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Home > Introduction > Articles > Thomas D. Vandermolen > Molecular Nanotechnology and National Security

Thomas D. Vandermolen, LCDR, USN Molecular Nanotechnology and National Security

By Thomas D. Vandermolen, LCDR, USN

Source: Air & Space Power Journal.

31 August 2006

In rare instances, revolutionary technology and associated military innovation can fundamentally alter long-established concepts of warfare....

Some disruptive breakthroughs...could seriously endanger our security.

—The National Defense Strategy of the United States of America1


Molecular nanotechnology, when fully developed, will provide the basis for the next technological revolution, possibly the most beneficial yet disruptive in human history. By allowing inexpensive mass production with atomic-level precision, this infant technology has the potential to create whole new classes of weapons and economic, political, and social disruptions serious enough to threaten international security. In order to minimize the threats while maximizing the benefits of molecular nanotechnology's impending development, the United States should take the lead in creating a cooperative strategy of international regulation. Further, the strategy should be initiated as soon as possible to allow for the uncertain timeline of molecular nanotechnology development and the inherent difficulty of establishing such a regulatory process. Molecular nanotechnology's arrival will cause an avalanche of problems and threats, many of which the human race has never encountered; the control strategy must therefore be ready before that day arrives.


Nanotechnology (NT) is the manipulation and control of matter at the scale of the nanometer, or one-billionth of a meter--roughly the diameter of a small molecule. Therefore, unlike its predecessor microtechnology, which deals with the relatively gargantuan scale of amoebas, nanotechnology represents human engineering at the atomic or molecular level. But nanotechnology is more than just taking well-understood microtechnology engineering techniques down another step in size: it abruptly and vastly expands of the limits of what is possible. Nanotechnology works with the basic material building blocks of nature--atoms and molecules--allowing for an unprecedented level of engineering precision and control of matter. In addition, the nanometer scale (or nanoscale) is where the effects of the "regular" Newtonian physics that governs everyday human experience and the "weird" quantum physics that governs the atomic and subatomic worlds begin to overlap. Working at the nanoscale will thus permit human engineers to take advantage of the benefits of both realms of physical law simultaneously.

It is not surprising, then, that government and business interest in NT is significant and growing rapidly: the U.S. National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI), which coordinates U.S. government research and development (R&D) efforts, is expected to have a budget exceeding $1 billion in FY2006, a ninefold increase over its 1997 budget of $116 million.2 But this increasing R&D budget also illustrates that today's nanotechnology " still almost wholly on the drawing board."3 Nanoscience is in its infancy, and the characteristics of even familiar, exhaustively studied materials (such as common metals) may hold surprises at the nanometer scale.4 Thus, despite the introduction of new NT-based products to the marketplace,5 NT's true practical potential is still being discovered.

There is some disagreement within the NT R&D community about the ultimate potential of the field. One school of thought promotes molecular nanotechnology (MNT), also called molecular manufacturing (MM), the brainchild of Dr. K. Eric Drexler, originator of the term "nanotechnology" itself.6 Molecular nanotechnology is "extreme" nanotechnology, with engineering so precise and feature-dense that it approaches the theoretical limits of nature: "thorough, inexpensive control of the structure of matter based on molecule-by-molecule control of products and byproducts of molecular manufacturing."7 Whereas mainstream nanotechnology focuses on creating small-scale components to be incorporated into larger products in a conventional manner, MNT products will be human scale or larger, built from start to finish by MNT processes.8 Because the degree to which nanotechnology will disrupt human affairs is still unclear, this article will focus on MNT, the potentially most dangerous manifestation.

Molecular nanotechnology's promise depends on a few key capabilities. The first is the ability to mechanically guide chemical reactions at the molecular level, called mechanochemistry.9 In MNT, mechanochemistry will be accomplished by molecular fabricators: essentially tiny, controllable, mechanical tools capable of physically "grabbing" specific molecules and putting them together in useful ways.

A single fabricator, however, is not very useful for building large objects, as it would take thousands of years for one to build an object large enough to see with the naked eye. Therefore, the second key capability is exponential manufacturing, or the ability to create large numbers of fabricators that will work in unison; this is accomplished by having the fabricators build more fabricators--the number of fabricators will thus grow exponentially.

It is important to note that fabricators are autoproductive--that is, they are capable of building other fabricators, but only with extensive outside assistance--and not self-replicating, which would enable them to create copies of themselves without direct outside assistance, a feat demonstrated by cells and bacteria. This limitation in capability is intentional: initial MNT concepts focused on the use of free-floating, self-contained microscopic robots called assemblers, which would be able to self-replicate, or construct exact duplicates of themselves. Assemblers would be inherently complicated, requiring not only their own molecular fabricator tools, but also the associated control, propulsion, communications, and navigation systems necessary to coordinate with other assemblers on production tasks. The inherent replication ability of assemblers also made them a potential danger (see the "gray goo" discussion below). Thus, more recent MNT theories focus on the use of fabricators as an intrinsically less complex, more efficient, and less dangerous solution.10

The final key capability is convergent assembly, which enables the mass of fabricators to build large objects by first building tiny parts, then putting those tiny parts together to build larger parts, and repeating the process until a complete, human-scale product has been constructed. By some estimates, if the size of the parts doubles at each stage, it will only take 30 such stages to go from parts only a few atoms in size to objects as big as a meter.11

Thus, the MNT fabrication process will first require the production of at least one fabricator, an environmental system conducive to its operation, and a control system. The first fabricators will begin to construct copies of themselves, helped along by the externally-controlled feed and control systems, exponentially growing their number as necessary. The final mass of fabricators will then create progressively more complex molecular building blocks, ultimately assembling them into the final desired product.

In contrast to even today's microtechnology--which, as advanced and impressive as it seems, still handles atoms "in unruly herds"12 of billions or trillions--molecular fabricators will permit (and likely demand) molecularly precise engineering, where each atom or molecule is accounted for and placed in a specific location. The result is products that are stronger, lighter, yet more feature-dense than anything produced today.

The combination of exponential manufacturing and the more efficient use of a product's physical structure will also allow for the rapid creation of prototypes; follow-on manufacturing can then begin at any time, as the assembly process is the same as for the prototype.13

The applications of MNT are potentially limitless. Virtually every aspect of human life would be affected: for example, tiny robots could be sent into the human body to locate and destroy cancerous cells or viruses, or even correct failing organs at the cellular level, leading to indefinite extension of the human lifespan.

The dangers posed by MNT are also nearly limitless: cheap, fast mass production would enable spasmodic arms races; improved smart materials could make current weapons systems much more capable, or permit creation of entirely new classes of weapons.

Perhaps the most publicized danger from MNT is the so-called "gray goo" problem, where self-replicating nanomachines essentially out-compete the naturally occurring life forms on earth. First postulated by Drexler in his 1986 book Engines of Creation, the "gray goo" scenario describes the release (either accidental or deliberate) of a resilient, omnivorous, artificial "bacteria" that is able to out-compete all life on earth and which subsequently "...reduce[s] the biosphere to dust in a matter of days," leaving behind only a world-wide mass--or "gray goo"--of microscopic replicators.14 Drexler himself has since repeatedly asserted that such an event is extremely unlikely to happen accidentally, particularly with the MNT community's conceptual shift away from assembler-based production, and would be a tremendously difficult undertaking in any case. Not surprisingly, however, dramatic possibilities like this have exerted an overshadowing and somewhat hysterical influence on public perception.15 This "science fiction" perception of MNT--plus the lack of a working molecular fabricator--have prompted the mainstream nanotech community to downplay or ignore MNT concepts. Some of the most vocal detractors--including the late Nobel-prize winning chemist Richard Smalley16--have claimed MNT-style assemblers are impossible,17 and that discussion of them hurts "real" NT development by scaring the public and diverting attention and funding from more legitimate research with a proven track record.18

Is Nanotechnology a National Security Concern?

If MNT is not technically practicable,19 then is it, or even the more "mainstream" nanotechnology, a national security concern? Whether or not strict Drexler-type MNT is viable, a convergence of less technologically-challenging mainstream nanotech and other technologies could result in MNT-like capabilities, necessitating serious consideration of the potential impacts on national security.

Much of the debate over MNT focuses on which research efforts will pay off sooner (and therefore deserve more resources), rather than confronting the issue of final capabilities. Consider, however, that every day a form of molecular manufacturing occurs around the world: Nature itself has been using molecular manufacturing for billions of years to convert cheap resources (dirt, water) and cheap energy (sunlight) into useful building materials (timber). Regardless of which development path is used to get there, a molecular manufacturing-like technology is demonstrably possible.

But should MNT or MM prove too difficult to achieve or not cost-effective for some reason, mainstream NT will still create a tremendous impact on every field that affects national security. Even a National Science Foundation report which expresses doubt about MNT's feasibility (" may be technically impossible to create self-reproducing mechanical nanoscale robots...")20 also states: "Nanotechnology will fundamentally transform science, technology, and society."21 Kwan S. Kwok, DARPA program manager, echoes the NSF sentiment: "It is widely accepted that the potential impact of nanotechnology may be larger than that of any scientific field humankind has previously encountered."22

Finally, consider the possible emerging trend of personal fabrication (PF), a concept created by Dr. Neil Gershenfeld of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Center for Bits and Atoms (CBA). Gershenfeld and his colleagues have been establishing a network of "fab labs": small facilities set up in areas with little or no access to regular sources of technology, such as rural India. Fab labs are equipped with computers and tabletop micromachining equipment that enables users to design and create objects of their choosing. Products so far have included computer circuit boards, diesel engine flywheel sensors, even works of art--and these from users with limited experience with high-tech equipment. Currently the fab lab equipment setup costs approximately US$26,000. Gershenfeld and the CBA continue to work on improving the fab labs' setup in terms of cost, capability, and efficiency: "We're approaching being able to make one machine that can make any machine." Eventually Gershenfeld expects nanotechnology to become a viable basis for fabrication tools.23 In fact, the Personal Fabrication paradigm may present the most significant long-term application of MNT. MNT-based personal fabricators will embody the ultimate fusion of the industrial and IT revolutions: the ability to move data such as design plans cheaply and instantaneously to virtually any location, then convert that data into real-world, solid objects at roughly the cost of raw materials and power. This concept logically leads to that of inexpensive distributed manufacturing, tailored to the needs of the organization or even the individual.

Overall, there appear to be many paths and no outright "show-stoppers" on the road to a molecular nanotechnology-like capability. Given the threats delineated in the next section, it would be irresponsible not to prepare for MNT's emergence.

Threats from Molecular Nanotechnology

MNT is a potentially enormously powerful technology that will generate both direct and indirect threats to U.S. security.

Direct threats

State-based arms races. Intentional misuse of MNT will probably pose the greatest direct threat to national security. Molecular manufacturing will allow anyone with access to the technology to quickly and economically create weapons of virtually any description; the aspiring arms producer would only have to provide designs, power, and basic materials. If the arms producer is a state, then the resulting flood of extremely high quality military equipment will enable that state to promptly and easily overwhelm any non-MNT-equipped enemies.

With the rapid prototyping capability provided by MM, the time period for such a buildup could be on the order of weeks or months; multiple rapid arms races could surface with regularity around the world.24 Such arms races will likely not be limited to conventional weapons as we know them today. An arms race based on "smart" weapons of mass destruction (WMD) will be possible, such as a smallpox virus engineered to only kill people with a certain genetic trait.25

Individual-based arms races. States may not be alone in weapons-production activities. MNT-enabled personal manufacturing could allow WMD production to shift from governments to small groups or individuals; this democratization of arms production is the darker side of personal fabrication. Bill Joy, cofounder and Chief Scientist of Sun Microsystems, has dubbed this capability knowledge-enabled mass destruction (KMD), calling it "a surprising and terrible empowerment of extreme individuals."26 Given the predilection of some hackers to create harmful computer viruses just for the thrill of it, it is not a great conceptual leap to imagine that "nano hackers" might decide to do the same with real-world viruses.

Perhaps the most frightening weapon of all--and thus no doubt a natural aspiration for potential nano-hackers--are the infamous self-replicating "gray goo" assemblers. Designing a "gray goo" replicator would be an extraordinarily complex undertaking, however, and would require solving a multitude of extremely difficult engineering challenges; accordingly, some have argued that such an effort would be either impossible or highly unlikely.27 However, a dedicated and concerted attempt could conceivably fall short of the goal but still come up with something extremely dangerous and uncontrollable. In order to help ensure that the accidental creation of a "gray goo" nanomachine remains a practical impossibility, Drexler's Foresight Institute, a nonprofit organization he founded to "help prepare society for anticipated advanced technologies," has prescribed guidelines for the safe development of nanotechnology. The Institute recommends avoiding the use of replicators entirely, or at the minimum designing them so that they cannot operate in a natural environment.28

Surveillance. An early application of MNT and NT will likely be inexpensive, yet advanced, micro-surveillance platforms and tools. Mass-produced, these disposable sensors could be used to blanket large areas, providing ubiquitous surveillance of the people within. Although obviously a battlefield concern, such surveillance could also be employed against any group or population, raising privacy and legality issues.29

Environmental damage. Molecular nanotechnology was originally perceived as a potential cure-all for a variety of environmental problems: nanobots in the atmosphere, for example, could physically repair the ozone layer or remove greenhouse gases. Recently, however, nanotechnology is increasingly being seen as a potential environmental problem in its own right. Both NT and MNT are expected to produce large quantities of nanoparticles and other disposable nanoproducts, the environmental effects of which are currently unknown. This "nano-litter" is also small enough to penetrate living cells, raising the possibility of toxic poisoning of organs, either from the nano-litter itself or from toxic elements attached to the nanoparticles.30

Indirect threats

Molecular nanotech will be a disruptive technology, giving "...little or no advantage to the entrenched leader of an earlier technological wave,"31 and thus has the potential to radically upset the geopolitical playing field, posing powerful indirect threats to national security.

Economic. As a glimpse of the potential economic change triggered by MNT, Bill Joy has estimated that the wealth generated by the fusion of the information and physical worlds in the 21st century will equal a thousand trillion U.S. dollars; as Newt Gingrich observed, this is equivalent to "adding 100 U.S. economies to the world market."32

Clearly no one is quite sure what an MNT-based economy would look like, but most speculations agree that it will probably resemble the software economy: product design will be the most difficult and expensive part of production, while distribution and manufacturing will likely be very inexpensive. A current analogy would be the millions of man-hours and dollars expended to create a computer word processing program, compared to the ease with which a user can "burn" copies of the program with their home computer and distribute them to friends. This analogy also points out the problems with piracy and intellectual property rights that will almost certainly plague an MNT economy.33

Essentially a highly advanced manufacturing process emphasizing distributed, low-cost manufacturing, MNT directly threatens economies heavily dependent on mass production. For example, China's economic growth depends on using mass human labor to produce inexpensive, high-quality goods; in 2004 it provided over US$18 billion worth of manufactured goods to the department store chain Wal-Mart.34 But what will happen to China's economy when Wal-Mart is able to use its own MNT-enabled fabrication facilities at home to produce higher quality goods at even lower cost? For that matter, when consumers are able to produce their own high-quality, low-cost, custom-designed products in their own homes, who will need Wal-Mart?

MNT is also expected to improve energy technologies such as solar energy by making solar cells tougher and much more efficient; combined with more efficient manufacturing and lighter but stronger vehicles (carbon-based materials can be up to 60 times as strong as steel), the requirements for petroleum-fueled energy supplies may decline rapidly. This will obviously have significant impact on oil companies and countries with oil-based economies; a correspondingly significant disruption is likely for the shipping industry, which last year ordered petroleum shipping tankers valued at US$77.2 billion.35

In addition, if distributed manufacturing allows most people or communities to construct what they need locally, international trade of physical items may also decrease, which casts some doubt as to whether globalization's "peace through interdependence" effect will be as powerful in the future. Indeed, isolationism may become a more attractive policy option for many countries.

Social. Molecular nanotechnology's medical applications may present some of the greatest social and ethical challenges in human history. Issues of cloning, genetically modified crops, abortion, and even cochlear implants have created political atomic bombs in recent years--MNT offers a completely new level of control over the human body and its processes. Accordingly, MNT has been embraced by the transhumanist movement, which advocates using technology to intellectually, physically, and psychologically improve the human form from its current "early phase" to a more advanced "posthuman." Reactions to transhumanist concepts range from enthusiasm to indifference to outright fear and hostility: historian Francis Fukuyama has declared transhumanism one of "The World's Most Dangerous Ideas."36

The Threat from Revolutions. The final threat discussed here essentially results from a synergy of the other threats. Professor Carlota Perez has advanced a model of technological revolution composed of two periods: an installation period, during which the new techno-economic paradigm (TEP) gains increasing support from business, and a deployment period, when the paradigm becomes the new norm. During the installation period investor enthusiasm for the new TEP grows into a frenzy,37 leading to an increasing gap between the "haves," who are profiting from the new TEP, and the "have-nots," who are still invested in the old TEP; ultimately the investment frenzy forms a stock bubble, which bursts and brings on the "Turning Point," usually a serious recession or even a depression. It is during the Turning Point that society and the judicial system are forced to reform and shift to meet the characteristics of the newly established TEP.38

If this model of technological revolution is correct--and it appears to match the last five technological revolutions well enough--then sometime during the development of MNT there will be a period of social, political, and economic unrest as the world system is pulled in two directions: embracing the new TEP versus clinging to the old. Given the staggering array of changes that MNT can bring, this period may be particularly stressful. And if MNT has already enabled some of its more dangerous potential applications--such as knowledge-based mass destruction--before proper political and social control structures have been established, this period could be catastrophic.

What Strategy Should the United States Pursue?

There are three basic strategy courses that the U.S. can pursue to deal with molecular nanotechnology: some form of deliberate international regulation and control, a "hands-off" approach that lets natural market forces dictate development and regulation, and a total ban on MNT development.

International Regulation

There are two strategic approaches relevant to international regulation of MNT: a hegemonic regulation imposed on the rest of the world by the U.S., or a cooperative regulation overseen and enforced by an international organization. In either case, regulation will only succeed--if it does--by removing the majority of reasons nations will have to develop "uncontrolled" MNT.

The basic premise in regulation should be to maximize public access to the benefits of MNT while eliminating independent (i.e., unregulated) development by minimizing access to or interference with the manufacturing technology itself. Ideally, freely providing the fruits of MNT to the world population will decrease the urge to develop alternate R&D programs, and, by virtually eradicating the effects of poverty, may simultaneously reduce the impetus for civil war and resource-related conflicts.39

The Center for Responsible Nanotechnology (CRN), a nonprofit think tank "concerned with the major societal and environmental implications of advanced nanotechnology,"40 has proposed a solution based around a "nanofactory"--a self-contained, highly secure molecular manufacturing system, in effect a highly advanced version of Gershenfeld's desktop fab lab apparatus. In this strategy, a closely guarded crash development program would be created as soon as possible to develop the molecular manufacturing expertise required to build a nanofactory; it is essential that the nanofactory be developed before any competing R&D program can come to fruition. The nanofactories would then be produced and distributed to nations and organizations (at some point possibly even to individuals) around the world, with emphasis placed on the most poverty-stricken regions. This nanofactory would be the only approved MNT manufacturing apparatus in the world, and would even have internal limitations as to what it would be allowed to construct (no replicating assemblers, for example, except under carefully controlled and monitored conditions).

The advantages of this strategy are that it offers a very large carrot--along with the stick of regulation--in the form of the nanofactories. The nanofactories can thus act not only as a valid tool of humanitarian assistance, but also as leverage to prevent balking governments from pursuing their own rogue MNT development programs, or even to ensure that their citizens' needs are being met.41 The appeal of the nanofactories will likely be enormous, particularly if they are produced for personal use. As Gershenfeld has noted about his conceptually similar fab labs: "...the killer app for personal fabrication is fulfilling individual desires rather than merely meeting mass-market needs."42 And by limiting nanofabrication methods to the nanofactory alone, the threat of "gray goo" replicators is minimized probably as much as is possible.43

Of course, there are disadvantages and risks in this strategy as well. Although widespread availability of nanofactories may reduce the desire for independent MNT R&D programs, there will still be noncomplying groups which will hide their projects, thus making compliance even harder to verify. There is also a significant risk in distributing the nanofactories at all; the units will require extensive built-in security to protect both their inner physical workings and their operating software, and every hacker in the world (not to mention rogue organizations or governments) will be dying to crack it. As a possible solution, the nanofactories must be programmed to destroy themselves if any attempt is made to access the classified areas of the unit--this will lead to many broken nanofactories on a constant basis, but since they can be created relatively easily, replacing them should not be an issue.

In order for this strategy to have a decent chance of working, the U.S. should not attempt to assume a primacist stance and become the sole governing body of this system. Such a strategy would require a U.S.-only nanofactory development program. Given the interdisciplinary and interdependent nature of nanotechnology research efforts around the world, a U.S.-only program could very well fall behind competing programs that leverage the international science community. Europe, Japan, Korea, China, and India are all conducting research into nanotechnology.44 However poorly the U.S. national image is perceived throughout the world today, it could grow exponentially worse if the U.S. emerged as the sole MNT superpower. Therefore, for both technical and diplomatic reasons the U.S. primacy option is not the best solution.

However, the U.S. should play a major role in establishing an international control organization (ICO) to formulate and carry out the regulation strategy. An ICO will have a better chance of actually developing a working nanofactory before competing efforts (although maintaining security would be horrendously difficult), and of encouraging international legitimacy for the nanofactory plan, which in turn would likely result in greater buy-in by the world community. There are already some rumblings of international support for an arms control-like containment structure for nanotechnology. For example, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization special report on emerging technologies notes: "the need for control of these new technologies is more important now than in previous times of scientific development."45

An organization like the one described here will be supremely difficult to establish and maintain, and will require many years of diplomatic maneuvering to secure the proper agreements. As economist David Friedman has noted :

We don't have a decent mechanism for centralized control on anything like the necessary scale...our decentralized mechanisms...depend on a world where there is some workable definition of property rights in which the actions that a person takes with his property have only slight external effects, beyond those that can be handled by contact. Technological progress might mean that no such definition exists--in which case we are left with zero workable solutions to the coordination problem.46

We must determine whether a workable solution exists, and do so quickly.

Molecular nanotechnology could be fifty years away, or it could be ten.

Do Nothing

A valid alternative to the difficulties of regulation would be just letting the technology emerge as international market and social forces dictate. Proponents of this strategy would rely on the involved parties (governments and multinational corporations which are conducting the majority of the R&D) to self-regulate the use and distribution of MNT. It is also possible that nanotechnology research will hit an intellectual brick wall, and that the sheer difficulty of mastering nanoscience and its applications will slow the arrival of MNT such that a disruptive technological revolution never occurs, or is drastically mitigated.

This strategy holds the highest level of risk of all, and is essentially a strategy of hope. Multiple R&D programs will likely lead to multiple successes, which could very well lead to competition at the national military level and an MNT arms race. Multiple programs will mean varying levels of success, and the leading organization or state will be less likely to agree to regulation, particularly if such regulation would decrease or eliminate its lead. Given MNT's tremendous potential for both peaceful and violent applications, controlling it with a "do nothing" strategy is analogous to providing nuclear reactors to every country under the assumption that none will use them to develop nuclear weapons. This strategy is unlikely to work, and is in fact highly dangerous.

Forbid research and development

If, as this article has insisted, molecular nanotechnology is so dangerous, then why allow it to be developed at all? Why invent the nuclear bomb again? Proponents--such as the aforementioned Bill Joy--of this strategy would advocate at a minimum the adoption of a voluntary moratorium on the part of the scientific community against further MNT-related research; ultimately an international set of laws should be established that forbid R&D into MNT. Joy himself believes the U.S. unilateral abandonment of biological warfare research is a "shining example" of the beginnings of such a strategy.47

In many ways, this path is almost as dangerous as the "do nothing" strategy, except it would take longer for the dangers to emerge. There are two main problems with this strategy: verification, and the dual-use nature of MNT. Even if every country agreed to the research ban, how would the other nations verify compliance? Unlike nuclear technology, MNT doesn't require exotic materials that can be detected at a distance to create deadly weapons, and nuclear weapons can't make millions of copies of themselves. Detecting non-state actor programs would be even more difficult. We are left with the same problems faced by biological weapons control agencies, except that biological weapons are only desired by certain types of organizations...virtually everyone--state, organization, individual--will want nanotechnology. The potential benefits of MNT make it highly attractive, particularly for poorer countries: MNT not only enables nations to make weapons easily, it will also enable them to purify and desalinate water, create inexpensive yet sturdy homes, provide distributed and reliable power, and possibly even expand or improve their food supplies. In short, MNT can help a poor country provide the basic necessities of life,48 which leaves no economic or military incentive to comply. In fact, such a strategy would just push development to non-complying countries. This creates another problem: there would be no complying country capable of defending against a rogue, MNT-equipped nation, unless the complying countries kept up their own unacknowledged R&D programs, which also violates the ban. To paraphrase the National Rifle Association's slogan: If nanotechnology is outlawed, only outlaws will have nanotechnology.


Based on the radically unprecedented direct and indirect threats to U.S. national security posed by molecular nanotechnology, the U.S. should adopt a cooperative strategy of international regulation to control and guide research and development. The regulation should maximize the security of the processes while not constricting innovation or liberal distribution of the technology's benefits. The U.S. should immediately begin investigating what form of regulatory organization should be employed, and the Departments of State and Education and the National Science Foundation should begin laying the educational and diplomatic framework necessary to create the international control group.

As the most recent National Defense Strategy notes about disruptive technological advances: "...such breakthroughs can be unpredictable, [therefore] we should recognize their potential consequences and hedge against them."49 Whatever form U.S. strategy takes to deal with molecular nanotechnology, it must not be reactive in nature. The threats enabled by MNT will likely evolve faster than bureaucratic solutions can cope.

LCDR Thomas D. Vandermolen, USN (BS, Louisiana Tech University; MA, Naval War College), is officer in charge, Maritime Science and Technology Center, Yokosuka, Japan. He was previously assigned as a student at the Naval War College, Newport Naval Station, Rhode Island. He has also served as intelligence officer for Carrier Wing Five, Naval Air Facility, Atsugi, Japan, and in similar assignments with US Special Operations Command, US Forces Korea, and Sea Control Squadron THIRTY-FIVE, Naval Air Station, North Island, California. His essay "A Smarter INTELINK" was awarded first prize in the Director of Naval Intelligence Essay Competition, while at the US Naval War College.


1 Department of Defense, The National Defense Strategy of the United States of America (Washington: DOD March 2005), 3.

2 "How much money is the U.S. government spending on nanotechnology?" Lkd., National Nanotechnology Initiative at "Nanotech Facts" and "Frequently Asked Questions," [02 May 2005].

3 J.S. Brown, and P. Duguid, "Don't Count Society Out: A Response to Bill Joy," in Societal Implications of Nanoscience and Nanotechnology, ed. Mihail C. Roco and William Sims Bainbridge (Arlington, VA:National Science Foundation, 2001), 33.

4 An aluminum atom, for example, has physical and chemical characteristics that are quite different from those of aluminum powder, or of an aluminum ingot.

5 Recent products include smaller and more capable computer processors and hard drives, improved cosmetics and sunscreens, automobile windshield coatings, and water-repellant cotton pants from Eddie Bauer.

6 After the term "nanotechnology" came to mean any technical endeavor at the nanoscale, Drexler switched to the terms "molecular nanotechnology" or "molecular manufacturing" (MM) to emphasize the manufacturing aspects of his theory.

7 K. Eric Drexler, Christine Peterson, and Gayle Pergamit, Lkd., The Foresight Institute, [02 May 2005].

8 Chris Phoenix, "A Technical Commentary on Greenpeace's Nanotechnology Report," (September 2003) Lkd., Center for Responsible Nanotechnology at "C-R-News" and "Recent Website Additions," [04 May 2005].

9 K. Eric Drexler, "The Future of Nanotechnology: Molecular Manufacturing," Lkd., EurekAlert!, April 2003. [03 May 2005].

10 Chris Phoenix and Eric Drexler, "Safe Exponential Manufacturing," Nanotechnology, No. 15 (09 June 2004), 869-872, [25 November 2005].

11 Ralph C.Merkle, "Nanotechnology," Lkd., Zyvex Nanotechnolog, [01 May 2005].

12 K. Eric Drexler, Engines of Creation (New York, NY:Anchor Books 1985), 4.

13 Center for Responsible Nanotechnology, "Powerful Products of Molecular Manufacturing," [25 November 2005].

14 Drexler, 172-173.

15 Dozens of science fiction novels, episodes of The X-Files and Star Trek: The Next Generation television series, as well as popular fiction such as Micheal Crichton's novel Prey have all featured Drexler-style nanorobots.

16 Smalley was awarded the 1996 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for the discovery of fullerenes, a class of carbon molecule that holds enormous promise in NT-related applications.

17 Rudy Baum, "Point-Counterpoint: Nanotechnology," Chemical & Engineering News, Vol. 81, No. 48 (01 Dec 2003), 37-42.

18 William Illsey Atkinson, Nanocosm (New York: AMACOM 2003), 6-7, 8, 33, 124-139, 145, 171, 179, 203, 251, 255, 257, 259, 266-267, 271-272.

19 It is important to note that, despite 20 years of attempts, there are still no compelling arguments that MNT is physically impossible--even Dr. Smalley's arguments appear inconclusive (to complicate matters, the debaters often seem to be arguing past one another).

20 National Science Foundation, Societal Implications of Nanoscience and Nanotechnology, ed. Mihail C. Roco and William Sims Bainbridge (Arlington, VA:National Science Foundation, 2001), 11.

21 National Science Foundation, iv.

22 Daniel Ratner and Mark A. Ratner. Nanotechnology and Homeland Security (Upper Saddle River, NJ:Prentice Hall 2004), 82.

23 Neil Gershenfeld, "Personal Fabrication," Edge,, [21 Dec 05].

24 Such arms races could actually stabilize some international situations if production was limited to conventional weapons and each side's stockpiles matches the other's...but depending on such an unlikely situation is naive at best.

25 Undoubtedly a boon for those bent on ethnic cleansing. Other unpleasant possibilities are only limited by imagination and human DNA structure.

26 Bill Joy, "Why the Future Doesn't Need Us," Wired, 8.04 (08 April 2000) [28 April 2005].

27 Drexler himself, who originated the idea, is now one of those who dismisses it.

28 Neil Jacobstein and Glenn Harlan Reynolds, "Foresight Guidelines on Molecular Nanotechnology Version 4.0" (October 2004), Lkd., The Foresight Institute at "Nanotechnology Industry Guidelines" [03 May 2005].

29 For further reading on the issues raised by the emergence of ubiquitous surveillance, see David Brin's The Transparent Society (Reading, MA:Addison- Wesley 1998) .

30 Greenpeace Environmental Trust, Future Technologies, Today's Choices (London:2003) 36.

31 Ratner, 114.

32 Newt Gingrich, "The Age of Transitions," in Societal Implications of Nanoscience and Nanotechnology, ed. Mihail C. Roco and William Sims Bainbridge (Arlington, VA:National Science Foundation, 2001), 24-25.

33 David Friedman, "What Would a Nanotech Economy Look Like?" (Presentation abstract for 1st Conference on Advanced Nanotechnology 22-24 Oct 2004), Lkd., The Foresight Institute, [20 April 2005].

34 Jiang Jingjing, "Wal-Mart's China Inventory to Hit US$18B This Year," China Business Weekly (29 Nov 2004).

35 Wil Kennedy and Haslinda Amin, "World-Wide's Sohmen Says Tanker Rates May Have Peaked" (26 April 2005), Lkd.,, aq7iV9wV1Nqc&refer=top_world_news [02 May 2005].

36 Francis Fukuyama, "Transhumanism," Foreign Policy, 144 (Sept/Oct 2004). [28 April 2005].

37 Interestingly, this investor enthusiasm provides the means to lay down the new TEP's infrastructure and therefore helps ensure its eventual success. The extensive trans-ocean fiber optic cable runs laid during the IT investment boom have been essential for the current Indian IT business successes.

38 Carlota Perez, Technological Revolutions and Financial Capital (Northampton, MA:Edward Elgar Publishing, Inc. 2003) 47-59.

39 Paul Collier, "The Market for Civil War," Strategy and Force Planning, (Newport, RI:Naval War College Press) 461-468.

40 Center for Responsible Nanotechnology. "About CRN," Lkd., Center for Responsible Nanotechnology,, [20 April 2005].

41 Author Joe Haldeman's 1997 science fiction novel Forever Peace describes a future world where access to nanofactories-or "nanoforges" in the book-is used by the U.S. and its allies as leverage against poorer nations.

42 Gershenfeld.

43 It might also be advisable to limit the nanofactories by design to only use feedstock with a particular controlled additive, then impose limits on the feedstock supply as an additional source of leverage; however, this would make the feedstock as or even more valuable than oil, and would essentially defeat the whole purpose of freely available MNT. The trade off is that freely available feedstock would be a major blow to bulk shipping companies, and possibly entails a corresponding drop in relevance for Sea Lines of Communication--which in turn would remove some of the justifications for the Navy's force structure.

44 China's NT research program, for example, is rapidly growing, trailing the U.S. NNI budget by only $100 million. [Catherine Brahic, "China 'encroaches on US nanotech lead'" (08 April 2005), Lkd., Science and Development Network,].

45 North Atlantic Treaty Organization, Special Report: Emerging Technologies and Their Impact on Arms Control and Non-Proliferation. (Brussels:NATO Parliamentary Assembly Science and Technology Committee, 2001), 16.

46 Richard A. Posner, Catastrophe: Risk and Response (New York:Oxford University Press 2004) 19-20.

47 Bill Joy. [28 April 2005].

48 Assuming, of course, that the poor country's government is willing to allow such distribution of wealth.

49 Department of Defense, 4.

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