By John Carroll
Small Times Correspondent
Nov. 2, 2001 — Since its earliest days, nanotechnology has been focused on what’s good for society in the long run.
But in light of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 and the daily drumbeat of anthrax headlines, nanotech experts are finding themselves grappling with a troubling list of “what ifs.” With fingers pointed in all directions in the debate over possible state-sponsored bioterrorism, it’s not hard for some to imagine a nightmare scenario involving a new generation of terrorists able to obtain infinitely more powerful nanoweapons.
“Nanotechnology in the wrong hands is a frightening prospect,” says Glenn Reynolds, a law professor and longtime nanotech expert at the University of Tennessee. “There’s no question that if Osama bin Laden had access to nanoweapons that he’d use them.”
Nanotech experts could create a new bioterror threat that was “potentially tougher and smarter” than the durable anthrax spores causing so much concern today, says Christine Peterson, president of the Foresight Institute, a nonprofit organization that focuses on nanotechnology.
Or consider the possibilities of a new weapon the size of a bullet that carried the technological power of a Cray supercomputer, says Ralph Merkle, principal fellow at Texas-based Zyvex, a nanotechnology company.
Adds Peterson: “Any powerful technology can be abused.”
For years now, nanotechnology has surged forward based on open source research methods. In this emerging field, free and open discussion is a prized feature. Regular conferences in Europe and around the United States encourage the sharing of ideas to foster new thinking and researchers frequently find themselves pollinating fresh ideas with colleagues.
But every new step toward commercialization, as nanotech makes the transition from the drawing board to reality, brings the fledgling industry closer to the day when many believe an inevitable round of government regulations will be needed to prevent abuses. And as nanotechnology begins to deliver new and improved weapons, secrecy will eventually cloak important research work.
The first round of nanotech-inspired materials, for example, is likely to find an active suitor within the U.S. defense industry — particularly for radar-resistant, lighter and much more durable materials. And as the first weapons to use nanotechnology go into development, secrecy is likely to follow.
“It’s certainly in that arena where it might be classified,” says Ray McLaughlin, chief financial officer for Carbon Nanotechnologies Inc. in Houston, which is preparing to open a plant at the end of this year to manufacture carbon nanotubes. And anyone out to use carbon nanotubes for new stealth weaponry, adds McLaughlin, is likely to keep their work under wraps.
Sheer competitiveness is enough to trigger many in the field to start playing their cards closer to their vests. Many in the industry have already seen open-source technology disappearing behind private walls as companies get closer to developing new products — clamming up rather than risk losing their competitive edge.
You can expect to hear plenty more about secrecy in coming years as discussions continue over what voluntary guidelines should be used to steer the technology in the right direction.
Initially, says Peterson, most of the researchers in nanotechnology were more concerned about devising safeguards against the possible risks of an accident. But now many are taking a fresh look at the possibilities of a deliberate abuse of the technology.
“We’re beginning to think about it,” says Peterson. “It is a major issue.”
While Sept. 11 and subsequent anthrax attacks may have raised awareness in nanotech circles in recent weeks, the Foresight Institute has been grappling with the debate over secrecy vs. public exploration for years.
Some of the principals of the Foresight Institute gathered in Monterey, Calif., two years ago to lay out some voluntary guidelines to keep nanotech research pointed down a path of socially responsible development. But they also recognized that the issue was likely to keep coming up.
Wrote the group: “The future capabilities of MNT (molecular nanotechnology) also raise an unprecedented set of military, security and environmental issues. Dealing with these issues proactively will be critical to the positive development of the field.”
The roots of their discussion go back to the 1980s, when nanotech pioneer and Foresight Chairman Eric Drexler considered keeping his thoughts quiet, rather than risk opening a Pandora’s box of new technology with threats that could include a range of microscopic terrors.
In the end, says Merkle, Drexler and his colleagues reached a simple conclusion: “If you don’t discuss it, someone else would come along and develop it.” And their intentions might not be as good.
That’s the same discussion that has repeatedly come up in cryptography, says Merkle, who was engaged in much of the early research on encryption technology. If a problem exists, he says, the best way to deal with it is through open discussion.
“Pretending the bad guys will not see a security hole is ultimately self-defeating,” Merkle says.
There’s a natural progression to all this, says Reynolds. The early days of blue-sky thinking that goes into any new technology is likely to raise the prospect of future abuses. That’s followed by the day-to-day reality of research work, where some of the big questions are often ignored as scientists keep “their eyes on their feet, actively making things possible.” As nanotechnology matures, it’s only a matter of time before the issue of restricted research and secrecy will have to be confronted.
At some point, says Peterson, it seems logical that government agencies will step in to establish regulations governing the type of research that will be allowed, much the way that biotechnology has seen. But it’s still a fairly long way off before regulations will be needed.
The attacks of Sept. 11 did bring about major changes that may well influence the way nanotechnology develops, says Merkle.
“It has galvanized people into taking action,” says Merkle. And as an international coalition is brought together to deal with the terrorist network in place today, the technologies at hand for bioterrorism and other threats are likely to get the bulk of the attention. It seems logical, he adds, that the same coalition could create the framework to look at the whole range of policies that may be needed to keep nanotechnology focused on “making the human condition better and not worse.”
But it would be premature to start a debate now on what should be classified and what shouldn’t, says Merkle. There’s no consensus in scientific circles that nanotechnology will lead to his principal interest: self-replicating molecular manufacturing. And until the futurist technology comes off the drawing board and into reality, an open forum for sharing ideas has to be fostered so that people understand what the technology can do and what policies are needed for guiding it.
Nanotechnology, agrees Peterson, “is in a very, very primitive state.” Right now no one knows what regulations will be needed until molecular manufacturing draws closer to reality. And with the heavy emphasis on fighting this war with the weapons at hand, she adds, any discussion about hypothetical threats still on the horizon may well be delayed.
Ultimately, says Reynolds, “the best defense against nanotech misuse is good nanotechnology.” In much the way that the private sector came up with products to fight computer viruses, rather than take information technology back into the closet of closed research, nanotechnology will find a way to counter each new threat that arises.
One thing is certain, says Reynolds: There is no going back.
“The genie’s not just out of the bottle,” says the law professor. “The bottle’s broken.”