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Some thoughts on nanotech's dark side

Iran is currently working on obtaining fissionable uranium which can be used for nuclear weapons. This is presenting something of a thorny issue for our current Simian-in-Chief, whose approval rating is dipping perilously close to single digits over his mismanagement of the botched and ultimately pointless war in Iraq. We currently lack the political capital and the military and financial resources to mount any kind of overt action in Iran, wishful thinking of the pro-war Far Right aside. None of this is news to anyone who's not been living under a bridge for the past four years or so.

There's some good news and some bad news in this situation, none of which has anything to do with American politics or the situation in Iraq. The good news is the part that says "Iran is currently working on obtaining fissionable uranium which can be used for nuclear weapons." This is good news because, more than fifty years after Word War II, it still requires a major committed effort on the part of an entire nation to obtain fissionable uranium which can be used for nuclear weapons. The bad news is generic programmable nanotech assemblers. The good news is that these don't exist yet. The bad news is that they will.

The process of enriching uranium is delicate, costly, complex, and fiddly. The Reader's Digest Condensed Version is this: Uranium occurs in nature in two isotopes, U-235 and U-238. The difference is the number of neutrons in the atomic nucleus of the uranium atoms. U-238 has three more neutrons in the nucleus than U-235 does.

The vast majority of the uranium in nature is U-238. U-235 is quite scarce, making up just over one-half of one percent of the uranium you can dig up out of the ground. For various complicated reasons that have to do with Science and are beyond the scope of this post, U-238 doesn't go boom. In order to be useful to people who want to make things go boom, uranium needs to be "enriched," meaning that the percentage of U-235--the kind that does go boom--needs to be increased.

This process is really, really, really hard to do. Essentially, you take your uranium and combine it with fluorine to form a gas called uranium hexafluoride. You then put this gas into a special centrifuge and you spin it really, really fast for a really, really long time. A tiny percentage of the U-235, which is just oh such a little bit lighter (by the weight of three neutrons) than U-238, ends up at the top. Then you take some of the gas out of the bottom, where it's more U-238, and put the remaining gas into a second centrifuge, which you spin really, really fast for a really, really long time. You keep doing this over and over and over again for months, and you're left with a little bit of enriched uranium hexafluoride, which you take the fluorine atoms off of to end up with uranium.

The centrifuges are complicated and difficult to make, even if you're an entire country. The process is so delicate that if one of your workers sneezes while it's happening, the whole shebang gets all mixed up again and you have to start over. Even with billions of dollars on hand and the resources and will of an entire nation behind you, making nuclear bombs is tough to do.

There is this notion that once a nation acquires nuclear weapons and realizes how destructive these things are, that nation tends to become very, very reluctant to use them. In the history of the world, only two have been used in war. There are historians who will argue that the existence of nuclear weapons has likely averted a third world war; these weapons are so bad that nobody really wants to use them, so nations that have them tend to think twice about getting into shooting matches with other nations that have them.

Of course, this assumes people are reasonable. This is often, but not always, the case. Witness 1 for the prosecution: Kim Jong Il, the poster boy for "deranged psychopaths," who just so happens to be the leader of North Korea, a nation which just so happens to have nukes.

I tend to think the notion that nuclear weapons have a calming effect on countries is a historical artifact, because they're so hard to make that only highly industrialized, rationalist nations get them first. There is a correlation between countries with stable, rational governments,and countries which are wealthy and industrialized.

Don't look at me like that. Compared to Kim Jong Il, Josef Stalin is a model of reason and rationality. And George W.'s administration didn't invent the Bomb. Had all our nation's leaders been like W, we would never have become a First World nation to begin with, and we may still not be a First World nation by the time he leaves office. Half a trillion dollars drained out of the nation's economy to finance a war against a paltry and largely unmilitarized Third World country...but I digress.

The point is, making nuclear bombs is tough and expensive, even for entire nations. Your next door Al Qaeda cell isn't going to get one any time soon, wishful thinking of the pro-war Far Right aside.

But hold on. Things are getting better.

Nanotechnology is a cutting-edge new technology that offers the promise of doing for manufacturing, medicine, and materials engineering what electronics did for computation. Right now, human technology is barbaric and primitive almost beyond reason. We like to think that we're high-tech, but we're not. The process by which we make things has hardly changed since flint knives and bearskins. We take a piece of something, we whack off all the bits that don't look like what we want, until we get what we do want. Today the whacking is done by computer-controlled, automated CNC milling equipment instead of with a big rock, but essentially it's the same. Our processes for making stuff are better, but our basic techniques have scarcely changed.

The Holy Grail of manufacturing nanotech is the universal programmable assembler, a hypothetical device that makes stuff the way the cells in your body made you--at an atomic scale, one molecule at a time. The theory is simple: you take a bunch of little programmable machines, each of which is the size of a couple dozen molecules or so, and you program them with what you want to make. Then you give them some carbon, iron, or whatever, and they make that thing for you from the ground up, one molecule at a time. It's the ultimate dream manufacturing technique; if you can conceive it, you can make it. (Of course you don't want to make stuff literally one molecule at a time; when I say a "bunch" of assemblers, I mean like "a few billion.")

It's less farfetched than it sounds. Read Engines of Creation. Go ahead; I'll wait.

You back? Cool stuff, right? Radical longevity, effortless and cheap manufacturing that doesn't pollute or deplete natural resources, personalized cancer cures that cost less than a low-end Dell desktop. The advent of nanotechnology will arguably change human civilization more than the advent of agriculture did.

If we live that long, that is. You see, nanotech offers the promise of building stuff on a molecular level. Nanotech assemblers manipulate matter on the level of individual molecules. Forget that complicated, tedious mucking about with expensive and finicky centrifuges and uranium hexafluoride; dissolve your uranium in hydrogen peroxide and sodium hydroxide, stir in some nano devices that sort out the U-235 bits from the U-238 bits, and wait. Enriching uranium is removed from the realm of entire nations and brought down to the level where anyone who's having a bad hair day can do it.

If he can get the uranium to begin with, of course. It's not like you can buy it at the corner grocery. But we're a clever species; someone will figure out how to solve that problem. :)


( 17 comments — Leave a comment )
Jul. 8th, 2007 06:07 pm (UTC)
The wealthy and industrialized countries will get the nanotech first, too, but I see your point. Eventually it will be just another product that anyone can use.

(Deleted comment)
Jul. 10th, 2007 06:03 pm (UTC)
If I may jump in and intrude with my own answer, it's because the human race has a long and rich history of almost screwing itself up. There is a lot of ignorance, shortsightedness, and evil in the human race, but despite the bleak outlook provided by the news it's always been outweighed by our positive traits. Were this not the case then we as a society wouldn't be here.

As someone else pointed out, just about any new technology can be used for either good or ill, but the net result has always been positive. This doesn't mean that the nightmare scenario of some whack jobs getting their hands on a nuke and using it won't happen- it likely will, eventually, somewhere. But on the whole the human condition has been improved every time our understanding of the world and ability to manipulate it has advanced.

To throw in an additional factor, people's willingness to inflict horror and devastation upon others is usually (though not always) inversely proportional to their own prosperity and comfort. People living in desert caves under repressive religious regimes have little to lose. People living in a society where just about anything that you can imagine that doesn't violate the laws of physics can be manufactured out of dirt in a couple of hours for 50 cents a pound and healthy life spans can be extended almost indefinitely will have far less motivation to throw it all away.

It won't be all peaches and cream, but in the long run it'll be worth it.
(Deleted comment)
Jul. 11th, 2007 06:46 am (UTC)
I'm a programmer, not a nuclear physicist, but the nice thing (from a survival-of-humanity perspective) about high-energy atomic reactions is that they're really, really hard to sustain. Pu-239, U-235, and a few other heavy isotopes exist in a sort of sweet spot of stability, where they last long enough to be gathered into a critical mass but are unstable enough (and unstable in the right way) to kick up extra neutrons when they fission. Fusible elements are convenient in other ways; they're a bit easier to extract (although deuterium's still rare, and tritium's even more so), but starting a reaction is a lot harder; short of a full-blown technological singularity, I don't expect to see uncontrolled fusion in my lifetime without a fission primary (i.e. a smaller atom bomb) to kick-start the reaction. As to total destructiveness, it's theoretically unbounded (given multi-stage fusion weapons and some tricky math), but physics puts lower bounds on the size and mass of really big weapons; a proper doomsday device would be conspicuous, and its production doubly so.

Personally, I'm not too worried. There are good reasons to be concerned about nuclear proliferation in a nanotech world, but nanotech should rightfully make detection and neutralization of nuclear weapons easier as well.
Jul. 12th, 2007 03:03 am (UTC)
Hmmm...that's reassuring. I think I mostly agree. The thing that worries me most, though, is the possibility that the destructive capacity of our weaponry will keep increasing. While it's "just" hydrogen bombs, even if someone crazy detonates one, it's not literally the end of the world, but if there are ever weapons powerful enough for a single detonation to trigger nuclear winter, the "some whackjob" scenario becomes much more serious.

In one of Drexler's books--I think it's Engines of Creation--he lists a bunch of things that everyone accepts as being true, but aren't necessarily true at all. Among them are: Industrialization always results in increased pollution, there are not enough resources on earth to bring every nation on earth up to First World status, increasing industrialization always goes hand-in-hand with increased resource consumption, and nuclear weapons are the most devastating weapons that will ever be invented.

In theory, hydrogen bombs can scale indefinitely. In practice, there are practical and engineering constraints that are pretty tough to work around. The notion that you need a big boom to blow stuff up is very twentieth-century, though. Weaponry more potentially devastating than the largest possible explosive is certainly conceivable, particularly when nanoscale assembly becomes cheap and efficient. Think synthetic viruses programmed to kill only members of certain ethnic groups, or weapons that fuck with the planet's magnetic field and expose us directly to solar radiation...real James Bond doomsday-device stuff.

However, with increasing technology does come increasing countermeasures. Remember when the Catholic Church said that the invention of the crossbow would mean curtains for human civilization?
Jul. 12th, 2007 09:26 pm (UTC)
"The human race has a long and rich history of almost screwing itself up."

Yes, but has it had this much power each time?
Jul. 12th, 2007 11:24 pm (UTC)
You make a good point. In the past, the consequences of a person having a bad hair day were smaller; today, technology incrases the reach and power of everyone.

But it still requires a surprisingly large degree of effort to do anything on a large scale. Tim McVeigh was able to take down a building, but it's getting more difficult rather than less difficult to follow in his footsteps--in part because a larger number of well-coordinated people are working to prevent the Tim McVeighs of the word from being able to do what they want to do. Technology works both ways.
Jul. 13th, 2007 09:53 pm (UTC)
Ok. I've been reading "Engines of Creation", and I'm sold.

Where do I go to invest?
Jul. 13th, 2007 03:34 am (UTC)
Yes, but has it had this much power each time?

Nope. It's never had this much power to screw itself up. But by that same token it's also never had as much power to protect itself or to identify a potential threat before it could bring its destructive power to bear. Additionally, there have never been so many of us, nor have we been so widely distributed across the planet. We're also in an unusual situation where those working on defensive applications of this new technology have a tremendous lead on those who are most likely to use it in an offensive and randomly destructive capacity. Until nanotech actually arrives there's little point in terrorists or third world nations putting much effort into developing harmful applications, but the defenses are already being worked on now.

Again I'm not arguing that there will never be a bad situation, (nor am I arguing in favor of a surveillance society), but if your concern is extinction I think that short of some very exotic experiment going horribly wrong and crushing the planet we're past the point where a single man-made event is going to wipe us all out.
Jul. 8th, 2007 08:44 pm (UTC)
Meh Iran is going about things the wrong way. U-235 is crap as weapons grade bang bang you need a whole lot and the "off the shelf" designs that use it are pretty low yield. Even worse you need a lot of know how and testing to refine and improve them. Now the way to go is build breeder reactors. Now you can put in garden variety U-238 and get out sweet sweet plutonium 239 now that is some quality stuff. Every modern and all but one nuclear device from antiquity has been powered by it so there is plenty of tried and true know how involving it and I'm sure there's Russian nuclear physicist happy to explain the how and the why of it. Even better in the process of refining you get actual power out. Megawatts of electricity for whatever you use it for in your nutjob dictatorship. This is the route I believe North Korea followed and its a pretty good one. The major downside is breeder reactors are a little more dangerous than normal nuclear reactors and are harder to hide than centerfuges but not harder by much when you are buying 10,000 of the things. Really did ya think no one would notice Iran?
This I think is the point dangerous technology is going to happen, idiots in positions of power are going to happen, and as much as we want it to the human race is not going to go through some huge change and become more moral. We have one choice as I see it. Stay ahead of technology, be adept with the tools, and understand the coming dangers so we can all act together to stop them. We need to more than thinking of prevention think of having a technological immune system. We need to have large numbers of working scientists and engineers so that if someone is making nanoweapons the fucking corporate sector, that great careening engine of profit, has in its best interest to develop defenses. We need to face the future eyes open so that when doom comes we not only see it coming but can whoop its ass.
I have faith that as long as genetic engineering, nanotech, and all the other coming new things are part of the research and public sector. Whatever some desperate fanatic can cookbook into creation a cunning gradstudent or eager young engineer can out do and out think.
Okay enough ranting back to work for me.
Jul. 8th, 2007 09:39 pm (UTC)
The primary advantage of U-238 as a bomb making material is that it's very easy to make a bomb once you have the raw material. You take two halves of a fissionable core of Uranium, put them at either end of a tube, and then use explosives to ram them together at high speed. It doesn't require nearly the same degree of precision.

Getting PU-239 is easier, however, building a bomb out of it is very difficult. You take a sphere of plutonium and then have to create a nearly perfect blast wave around the sphere to crush it uniformly in on itself. If you're off by even the slightest amount, the reaction fizzles out.

So in the grand scheme a U-238 bomb is more viable as a weapon if for no other reason than it's predictably effective. If you have a PU-239 bomb and it's manufactured to very precise tolerances, you can have a pretty good chance of it working, but the slightest thing goes wrong and it's a big dirty bomb and not much else. North Korea recently illustrated this when they built their PU-239 bomb and ended up having a dud that left a big mess without much bang.

Jul. 10th, 2007 06:13 pm (UTC)
We need to more than thinking of prevention think of having a technological immune system. We need to have large numbers of working scientists and engineers so that if someone is making nanoweapons the fucking corporate sector, that great careening engine of profit, has in its best interest to develop defenses. We need to face the future eyes open so that when doom comes we not only see it coming but can whoop its ass.

Fortunately we do. There are several organizations such as the Foresight Institute (foresight.org) and the Singularity Institute (singinst.org) which exist for the express purpose of dealing with these kinds of issues now, before the technology arrives. As you point out, it's far better to have policies and plans in place before you need them than to be caught unprepared. Also, while molecular manufacturing is still in its very early stages, I've little doubt that some very, very smart people are actively working on preliminary designs for defensive counteragents.

Google "blue goo"+nanotech for more info.
Jul. 8th, 2007 09:22 pm (UTC)
I realize this is somewhat tangential to your basic point, but is Kim Jong Il a deranged psychopath?

I would argue that North Korea has basically sustained itself by acting crazy. They have limited natural resources and they are isolated from the world. The only way that Kim Jong Il has maintained power is through extracting concessions from the west by threatening us routinely. He wants us to think he's crazy because if we think he might actually start something we're far more likely to give into his demands.

The reality of nuclear weapons is that their value is purely political. You cannot use them because the moment you do use them, you've written the death sentence for you, your country, and most importantly to an egocentric dictator, your power. Nuclear weapons act as an excellent trump card to keep yourself in power, but beyond that they are worthless.

Now, to get back onto your original point, technology is amoral and empowers. The same technology that gives you the power to save thousands can often give you the ability to kill thousands. Projecting this into the future, eventually somebody, through some means, will get the ability to inflict a mass casualty attack on a city. It might be nuclear, or biological, or maybe nanotechnological (see the "grey goo" fears). There's little we can do about that.

The bright side is that, like I said, technology is amoral, and hopefully the technology that can unleash such destruction will also permit people to better recover from and prevent such destruction. The nanotechnology that allows you to build a lethal bomb in your back yard could also be the kind of technology that helps detect said bomb or, perhaps even defuse it. Imagine an aerosol made up of nanobots that could effectively reverse the enrichment process, or something of that sort.
Jul. 12th, 2007 01:05 am (UTC)
The two are not necessarily exclusive. Kim Jong Il is genuinely batshit crazy, but that doesn't mean he's not also calculating, and capable of turning "batshit crazy" to his advantage.

A year or two ago, it was discovered that North Korea had kidnapped several South Korean movie stars, directors, and cameramen, and forced them to work for several years making propaganda films for the government. That's James-Bond-villain-level crazy there, but it's also effective crazy. In other words, just because they ACT crazy doesn't necessarily mean they AREN'T crazy...
(Deleted comment)
Jul. 12th, 2007 01:06 am (UTC)
Wow, that IS cool! And yes, it is nanotech; it's the first step toward true nanotech assemblers. Good stuff!
Jul. 9th, 2007 04:20 pm (UTC)
Engines of Creation is available for free at http://www.e-drexler.com/d/06/00/EOC/EOC_Cover.html

Although, I am not sure if it's the whole book.

Jul. 10th, 2007 05:38 pm (UTC)
It's the whole book. Drexler decided to make it openly available several years ago, and it's been hosted at his sight and at foresight.org ever since, with a few updates and revisions here and there.

That said, I still can't recommend the book strongly enough, and think that it's well worth it to get the dead trees version for the sake of convenience and easy reference.

I first read Engines about 15 years ago when I picked it up quite literally at random while killing time browsing a book store. It completely changed my world view. I can't say that about any other book. My entire outlook on the future, humanity's place in it, and the role of technology is radically different now than it was then, and EoC was the starting point for lines of thinking and inquiry that led me to become the person I am today. (That sounds much more cultish than it actually is!)
Jul. 13th, 2007 04:32 am (UTC)
What I think is a much more possible threat would be for someone to make "rogue" nanotech. Wouldn't it be easier and more destructive to program nanotech to disassemble everything it can unless you tell it not to? As has been mentioned, people are working on counter-measures for such things, but a truly dedicated group can achieve anything it wants and reprogramming nanotech doesn't sound like something that would be hard to do.

This is just an aspect of any new technology being used for positive and negative uses though. As has been said, should nanotech truly provide utopia for all, I think the dangers in it being weaponized are low. It's more likely that First World countries will get nanotech Horns of Plenty before the Third World, and there could be problems during that gap.

One thing I do like to think of is that the future will be something that none of us can predict.
( 17 comments — Leave a comment )