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Release peace: the magazine

Analysis & Background Stories on International Affairs

Drones, Cyber? Old School. Nanoweapons are Coming.

Article by: Pranav Kaginele

This article draws from a nanotechnology research project of the Peace Research Institute Frankfurt (PRIF), one of Europe’s leading peace & security think tanks. It was written by Pranav Kaginele from Johns Hopkins University’s program in International Studies.

This article draws from a nanotechnology research project of the Peace Research Institute Frankfurt (PRIF), one of Europe’s leading peace & security think tanks. It was written by Pranav Kaginele from Johns Hopkins University’s program in International Studies.

The Existential Risk of Nanowarfare

Back in 2008, experts gathering at the Global Catastrophic Risk Conference, hosted at the University of Oxford, named nanoweapons as the “number one most probable cause of human extinction by the end of the century”, with a 1 in 20 probability. The world barely took note of their concerns. Was it just fearmongering by overly concerned scientists? The participants described several scenarios of how an escalation might happen. We will look into them and the complexities of nanoweapons development.

A New Frontier of Weapons Technology

The growth of technology since ancient times has always been marked by weaponization. From using fire to forge swords, or putting wheels on chariots for battles, humans have used technological advancements to increase the efficacy and easy at which others may be killed. Now, we arrive at a juncture concerning both. Nanotechnology exists on the nano-scale – defined as between 1 and 100 nanometers, or an astonishingly tiny billionth of a meter. Technological breakthroughs on this minuscule scale allow for improvements in sectors across engineering, medicine, agriculture, and more. The dual-use nature of nanotechnology, or the ability for it to be used for both peaceful and belligerent means, makes it a catalyst for advancements or immense destruction alike, depending on who gets hold of it with what intentions. 

The Results of the Global Catastrophic Risk Conference

The conference in Oxford categorized several avenues of what nanoweapons escalation could incur: First, there may be a foundational change in the international balance of power. Nanoweapons may overtake nuclear weapons as the ultimate Weapon of Mass Destruction (WMD) and pose a yet to be understood threat to humanity. In one scenario, the technology could be used to create small nuclear explosive devices with a large destructive capacity, or be adapted for the use of chemical and biological weapons. Upon widespread use, a chain reaction of nanoweapon proliferation can ensue, increasing tensions in existing geopolitical hotspots resulting from either purposeful attacks, miscalculation, or simply accidental releases. As with other weapons systems, this can cause a cycle of arms-racing where states develop their own nanoweapons capabilities to deter and defend themselves against other states. Further, due to their compactness nanoweapons may be significantly easier to acquire and especially transport than current WMDs, which can make them attractive tools for terrorist organizations.

Artificial Intelligence as a Threat Multiplier

Arguably the riskiest result from nanoweapons is a possibility for so-called Self-replicating Smart Nanorobots (SSNs). These are autonomous nanorobots, powered by artificial intelligence that can conduct search and destroy missions without human input. With the ability to self-replicate, SSNs will also be able to use materials in their environment to create more of themselves. The destructive impacts of adding self-replication to an already dangerous technology has been extrapolated in a scenario called the ‘grey goo’ effect. It describes a hypothetical situation where a replicator, with free range to make copies of itself, could create copies of itself until it has consumed the entire biomass of the Earth. This state is referred to as ecophagy, meaning the consumption of the Earth. Of course, this is merely a thought experiment and would defy laws of nature, but the path towards it has been studied by nanotechnology scientists since the field’s origins in the 1980s. The term ‘grey goo’ itself was coined by Eric Drexler, one of the fathers of nanotechnology research.

Sensible Regulation of Nanoweapons

As it stands, most nanotechnology today does is not in the hands of government authorities. Instead, their development and research is being done mostly by the private sector and by universities. In the medical field, for instance, 75 percent of nanotechnology patents are filed by the private sector. Therefore, bringing nanotechnology under governmental control could involve either forced nationalization of all global nanotechnology operations, which is improbable and likely undesirable, or introducing regulations that would work across a diverse set of actors. Nanotechnology has the potential to significantly improve many fields including civilian engineering, microelectronics and medicine. Regulation must be tempered to not stunt development in those areas. Additionally, overregulation could drive development of nanotechnology underground, without safety precautions, raising the risk of accidents.

Current Conventions Applicable to Nanoweapons

Currently, there is not a single international treaty that explicitly addresses or regulates nanoweapons. However, interpreted broadly, existing conventions such as the Biological Weapons Convention and Chemical Weapons Convention could apply to nanoweapons. However, there are three main issues with relying on existing conventions: Firstly, they do not directly address nanoweapons  but rather only address potential peripheral developments of the technology.  Loopholes could be exploited, and the rapid development trajectory of nanoweapons may complicate regulatory applicability and enforcement. Secondly, there is a difficulty in regulating the behavior of private actors under these status quo conventions without any specific address to the issue. Entirely new agreements could possibly regulate the usage of nanotechnology in concert with the development of other weapons fields such as kinetic weapons or laser weapons. 

In comparison to the present anxiety around nuclear weapons usage, the threat of nanoweapons’ destructive capabilities is seemingly underestimated or misunderstood by many. As with all technologies, concerns on a regulatory level will likely need to be balanced with permitting the opportunities nanotechnology provides. 

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