Wait a Nano-Second…

Crushing nanotechnology would be a terrible thing

By Glenn H. Reynolds, professor of law, U. of Tennessee, & Dave Kopel, Independence Institute

7/05/00 2:40 p.m., National Review Online

Richard Nixon was re-elected to the Presidency twenty-eight years ago. That's 112 years in Internet Time, for which three months equal one year of ordinary time. Does the Nixon era have any lessons to teach us about high technology in the twenty-first century? In particular, nanotechnology, an emerging hot-button issue?

Absolutely — if you read Ed Regis's excellent history of biological warfare, The Biology of Doom. Regis's account of the British and American biological warfare program, from 1940 to its abandonment in 1972 when the Biological Weapons Convention was signed, is a fascinating and chilling one. Though Regis manages to give a readers an understanding of why scientists and military leaders thought the biowar program was important, the story is so disturbing that the program's eventual abandonment at the orders of President Nixon comes as no small relief.

But not for long. Because it turns out that the treaty outlawing biological warfare had exactly the opposite result that its sponsors intended. Before the United States, the Soviet Union, and other nations agreed to a ban on biological warfare, both the U.S. and Soviet programs proceeded more or less in tandem, with both giving biowar a low priority. But after the ban, the Soviet Union drastically increased its efforts. (So did quite a few smaller countries, most of them signatories of the Convention.)

With biological warfare outlawed, and the Americans likely to abide by the agreement, the stakes were much higher: now it was possible for the Soviets to obtain a decisive advantage. As a result, the USSR created a new research organization, called Biopreparat, and drastically increased deadly disease research. The Russians not only expanded their stocks of traditional biological warfare agents — like anthrax, tularemia, and such — but also "weaponized" smallpox, accumulating huge stockpiles of the virus, specially bred for virulence and lethality. (Those stockpiles still exist, making the "triumph" of smallpox eradication a rather contingent accomplishment).

This example is relevant today, because we are beginning to see calls for relinquishment of another technology. In this case, it is nanotechnology, a technology that so far exists only in computer models and some very early practical work. Bill Joy of Sun Microsystems, of course, has famously argued that we should consider abandoning this technology before its birth, to spare the world the potential consequences of its misuse. (Perhaps that will save Joy's boss Scott McNealy from having to hector the Department of Justice to bring a frivolous antitrust lawsuit against the first company to outcompete Sun in nanotechnology.)

Though Joy's argument has so far met with a fairly cool reception — not only from techno-commentators, but even from techno musicians — it is worth considering what might happen if his ideas start to take hold. That is not so farfetched a scenario, despite today's high-flying technology sector. Europe is already facing a growth of neo-Luddite sentiment — visible in things like opposition to genetic engineering. In California and the rest of the nation, Ralph Nader's Green Party is doing pretty well by offering Luddites a genuine anti-technology choice, rather than an echo of pro-business Republicrats.

  More generally, Luddite intellectuals are successfully propagating "the precautionary principle," which states that we should never try anything new unless we are certain that it is absolutely safe. Look for the precautionary principle to start showing up in EPA regulations around 2002 if there's a Democratic President, or around 2007 in case of a Republican one that follows in the footsteps of George Bush III's EPA head William Reilly.

Crushing nanotechnology would be a terrible thing. In fact, the example of biological warfare offers the depressing possibility that adopting Joy's "relinquishment" approach to nanotechnology might actually make things worse. First of all, relinquishment would deprive us of the potential benefits of benign nanotechnology, such as cheap space travel, cancer cures, bodies that stay younger and healthier for longer. Even worse, "relinquishment" would probably accelerate the progress of destructive nanotechnology. In a world where nanotechnology is outlawed, outlaws would have an additional incentive to develop nanotechnology. And given that research into nanotechnology — like the cruder forms of biological and chemical warfare — can be conducted clandestinely on small budgets and in difficult-to-spot facilities, the likelihood of such research going on is rather high. Terrorists would have the greatest incentive possible to develop nanotechnologies far more deadly than old-fashioned biological warfare. This makes Joy's relinquishment argument hard to swallow. At the very least, it suggests that Joy and those who agree with him need to step up to the plate and make some more sophisticated arguments. No one doubts that Joy and the rest have good intentions. But as the example of biological warfare illustrates, good intentions, even when embodied in popular agreements to abandon a technology, don't necessarily have good consequences.

There is, however, a bright side. As Ed Regis also notes, the story of biological warfare research is a sinister one in many ways. But, in fact, all those dreadful weapons were never used. Why that is the case has puzzled many people, but the best argument seems to be one set forth by Regis: political and cultural factors that militated against the use of biological weapons trumped the technological factors that made them possible.

That, perhaps, is a lesson too. In trying to deal with the downside of coming technologies, we should avoid too narrow a focus on the technology, and pay more attention to the world in which it is to appear. In a world that is free, prosperous, and at peace, nanotechnology poses little danger. In a world that is divided, impoverished, and conflict-ridden, other technologies — from thermonuclear weapons to mutated smallpox — will more than suffice to wipe out humanity. Given this reality, the technological issues look less decisive. Character and culture remain decisive, as they always have been, and always will be.  

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