Like the Lifeboat Foundation, The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists is an organization formed to address catastrophic technological risks. In catastrophic risk management, vision and foresight are essential. You take at technological, social, and political trends which are happening today — for example, steps towards mechanical chemistry, increasing transparency, or civil atomic programs — and brainstorm with as many experts as possible about what these trends indicate about what is coming 5, 10, or 20 years down the road. Because catastrophic risk management is a long-term enterprise, one where countermeasures are ideally deployed before a threat has even materialized, the further and more clearly you try to see into the future, the better.
Traditionally, The Bulletin has focused on the risk from nuclear warfare. Lately, they have expanded their attention to all large-scale technological risks, including global warming and future risks from emerging technologies. However, the language and claims used on their website show that the organization’s members are only just beginning to get informed about the emerging technologies, and the core of their awareness still lies with the nuclear issue.
From The Bulletin’s statement regarding their decision to move the clock 5 minutes to midnight, from the “emerging technologies” section specifically:
The emergence of nanotechnology — manufacturing at the molecular or atomic level — presents similar concerns, especially if coupled with chemical and biological weapons, explosives, or missiles. Such combinations could result in highly destructive missiles the size of an insect and microscopic delivery systems for dangerous pathogens.
“Highly destructive missiles the size of an insect”? Depressingly, statements like this are a red flag that the authors and fact-checkers at The Bulletin are poorly informed about nanotechnology and molecular manufacturing. To my knowledge, no one in the entire defense research industry has ever proposed creating highly destructive missiles the size of an insect. Highly destructive missiles the size of an insect are impossible for the same reason that meals in a pill are impossible — chemical bonds only let you pack so much energy into a given space. We cannot improve the energy density of explosives like we can improve the speed of computers or the resolution of satellite imagery. There can be incremental improvements, yes, but suggesting that nanotechnology has something to do with highly destructive missiles the size of insects is not just dubious from the point of view of physics, but particularly embarassing because it seems to have been made up from scratch, and was missed by everyone in the organization that reviewed the statement.
The general phrasing of the statement makes it seem like the scientists that wrote it are still stuck in the way of thinking that says “molecular manufacturing has to do with molecules, and molecules are small, so the products of molecular manufacturing will be small”. This is also the bias frequently seen displayed by the general media, although early products based on nanotechnology (not molecular manufacturing), including stainless pants and sunscreen, also subtly direct the popular perception of nanotech. It’s natural to think that nanotechnology, and therefore, molecular manufacturing, means small. However, this natural tendency is flawed. We should recall that the world’s largest organisms, up to 6,600 tons in weight, were manufactured by the molecular machines called ribosomes.
Molecular manufacturing (MM) would greatly boost manufacturing throughput and lower the cost of large products. While some associate MM with smallness, it is better thought of in connection with size and grandeur. Although microscopic killing machines built by MM will definitely become a risk by 2015–2020, the greatest risk will come from the size, performance, and sheer quantity of products. Because a nanofactory would need to be able to output its own weight in product in less than a 12 or so hours or it wouldn’t have been developed in the first place (scaling up from a single molecular manipulator to many trillions requires 33 or so doublings — which could take a long time if the product cycle is not measured in hours), these factories, given raw materials and energy, could produce new factories at an exponential rate. Assuming a doubling time of 12 hours, a 100 kg-size tabletop nanofactory could be used to produce 819,200 kg worth of nanofactory in only a week. As long as the nanofactories can support their own weight and be supplied with adequate matter and energy, they can be made almost arbitrarily large. Minimal labor would be necessary because the manufacturing components are so small, they must be automated to work at all. Regulations and structural challenges from excess height can be circumvented by fabricating nanofactories that are long and wide rather than tall and fragile. Once created, these factories could be programmed to produce whatever products are technologically possible with the tools at hand — at the very least, products at least as sophisticated as the nanofactories themselves. Unscrupulous governments could use the technology to mass produce missiles, helicopters, tanks, and entirely new weapons, as long as their engineers are capable of designing diamondoid versions of these products. Their rate of production, and quality of hardware, would outclass that of non-nano-equipped nations by many orders of magnitude.
Because unregulated, exponentially replicating molecular manufacturing units would create a severe threat to global security, it seems prudent to regulate them with care. Restrictions should be placed on what products can be manufactured and in what quantity and quality. Just as permits and inspections are required to operate industrial machinery, restrictions should be placed on industrial-scale molecular manufacturing. In some cases, preexisting regulatory infrastructure will be sufficient. In others, we’ll need to augment or expand the purview of historical regulations and customize them to address the specific challenges that MM represents.