Day 088 - Dangers of nanotechnology

Submitted by Sam on 17 August, 2011 - 01:11

Alongside the catalogue of beneficial uses of nanotechnology, there are very clear dangers associated with its unregulated proliferation. Like the powerful technologies which have realized weapons of mass destruction, nanotechnology has the potential for unimaginable destructive abuse and catastrophic accidents, but with a crucial difference. To successfully weaponize nuclear, biological and chemical technologies access to highly protected information, rare raw materials and expensive equipment is typically required, effectively limiting their use to states and large groups. When nanotechnology proliferates, which it will do with exponential rapidity if it ever does, its immense destructive power will be well within the reach of individuals and small groups. With nanofactories, appropriate design specifications and the commonest of raw materials, individuals in their homes would be empowered to make mistakes so dangerous and weapons so potent that the extinction of all life on earth would become a real possibility.

Like nuclear technology, nanotechnology has very clear utility for militaries and terrorists, and it seems likely that in its longterm, its destructive uses may well be far easier to realize on an irreversible scale than its constructive uses. Nano-scale self-replicating machines have been a widespread concern in this respect, as they could conceivably rapidly and exponentially reproduce, being too tough and numerous to stop. This has been popularized as the nanotech 'grey goo' doomsday scenario, whereby the out-of-control nanorobots – whether accidentally evolved or purposefully designed – replicate to consume all resources on earth. However, nanoscale fabrication has no explicit need for self-replicators, as they would be needlessly complex and inefficient for molecular manufacturing when compared with highly optimized nanofactories, which are essentially self-contained and present no threat in themselves.

Despite this market pressure against the creation of self-replicators, given a long enough timescale, a large enough population and an easy access to nanofabrication, the threat of a weaponized or mutant variant cannot be discounted; all it takes is one to be made or evolved, and without effective and well-prepared safeguards the entire planet could be consumed within days. The only barrier to this potential destruction will be the distribution of knowledge of how to build such a thing. With the model of open-source software as a perverse example, it seems that such a barrier will always eventually be porous, as motivated individuals will always find a way to emulate those things which are otherwise in restricted domains. Again, given a concerted collaborative effort (consider a covert nanoweapon wiki) over a long enough period of time the potential for disaster is grave.

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