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What are the Potential Dangers of Molecular Nanotechnology (MNT)?

R. Kayne
R. Kayne

If potential benefits of molecular nanotechnology (MNT) sound too good to be true, there is one caveat — the potential dangers of molecular nanotechnology. When nanofactories can arrange atoms into structures — playing with the building blocks of life itself, or in this case nanoblocks -- theoretically anything allowable by the laws of physics can be created fast and cheap. Requirements include a few square feet for the nanofactory, the software, and an electrical outlet.

Criminals, terrorists, disturbed individuals, governments, and antisocial groups of all stripes would be incredibly empowered by such technology. Additional potential dangers of molecular nanotechnology threaten the economy, environment, human rights, and world peace. The rush to gain supremacy through nanoweaponry could lead to a new arms race, while attempts to stranglehold the technology would likely result in independent, covert development. Unilateral, "open-source" international cooperation is another option that runs its own risks, and control in the public sector could lead to inequitable benefits and an Orwellian society.

The use of MNT by poor nations could increase deforestation.
The use of MNT by poor nations could increase deforestation.

The probability factor of certain potential dangers of molecular nanotechnology will be higher than others, but all are possible within a scope of circumstances that, without prevention through forethought and planning, could feasibly come to pass. Some dangers cannot be discounted even with said planning, while others can reasonably be assumed to be goals of recognized subversive elements.

Nanorobotics uses nanotechnology to develop microscopic robots that are far smaller in width than a strand of human hair.
Nanorobotics uses nanotechnology to develop microscopic robots that are far smaller in width than a strand of human hair.

Concerted efforts are underway to devise the best course of action by anticipating these dangers in advance. The Center For Responsible Nanotechnology (CRN) works closely with experts in the field including K. Eric Drexler, the definitive authority on MNT. In brief, here is a sampling of some potential dangers of molecular nanotechnology:

NANOWEAPONRY: THE NEWARMS RACE - Nanofactories make the manufacture of many kinds of weapons possible with incredibly accurate computerized systems. While older technologies were both difficult and costly, nanoweapons could be manufactured easily and quickly. Conventional style weapons made more powerful and new weapons such as poison-carrying nanorobots could be made by the billions nearly cost-free and delivered remotely. Once inhaled, they might even be tailor-made to kill only people with specific genetic signatures, thus used as a means for ethnic cleansing. An arms race could trigger reckless development and testing of new weapons with unpredictable results. Experts agree this is probably the #1 potential danger of molecular nanotechnology.

ENVIRONMENTAL IMPACT AND EXISTENTIAL DANGERS - The use of nanofactories to make countless cheap, durable products could lead to 'disposable thinking' where products are created en mass and discarded in abundance, overwhelming recycling needs and the environment.

Poor nations might use biomass (carbon-rich trees) as fuel for nanofactories, leading to increased deforestation.

Experimentation in nano-augmentation of plants and animals (for example, to make them larger, smaller, faster, stronger, etcetera) could easily lead to runaway consequences in the wild ("green goo" vs "gray goo") that could threaten existing plants and animals, affect the food chain, and pose unforeseen threats to human life. This is a prime concern.

Ecophage ("gray goo"), though only a remote possibility due to the complexity of designing self-replicating nanorobots (replibots) capable of the task - and the heat signature the process would trigger that would alert watchdog systems in place — remains at least mentionable in that it is not impossible.

ECONOMIC IMPACT - Another high concern among the potential dangers of molecular nanotechnology is that many predict MNT will arrive suddenly and in full force. The sudden advent of nanofactories producing clean, cheap, durable, products would adversely impact most sectors in the job market. Skilled labor, factory workers, and many lines of distribution would no longer be needed as corporations switched to nanotechnology or folded. Stocks would be critically affected and the likelihood of economic upheaval, high.

DANGERS OF REGULATION - Though MNT has the potential to be the great equalizer, making products, medicine, and drinking water available to the entire world, its ubiquitousness would depend on how it is regulated, by whom, and to what purpose. Many corporations are likely to be motivated by potential windfall profits. They may legally protect then overprice nanotechnology, putting its benefits out of reach for those who need it most, while not passing the savings to the general public.

Other fronts of regulation also frame potential dangers of molecular nanotechnology. If development is too restrictive one set of problems is created (including inadvertent encouragement of a completely unregulated black market); and if restrictions are too lax, another set of problems is created (including possible damage to the environment and increased risk to the public).

UBIQUITOUS SURVEILLANCE - Again one of the benefits of MNT becomes a source for potential danger. Miniaturization of computer technology will allow unprecedented surreptitious surveillance of individuals. Spybots could be inhaled without even being aware. Increased computer power would allow a government to keep real time surveillance records on each and every citizen in a nation, no matter how large the population. The need to regulate the use of home nanofactories could conceivably be an excuse for such an invasion of privacy.

ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE (AI) AND ROBOTICS - One of the most controversial dangers of molecular nanotechnology is that it will open the door to computers that think faster than the human brain, giving machines a superior edge. As robotics and AI combine to relieve humans of doing tasks that machines can do better, faster and cheaper, some believe we may be paving the way to our own destruction. Will nations secretly create armies of AI-enhanced, nano-augmented (think bionic) supersoldiers to fight wars? Will politicians opt for AI-enhancements? Nano-augmentation? Who will it be available to, and are we as a race headed towards total dependency on machinery to the extent it becomes part of our biology? Will there be equity or will a new class divide be created, similar to that depicted in Gattica? If we do not embrace AI-enhancement and nano-augmentation will intelligent machines ultimately decide we are unnecessary?

Suddenly we're not in Kansas anymore.

These suggested potential dangers represent a body of significant hurdles to overcome in the predawn stages of this very powerful technology, but one thing is clear: the cat can't be put back in the bag. If responsible nations ceased all development of MNT, this would not prevent other nations from developing it. Experts believe the best course of action is for responsible nations to be ahead of the curve, not just to establish a prudent course of development and international guidelines, but to anticipate and develop safeguards for a future that might require big solutions for microscopic problems with global or even existential consequences.

Whether concerned about the potential pitfalls of this new era or it's many promises, the next few decades are bound to be interesting.

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    • The use of MNT by poor nations could increase deforestation.
      By: yotrakbutda
      The use of MNT by poor nations could increase deforestation.
    • Nanorobotics uses nanotechnology to develop microscopic robots that are far smaller in width than a strand of human hair.
      By: Gunnar Assmy
      Nanorobotics uses nanotechnology to develop microscopic robots that are far smaller in width than a strand of human hair.