to a specific-but-changing location within a specific timeframe provides an extremely difficult-to-counter means of situational reportage; if one or more nanoscouts fail to show up at the appointed time, or turn out to be impostors, an immediate nanocounterattack is directed from all sides at the area in which the nanoscout(s) operated.


A rogue swarm attacked by a properly-implemented superswarm will be quickly defeated; no other outcome is possible. The superswarm will begin with a larger number of nanocombatants, will occupy all territory which surrounds the rogue swarm, will multiply exponentially upon rogue swarm detection, and will by its presence and by its rapid consumption of available local nanite-building resources deny those resources to the rogue swarm--which will then be facing superior attack and diminishing resources with which to sustain its own attack/defense efforts. Again, victory for the rogue swarm is not possible.

Assuming the superswarm is capable of detecting nanomimics (hostile nanites which disguise themselves as friendly nanites), the mere survival of a single memmber of the rogue swarm is not possible. This is crucial, because a single rogue nanite can swiftly generate a new rogue swarm.

Safety Features

Safety features have been mentioned above, but a primary reason for their implementation bears restating: The superswarm itself could become a threat--a potentially greater threat than any possible rogue swarm.

One reason a centralized superswarm command structure must be avoided at all costs is because that command structure could become defective or could fall under hostile control (human or otherwise)--in which case the entire superswarm could conceivably be tasked with the immediate destruction of specific targets or the planet itself. This possibility must be obviated at all costs. Superswarm decisionmaking capablities must be decentralized.

Decentralization will permit all portions of the superswarm which have not become defective and which have not fallen under hostile control to operate as intended and immediately attack those portions of the swarm which are not operating as intended. The importance of this safety feature cannot be overstated; to implement the superswarm without it is technocide--suicide by technology.

Properly implemented decentralization, in combination with multiple signal relay networks to keep nearby and distant portions of the superswarm apprised of local conditions, can both serve to prevent a large-scale or multiple-point rogue swarm attack from eliminating an appropriate threat-response, and serve as a built-in form of designed system redundancy.

Another safety feature is this: Superswarm members must be capable of distinguishing between friend and foe. Further, they must be able to distinguish between exponentially-multiplying rogue swarm members and exponentially-multiplying superswarm members--attacking the former but not the latter.

Additionally, superswarm members must be programmed with resource priorities--that is, there must be an assigned priority of materials employed in superswarm expansion. New superswarm members will ideally be constructed using the atoms of disassembled rogue swarm members (though care must be taken to avoid becoming "infected" by rogue swarm programs in the process; complete disassembly should obviate this potential hazard) and the atoms of those materials which would otherwise be immediately available for use by the rogue swarm in boosting its own numbers (resource denial).

Some care needs to be taken, however, in order to avoid disassembling superswarm members, humans and other life forms, and nanites and other objects whose disassembly will or may cause collateral damage, immediate or otherwise. If this is not done, the superswarm threat-response will, in effect, accomplish the very damage intended by the rogue swarm.

The superswarm program need not--indeed, must not--be overly complex--but it cannot be simple.

Advantages and Disadvantages

Aside from points mentioned above and below, there are the following considerations. Unlike active shields, the Superswarm Option does not require the creation of an infallible nonhuman intelligence prior to implementation--a distinct advantage for many reasons, not the least of which is that such an intelligence may never exist. The hard-programmed or perhaps learning-enabled (as opposed to truly intelligent, or sentient) swarm herein proposed will be incapable of deliberate hostile intent--another advantage.

A severe disadvantage shared, alas, in common with all viable options now foreseeable, is that the Superswarm Option cannot be implemented without a working nanotechnology: it will not exist before the threat it is designed to protect against has arrived. It can, if meticulously worked out in advance and assiduously tested the moment the technology becomes feasible, be rapidly implemented. In such an event, the gravest danger will exist at the earliest stage of working nanodevelopment.

For this reason, it would seem wise to locate the initial nanolabs in remote locations, and to equip each with a sizable and immovable fusion warhead designed to detonate upon notification of a nanoevent. To prevent the warhead itself from being disassembled before notification can be sent or received, redundant backup detonation procedures are called for. The weapon could, for example, be placed in a vacuum which, if broken, initiates detonation. Alternatively, the weapon could be suspended in a fluid whose volume must remain constant, under pressure which must remain unaltered, within an electromagnetic field which must be maintained, etc. A combination of such measures--the violation of any one of which alone will trigger detonation--would perhaps be wisest. Manual detonation might also be permitted.

The Downside

Complex problems require complex solutions, and complex solutions often have downsides which include unforeseen and sometimes unforeseeable consequences. The Superswarm Option is no exception--and the potential downside is as massive and all-encompassing as the upside it offers: to wit--should the superswarm itself somehow "go rogue" on a large scale, there will be no stopping it. It will begin everywhere at once, and the end will come swiftly. The earth and everything on it will vanish in the biblical twinkling of an eye.

To implement a plan with a downside such as this is clearly insane. To fail to implement it is probably more insane. We have become the prisoners of our own technology, which now dictates to us even before its arrival the actions we must take if we are to survive that arrival. Though his actions were reprehensible, Theodore Kaczynski--aka "the Unabomber"--had a point: technology is reaching the stage at which it might be considered a force for evil so overwhelming and unavoidable as to inevitably destroy us if we do not renounce it immediately.*


We will not, of course, do that. We will instead strive to attain the unimaginable benefits clearly promised by the final technology--nanotechnology. To turn away from this promise would make us something other than what we are--a race which labors ceaselessly to improve itself in all respects. To renounce nanotechnology would not be human. Logical, perhaps; wise, surely--but not human.

We will, as we must, go forward--hoping to avoid the peril, while reaching for the promise.
I wish us luck.
We're going to need it.

—John Robert Marlow

ACTIVE SHIELD: A defensive system with built-in constraints to limit or prevent its offensive use.
—Foresight Institute

Active Shields

It seems that we can build nanomachines that act somewhat like the white blood cells of the human immune system: devices that can fight not just bacteria and viruses, but dangerous replicators of all sorts. Call an automated defense of this sort an active shield, to distinguish it from a fixed wall.

Unlike ordinary engineering systems, reliable active shields must do more than just cope with nature or clumsy users. They must also cope with a far greater challenge - with the entire range of threats that intelligent forces can design and build under prevailing circumstances. Building and improving prototype shields will be akin to running both sides of an arms race on a laboratory scale. But the goal here will be to seek the minimum requirements for a defense that reliably prevails.

In building active shields, we will be able to use the power of replicators and AI systems to multiply the traditional advantages of the defending force: we can give it overwhelming strength through abundant, replicator-built hardware with designs based on the equivalent of a million-year lead in technology. We can build active shields having strength and reliability that will put past systems to shame.

Nanotechnology and artificial intelligence could bring the ultimate tools of destruction, but they are not inherently destructive. With care, we can use them to build the ultimate tools of peace. link
Active Shields vs. Space Weapons

It may be useful to consider how we might apply the idea of active shields in more conventional fields. Traditionally, defense has required weapons that are also useful for offense. This is one reason why "defense" has come to mean "war-making ability," and why "defense" efforts give opponents reason for fear. Presently proposed space-based defenses will extend this pattern. Almost any defensive system that can destroy attacking missiles could also destroy an opponent's defenses - or enforce a space blockade, preventing an opponent from building defenses in the first place. Such "defenses" smell of offense, as seemingly they must, to do their job. And so the arms race gathers itself for another dangerous leap.

Must defense and offense be so nearly inseparable? History makes it seem so. Walls only halt invaders when defended by warriors, but warriors can themselves march off to invade other lands. When we picture a weapon, we naturally picture human hands aiming it and human whim deciding when to fire - and history has taught us to fear the worst.

Yet today, for the first time in history, we have learned how to build defensive systems that are fundamentally different from such weapons. Consider a space-based example. We now can design devices that sense (looks like a thousand missiles have just been launched), assess (this looks like an attempted first strike) and act (try to destroy those missiles!). If a system will fire only at massive flights of missiles, then it cannot be used for offense or a space blockade. Better yet, it could be made incapable of discriminating between attacking sides. Though serving the strategic interests of its builders, it would not be subject to the day-to-day command of anyone's generals. It would just make space a hazardous environment for an attacker's missiles. Like a sea or a mountain range in earlier wars, it would threaten neither side while providing each with some protection against the other.

Though it would use weapons technologies (sensors, trackers, lasers, homing projectiles, and such), this defense wouldn't be a weapons system, because its role would be fundamentally different. Systems of this sort need a distinctive name: they are, in fact, a sort of active shield - a term that can describe any automated or semiautomated system designed to protect without threatening. By defending both sides while threatening neither, active shields could weaken the cycle of the arms race.

The technical, economic, and strategic issues raised by active shields are complex, and they may or may not be practical in the preassembler era. If they are practical, then there will be several possible approaches to building them. In one approach, the cooperating democracies would build shields unilaterally. To enable other nations to verify what the system will and (more important) won't do, we could allow multilateral inspection of key designs, components, and production steps. We needn't give away all the technologies involved, because know-what isn't the same as know-how. In a different approach, we would build shields jointly, limiting technology transfer to the minimum required for cooperation and verification (using principles discussed in the Notes).

We have more chance of banning space weapons than we do of banning nanotechnology, and this might even be the best way to minimize our near-term risks. In choosing a long-term strategy for controlling the arms race, though, we must consider more than the next step. The analysis I have outlined in this chapter suggests that traditional arms control approaches, based on negotiating verifiable limitations, cannot cope with nanotechnology. If this is the case, then we need to develop alternative approaches. Active shields - which seem essential, eventually - may offer a new, stabilizing alternative to an arms race in space. By exploring this alternative, we can explore basic issues common to all active shields. If we then develop them, we will gain experience and build institutional arrangements that may later prove essential to our survival.

Active shields are a new option based on new technologies. Making them work will require a creative, interdisciplinary synthesis of ideas in engineering, strategy, and international affairs. They offer fresh choices that may enable us to avoid old impasses. They apparently offer an answer to the ancient problem of protecting without threatening - but not an easy answer. link
Standards before and after active shields

Before active shields are developed, standard design elements of nanomachines, standard experimental procedures, and performance standards can be useful guides to avoid replication accidents or other unwanted effects. The former two are specification standards, which require a particular implementation ('you must limit replicating ability using a counter limit embedded in hardware,' or 'assemblers with replication ability must be kept in a Level 3 containment facility'). They have the advantage of being easy to monitor for compliance, but limit "the range of technological change" [19] which will be especially needed during the development process. Performance standards require achievement of some measurable result ("you must limit the replicating ability of an assembler to 20 generations"). They allow more flexibility for implementation, but require more monitoring to assure compliance. During the early development stages performance standards and standards for experimental procedures (specifically regarding containment) would make sense. Once a variety of designs have been tried and tested, the most successful could be converted into specification standards, preferably with the option of superseding them when even better designs and procedures become available. link

* It is perhaps the ultimate irony that the technological evils of which the Unabomber wrote in his at times surprisingly lucid manifesto can be entirely eliminated through the use of technology itself--nanotechnology. Assuming, that is, that the technology can be successfully implemented--a proposition which is by no means certain.
—John Robert Marlow

NANO - John Robert Marlow. Hardcover January 2004

John Robert Marlow

If you haven't read Nano by John Robert Marlow, I strongly encourage you to add it to your list-at the top. It is plausible, scientifically accurate, and timely. From a "wake-up call" standpoint, this is the most important piece of fiction written to date.

"Give me a lever, a place to stand, and I will move the earth." --Archimedes.

Advanced nanotechnology is that lever, and NANO describes many ways in which it may be used.
--Rocky Rawstern, February 2004

Hardcover, January 2004. Click on book cover to read more reviews, and to buy. Read our review

Comments can be sent via the NN Contact Form, and will be posted to the Superswarm Interview page. Private comments may also be sent to See more comments at sci.nanotech and Responsible Nanotechnology

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