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Nanoweapons: A Growing Threat to Humanity

Nanoweapons: A Growing Threat to Humanity by Louis A. Del Monte. Potomac Books, 2017, 244 pp.

When new technologies cross from industry to the battlefield, calls arise to slow the process and consider international implications of using these weapons. Louis A. Del Monte’s Nanoweapons is one of those calls. A physicist and former executive at IBM and Honeywell, Del Monte led advancements in microelectronics and sensors. His work is a serious attempt to use publicly available information to address the development and use of nanotechnology as weapons. The author brings together ideas normally relegated to science fiction (e.g., laser weapons, artificial intelligence, and self-replicating nanorobots) and uses his technical background to inform the reader as to what is science fact. While his most alarming predictions for humanity’s survival project to the year 2050 and beyond, he argues that his concerns are timely. He indicates that while revolutionary military nanotechnologies (e.g., stealth aircraft) may take decades to field, they are none­theless currently being developed. Now, according to the author, is the time to discuss the dangers of nanoweapons.

The author’s main thesis is that nanoweapons are a danger to humanity that demand greater attention. Despite the secrecy surrounding the development of nanoweapons, Del Monte is confident of their threat. This fear is based in part on the ranking of nanotech­nology weapons by the Global Catastrophic Risk Conference at the University of Oxford as the most probable means to cause human extinction by the end of this century. Ex­amples of nanoweapons discussed in the book include nano-enhanced lasers, smaller munitions with increased explosive force, and self-replicating smart nanorobots (SSN). SSNs search for and destroy targets without human input and self-replicate with materi­als found in the environment. According to the author, SSNs are gravely dangerous nanoweapons that humanity should prohibit. Central to his concern for humanity’s sur­vival is what he sees as the inherent difficulty in mounting defenses to nanoweapons given their capability to avoid detection and the ability of those who use these arms to escape attribution. While considerable resources have been dedicated to countering nu­clear weapons, little is publicly known about protection from nanoweapons. This is espe­cially concerning to the author because some nanoweapons have characteristics similar to biological pathogens. Giving his readers reason to be apprehensive, Del Monte turns to explaining how today’s nanotechnology can be used to create nanoweapons.

While nanotechnology is already improving our computers, sunscreens, and building materials, the first section of the book provides the nontechnical reader an easy-to-understand introduction to nanotechnology and how it may be used in arms development. The author organizes nanoweapons into five categories: offensive strategic, defensive stra­tegic, offensive tactical, defensive tactical, and passive. Examples are provided for each category, along with an explanation of its offensive, defensive, or passive nature. For in­stance, the offensive strategic category includes artificially intelligent nanorobots that can target particular individuals, hypersonic glide missiles (whose development will rely on developing certain nanomaterials), nano-enhanced fuels, and nonelectric guidance sys­tems. The other categories include additional guidance for organizing nanoweapons. While readers will find these categories helpful, a workable definition of nanoweapons is missing.

With this deep level of organization dedicated to understanding nanoweaponry, the reader would hope for a more useful definition of nanoweapons. Nanoweapons are de­fined in the book’s glossary as “any military technology which exploits the use of nano­technology (229).” Although this definition will capture all nanoweapons, it will also include many items that are not weapons. This definition would include a military fi­nance office using a publicly available desktop computer with a nanomanufactured mi­crochip. Is building a weapon with nanomanufactured components all that is required to make the weapon a nanoweapon? If a dry-docked ship is sprayed with anticorrosive nanocoating—increasing its hull strength tenfold (as an MIT study referenced in the book suggests)—is the ship now a nanoweapon? The book makes clear that nanotechnol­ogy is an enabling technology that will empower a wide range of civilian and military applications. But it does not wrestle with the problem that an SSN is fundamentally different than an anticorrosive nanocoating. This issue of defining nanotechnology is a common attribute of nascent scientific fields, but the reader is nevertheless left wanting more. Without addressing this definitional problem directly, Del Monte instead uses other methods to discover what nations are emerging as nanoweapon leaders.

He categorizes the factors needed to facilitate nanoweaponry development and sorts nations by these factors into the Nanoweapons Offensive Capability of Nations (NO­CON) list. The most powerful group, nanoweapon nations—such as the United States and China—has the ability to commercialize nanotechnology, possesses a national desire to strengthen its militaries, and demonstrates an ability to partner with other leading nanotechnology nations. Del Monte goes on to mention other nations on his NOCON list, all of which have varying interactions with nanotechnology. Giving the reader reason to be concerned for the international implications his NOCON suggests, he then high­lights the events that may tip us into a nanoweapon-driven war.

He predicts two singularities that will spawn nanoweapon-related international dis­ruptions. In addition to the creation of SSNs, the other singularity is the advent of arti­ficial intelligence (AI) that will exceed human intellect. AI will solve many of humanity’s greatest problems, the author posits, but it will also create better SSNs. If AI and SSNs are combined, alliances will form to maintain advantages in a new cold war around the development of AI-powered SSNs. Given their importance, international power will then be rebalanced around nanoweapon capabilities. Nuclear weapon use will increase since nanotechnology will empower their miniaturization and reduce their fallout. It is these disruptions, brought on by the AI and SSN singularities, that Del Monte claims will dramatically increase the chance of human extinction by 2100. Given this pessimistic prediction, Nanoweapons next discusses reasons for hope.

The author maintains some optimism for humanity. He notes that humanity has en­gaged in conflict since the beginning of our existence, but recent developments, such as the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons and the Biological Weapons Convention, show that humanity can act to prevent its extinction. Once humanity comes to know the existential threat that nanoweapons represent, humanity will act to limit their use and thus avert disaster. What we recognize when we use a new personal com­puter, he argues, is not the nanotechnology enabling its use but the impressive perfor­mance it achieves. The author states that humans understand technology by its function, not the technology itself. Thus, to forestall the need to demonstrate a nanoweapon’s threat to humanity, he indicates that current treaties and conventions concerning weap­ons of mass destruction should also regulate strategic nanoweapons.

A workable and more precise definition of nanoweapons will improve this area of study by allowing policy makers to grapple with nanoweaponry development. It will empower leaders to specifically categorize an adversary’s capabilities and document who is developing nanoweapons with greater specificity. Assuming that Del Monte’s cata­strophic predictions are accurate, more scenarios are needed to better inform technolo­gists, military commands, and national leaders working on ways to prevent the negative implications of these technologies. This work is worth reading because it ties together the technical, political, economic, and practical challenges associated with nanoweapons. The initial portion of the book is especially worthwhile for those seeking an approachable introduction to nanotechnology and its use as weaponry. Suggestions for additional read­ing in this area of futurism are Peter W. Singer’s Wired for War and Michio Kaku’s Phys­ics of the Future. Strategic leaders will appreciate the discussions on organizational prob­lems associated with fielding nanoweapons and rebalancing international power. Tactical leaders will find themselves working through different ways to use and defend against nanoweapons. Finally, fans of science fiction will appreciate a technical introduction to many real concepts previously relegated to fantasy.

Maj Patrick M. Milott, USAF

The views expressed in the book review are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense.
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