Nanotechnology, peace and security: don’t be naïve

Peace & Security24 Nov 2010Ineke Malsch

A recent debate, led by Dr Bärbel Dorbeck-Jung at the University of Twente discussed responsibility and other ethical and societal aspects of civilian (nano)technology development with military applications. Awareness of peace and security aspects of nanotechnology among students should be raised in education of engineers.

Major General (ret) Kees Homan reviewed trends in military robots, enabled by miniaturization in the semiconductor industry following Moore’s law. Military robots are used for dirty, dull and dangerous work (3D). Military strategists consider them the ideal response to the increasing lethality of warfare and to address proliferation of weapons of mass destruction (WMD). Several types of military robots are already deployed. Ethics of warfare is governed by Just War Theory, including Jus ad Bellum governing political decision making before armed conflict. The availability of military robots may lower the threshold to go to war. Jus in Bello governs conduct of armed forces during a war. Legal accountability for actions by military robots must be clarified. Among ethicists, there is a discussion on the ethics of military robots. Whereas Sharkey considers robots a threat to humanity, Arkin believes that combat robots can be programmed to be more ethical than human soldiers. Coker responds that robots function in a meaningless world without ethics. War becomes more and more like a video game. To conclude, Homan is in favour of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles deployed for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance. Human oversight is always needed. The threatening dehumanization of warfare must be averted. Robots can’t replace the soldier on the ground in winning the hearts and minds of the local population in current asymmetric conflicts.

Prof. Dr. Dave Blank remarked that 20-25 years ago miniaturization in the semiconductor industry was the driving force for nanotechnology development, needed for faster transistors. Currently in the laboratory, bending one Carbon Nanotube, one single molecule gives the effect of a transistor. The nanometre scale is below the range of an optical microscope. The invention of Scanning Force Microscopy with atom size tips was a breakthrough, enabling applications in materials science and computer science. It became possible to see life, DNA, viruses etc, smaller than an organic cell. This raised the interest of biologists, interested in mimicking life in the laboratory. We can now make labs on a chip: complete laboratories on a very small scale. This makes it possible to detect e.g. tumour cells rapidly and respond quickly: an in vitro health test. The next step will be to inject the whole system in a container into the body for in vivo detection and therapy.

Intelligence for robots will need supercomputers enabled by nanotechnology (quantum computing). In our imagination, robots look human. Why is that? A killing machine could be a 100 nm small container. What is the impact of such new weapons? Where does it end?

In our research, we are working on an HIV test, which could cost €0.50 or even €0.10. Such dramatic cost reductions could help enable cheap healthcare for poor people in developing countries. Our American colleague prof. Whitesides foresees that miniaturization following Moore’s law will end, and that new fields of electronics and devices will be opened. A recent breakthrough is paper devices. In paper, or biological materials the channels are already there, there is no need for top-down etching. In the future, a device could be sent as an attachment to an e-mail, which should just be opened and printed, to have a very cheap device of less than €0.01.

Ineke Malsch remarked that since the end of the Cold War, the relationship between military and civilian high tech research has been reversed, from spinning out military to civilian applications towards spinning in civilian technologies into military systems. Primarily civilian nanoresearch may be applied in a second instance in weapons and military systems by governments as well as non-state actors. What does this imply for the responsibility of civilian nanoscientists? Could civilian knowledge and technology of nanomaterials and biochemical applications end up in the hands of terrorists and hostile governments? These questions are most urgent in case of weapons of mass destruction, e.g. dual use bionanotechnology that could be abused for bioweapons. This is why the KNAW has developed a code of conduct for biosecurity for research organisations, companies and education institutes in the life sciences in the Netherlands. Bionanotechnology is covered by this.

However, possible dual use of nanotechnology in conventional weapons may in the long term also threaten global peace and security. Recently, the AIVD published the “Vulnerability Analysis Espionage”, warning that the Netherlands should protect its knowledge better. The authors explicitly mentioned a recent foreign mission visiting nanotechnology research in the Netherlands, consisting for 50% of intelligence officers.


At MIT, the Institute for Soldier Nanotechnology is developing an exoskeleton for jumping 6 metres high. Is this a realistic scenario? Yes. In The Netherlands, Ten Cate is working on similar materials, including textiles defending people against bullets or colour changing intelligent textiles. The US technology works. Such developments in military nanotechnology could perhaps lower the threshold for starting a war.

This was contested: why are wars started? Contemporary wars are asymmetric, wars among the people. It is not possible to distinguish combatants and non-combatants. Robots won’t be useful in those circumstances. Why are wars started? According to von Clausewitz: to destroy the opponent.

Risks of new types of weapons

Who is responsible for robot killing? It will be like a plane crash, where it is always possible to identify the person or organization responsible for making victims.

In the future, discriminating bioweapons could be envisaged, e.g. only killing black people.

In the future, cheap or even invisible weapons could end up in the hands of non-state actors. But is this really new? When the first guns were introduced, people were opposed to using them rather than swords. Progress in technology has always had civilian and military applications.

A problem with military robots is the mixing up of the world of warfare and family life. War is more and more like a computer game.

Education / awareness raising of engineering students

What kind of additional societal aspects related to peace and security of nanotechnology should be taught to engineering students? What, if any, is the relation between miniaturization of military robots and satellites, and nanotechnology? Another concern related to military nanotechnology is that small amounts of biological or chemical materials may have big impacts. For making a biological weapon, nanotechnology is too expensive. But nanotechnology can have added value by making the weapon intelligent. Not just a particle, but a 100 nm device which could release the dose gender or other discriminatory characteristic specific. Another major current concern is cyber attacks on digital security. What role can nanotechnology play in protecting against such attacks? In the long term, quantum computing will be orders of magnitude faster and better than conventional computing. They may bring other ways to protect against cyber attacks. However, who has the supercomputers has the power. It will be impossible to stop proliferation of the knowledge needed for building them. NATO could theoretically start a war to protect vital economic interests. But contemporary wars are carried out in poor and politically, economically and socially weaker countries. The technological developments are taking place here, but the power balance is shifting towards a multipolar world.

Allocation of responsibility

Still much money is being spent in the Military Industrial Complex, e.g. the MIT Institute for Soldier Nanotechnology is working for the military. The responsibility should be allocated on a higher level, not just at the level of individual researchers. The investments to be made for nanotechnology are huge, only affordable by rich countries. E.g. the new Nanolab cost €40 million to build, plus €20 million for equipment. Running it will cost another €1 million per day. Education of engineers has changed already, making them more societal aware. They don’t just develop technologies, but also look at applications like sustainable energy and water purification. The dual use character requires responsibility, but how to organize it? Peaceful applications should be targeted, e.g. sustainable energy to increase energy security by making us less dependent on supply of fossil fuels from instable world regions. The responsibility of scientists should be integrated in a broader societal framework cooperating with government agencies responsible for security. However, contrary to the USA, in the Netherlands we have an open source innovation system, which can be used by anyone. Anyone has access to it. This is valuable in itself. Raising awareness in the education of students is a good way to contribute to responsible nanotechnology development.

Report of debate at University of Twente, 18-11-2010 in the project Nanorights and Peace (Nanorecht en Vrede) supported by Nanopodium

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