Tuesday, May 24, 2005

WMD -- Writing of Media Distortion

Hey, Howard,

Do you have any thoughts on the nano-WMD article? Given the length and timing of these columns as well as the detail I try to devote to them, I usually can't write much on nano controversies, most of which are either:

    a) brush fires that don't lend themselves well to a detailed 1,000-word analysis weeks to months after the fact,

    b) do not yet have enough quantitative data for me to write an analysis-dense story on, or

    c) subjects I've already written on.

I tried to write a fairly balanced piece here -- to not be all "nano-WMDs will destroy our brains," but not "anything that might make nanotech look bad is a priori a bad thing." So I'm curious as to how well I succeeded.

In addition to your insights, Howard, I'd be interested in what anyone else in the nanotech community thought of this. Had the possibility of these nano-enabled WMDs occurred yet to any industry or academic nano folks reading this blog? Because it didn't occur to me before I ran across the story.

Charles Q. Choi

Hello, Charles.

Careful what you ask for. You want an honest opinion from the nanotech blogosphere, you're sure to get it from all angles and sides. (Sorry about the headline. Kind of harsh, but I'm not blaming you. As you get more experience and more sources, your nanotech stories will improve. Your letter shows that you possess an intellectual honesty that's rare and precious in our business).

But before I go into my thoughts on your WMD article, let me first tell you that I understand exactly what you're going through as a reporter. As you've already discovered, nanotechnology is still a series of enabling technologies, processes, materials in search of routes inside some real-world products -- no matter whether the product is a weapon or cure. The people who invent these materials might not even know yet how they will eventually find their way into the marketplace.

It was even worse when I started assigning nanotech stories four years ago. Even less of it was on the market, and so what you had were a lot of press releases guessing that someday this nanomaterial or process will be used in medicine, weapons detection or wastewater treatment, or all of the above, or none of the above. So, that leaves the way free for think-tank types to extrapolate, well, pretty much anything they want.

And that brings me to your story. To me, your main source, Juan Pablo Pardo-Guerra, seems to be another example of a thinker who can take the kernel of what is possible today -- targeted drug delivery -- give it a good shake over the flames and see what issues the Jiffy Pop ... um ... pops up (bad metaphor, but blogging is sometimes stream of consciousness, so I'm not going to backtrack and fix it). That's nothing against theorists, of course -- as regular readers of this blog know, I think theorists play an important role in technology development. However, Pardo-Guerra should have been one of many voices in the story (yes, I do understand time considerations).

Maybe I'm revealing too much of my personal politics here, but frankly I don't even know what is meant by Weapons of Mass Destruction. To me, anything that can kill more than one person is a WMD. And, if you want to get away from theory and delve into current research and products, the biggest developer of WMDs is the U.S. Department of Defense. That is not a political statement. It's simply a statement of fact. You can tag that with your own political ... um ... biomarkers (shit, another bad metaphor), and decide for yourself whether that's good or bad.

The specter of a Dr. Mengele of the nano age turning targeted drug delivery into targeted death delivery (that phrase is for sale, for any headline writer who wants it) is somewhat misleading in that there's no real danger of that happening anytime soon. Chalk that up as somewhere between "buckyballs kill fish" and "gray goo will kill us all."

I'd check out nano-energetics, the Institute for Soldier Nanotechnologies, and some of the scary-sounding stuff on the U.S. Defense budget. These things can be, and are being, developed right now. And nanotech startups in search of funding are going the military route because -- like the criminal Willie Sutton famously said about banks -- that's where the money is.



Anonymous said...

Yeah, I considered mentioning (the oh-so-euphemistically named) nanoenergetics weapons (http://nanobot.blogspot.com/2005/01/nanolife-vs-nanodeath.html) in the story as well -- they're essentially the logical development of fuel-air explosives. I decided against their inclusion, just because I felt streamlining to the usual unholy trinity of NBC weapons (nuclear, biological, chemical) (or rather, two of the trinity) would help focus the story, given the constraints of the 1,000-word form of Nano World.

I definitely think having more sources for the story could've helped -- I considered going to the MIT soldier nanotechnologies folks, but deadline pressures ended up rendering that option impractical (yep, you nailed that one). I always go with a bare minimum of two sources (you always want more than one source, as I'm sure Newsweek is thinking about right now) -- the nice thing about this blog is having more people chime in and potentially in future volunteer to act as sources.

The strongest point the researchers made in my opinion was the notion that nano drug delivery could turn into "nano death delivery," as you put it. I personally found the idea one of those obvious notions that startled me because (as far as I know) no one else had mentioned it before, and I thought it posed important questions (which is why I wrote the story). Does anyone here want to speculate on how weaponizable these systems are? And has anyone thought about or published papers on this notion before?

-- Charles Q. Choi

Anonymous said...

For what it's worth (and it's probably not worth much to anyone who posts here,) we applaud your article, Mr. Choi. The scientific, business and government communities, as well as the public at large, need to be made aware of the potential for danger with nanotechnology.

On this site, at least, any reference to such potential danger is ridiculed by the (largely scientific) community which posts here. They are quite willing to let the industry put out all kinds of ridiculous hype about the promise of nano without complaint. But if you dare mention that the promise may be accompanied by peril, they demand rigorous scientific proof of the danger. It's called a double standard. Put out something which makes their discipline look good, even if it's fluff about some application which may never materialize, and they are silent. But put out something which makes their discipline look bad, and you will be subjected to a rigorous cross-examination on the scientific basis for your expressed concern.

As Mr. Lovy himself points out:

"The people who invent these materials might not even know yet how they will eventually find their way into the marketplace."

And, again as Mr. Lovy points out, the Department of Defense is likely to be a major consumer of this technology. Does anyone doubt that DOD will be looking for some return on its investment?

You are therefore wise to highlight the potential for danger. Don't feel obliged to defend the scientific basis for your concern. If a scientist asks you to defend your concern about, say, targeted death delivery*, ask him/her to identify a similar scientific basis for targeted drug delivery. If he fails to do that, ask him/her why s/he's picking on you, while allowing the positive hype to go unchallenged. The "hard science" on both subjects is equally ephemeral.

*TM, Howard Lovy, 2005.

Jack said...


Given your time and space constraints, I felt your article did a good job of demonstrating the "double-edged sword" theory of nanotech.

Like Howard, I would have advocated at least a paragraph on nanoenergentics. I would have taken a somewhat different angle, however. To the extent that new, more powerful materials can be developed, I believe they might lead to smaller and less easily detected explosives, dirty bombs, etc.

Another interesting angle would have been to look at how nanotech-enabled advances in the area "smart dust" or encryption technology might alter the military playing field in the future. Specificaly, I am thinking that if an enemy can gain an upper hand in the ability to launch a pre-emptive attack, it might actually be de-stabilizing because it would increase the odds of such an attack being successfully undertaken.

Lastly, I think a look at how nanotech might lead to the further militarization of space -- and thus how WMD's will be delivered in the future -- would have been interesting.

As for sources, I recall reading an article a few years in which Dr. Clifford Lau (an undersecretary of Defense) was quoted as saying something to the effect of "nanotech will alter the future of warfare more than invention of gunpowder." I'm not sure if he's still at DoD but he may be a good source for you to speak with in the future.


Jack Uldrich

P.S. I always enjoy your articles, as well as the little blurbs you pen for Scientific American on a regular basis.

Anonymous said...

re: THONG -- thanks for commenting. Still, as a caveat, I'm a scientist by training myself. I don't feel obliged per se to defend the scientific basis of my curiosity, but I do oblige all relevant parties to define the scientific basis for their concern or lack of concern. That is to say, I could as easily argue that nanotechnology cannot lead to a new generation of chemical and biological weapons as I can make the opposing argument, and both hypotheses would be essentially worthless until evidence was gathered supporting or falsifying either conclusion. I raised the question, but am not rooting for either a yes or no answer. If studies raise convincing evidence that near-term nanotechnology can lead to a new generation of CBW (and of course "near-term" will get pushed back as time progresses), I will report the results of those studies as readily as I would report conflicting evidence. A priori arguments are weak ones -- the hope is to change them to a posteriori debates.

Anonymous said...

re: that last a priori/a posteriori comment was by me, Charles Q. Choi. Sorry for accidentally not attributing it. -- CQC

Howard Lovy said...

For an example of THONG'S posterior debates, click here.

Howard Lovy said...


I think that's one way journalism differs from science -- although I suspect that some of the best scientists are the ones who can act on a "hunch," a feeling that may lack proper scientific proof, but is based on his or her own experience.

Good journalism is not only reactive. Perhaps for beginning reporters, it should. The safe way is to simply be a tape recorder and repeat verbatim what your expert sources tell you.

But as you gather more information about nanotech, and begin to detect patterns, you go off and chase down a story that you have a "hunch" exists.

The leap that THONG makes (Boy, what a strange phrase) ... The leap that THONG makes is a reasonable one. If the technology can be used to cure diseases and clean up the environment in a more-efficient way, then it's reasonable to believe that the opposite is true.

I'll bet these are not novel thoughts to the folks in Defense, Homeland Security, NIH, etc., and they're actively looking for ways these technologies could be misused by those who do not wish the U.S. well.

But first, you need to discover what is possible. And for that, I'd start with the cutting-edge NanoWar research going on in our own borders.

Anonymous said...

For what it's worth, I thought this article raised a valid issue. Of course, it would have been worth getting a few more points of view, but the central message is important. The use of nanotech to wrap up and deliver functional molecules to their targets in a precise way certainly has potential applications to the production of chemical and biological weapons, and I'd be very surprised if this idea hasn't occurred to a number of people whose business is to think about these things.

Actually, I think a similar issue was raised by ETC in connection with the use of nanotech to enhance pesticide delivery. As you can see in my commentary on the ETC report on nano in food and agriculture, (http://www.softmachines.org/wordpress/index.php?p=49), this is actually one of the few points that they raised in that report that I think has any substance. Many technologies in the agrochemical industry have a "dual-use" character and new nano- derived technologies will not be an exception to this.

Anonymous said...

Charles, at CRN we thought your article was well-written and thoroughly scary.

Yesterday on our blog, we noted that cutting-edge technologies typically are developed first for military use. We don't expect nanotech to be an exception.

But this is worrisome, because the stakes are higher now. For various reasons, including the fact that nano-weapons can be both more destructive and less detectable, our analysis suggest that a new arms race will be highly unstable, and therefore more likely to result in devastating war.

We commend you for raising this serious issue, and urge you to follow up with more articles on the subject.

Anonymous said...

The biggest problem I have with most reporting on nanotech good, nanotech bad is that most reporters tend to embelish the bad end of things.

Anything can be used as a weapon if someone puts their mind to it.

Water is something that most living thing on the planet needs to survive but inhale a teaspoon of it and you've got serious problems. Oxygen is another compound that is necessary to the biological process but can be toxic at high concentrations and pressures.

All technology has a light side and a dark side, like duck tape. The use depends on the wielder of the tape. Do you use it to fix your kite or do you use it to tie up a hostage?

Will nanotech be used to develop weapons? Most assuredly. Will defenses against these weapons be developed at the same time? You betcha.

You as a reporter know that words can be wielded to heal as well as to hurt. The solution to the problem is finding the balance.

Mr. Smith

Anonymous said...

Mr. Smith, don't be so confident that defenses against nano-built weapons can be developed in time. The question is, can they be designed, tested, and deployed before they become obselete?

A disruptive and destabilizing impact of molecular manufacturing is its potential for rapid prototyping and mass deployment of new, defense-defiant weapons.

By rapid prototyping, I mean going from a multi-year process of design, testing, and refinement to a process that takes just weeks or even days.

Overnight mass deployment is what happens when the means of production (probably kg-scale nanofactories) becomes one of its own products. Exponential dissemination of on-site manufacturing potential -- of machines able to produce their own weight in a few hours -- could become overwhelming to an opponent in an exceedingly short time.

Will defenses be able to keep up? That's uncertain. Is it a chance we should take? Only if you think Russian roulette is a fun game.

Anonymous said...

Your assuming that a defense against the weapon being developed would not take place at the same time.

Unless we are dealing with a mad man, no one would release a weapon with the capabilites your talking about for which they have no defense.

Why would anyone go to the effort to create tiny flying syringes when we have the capability right now to effectively deliver air-borne bio and chemical weapons.

I will stop being confident that defenses can be built when you stop being so confident that they can't.

Besides, if molecular manufacturing is really going to be a effective as it is predicted to be, there will be nothing left to fight over. All nations and peoples will have everything they could ever need or want.

Mr. Smith

Anonymous said...

"Unless we are dealing with a mad man, no one would release a weapon with the capabilites your talking about for which they have no defense."

Mr Smith,
What about nuclear weapons? Oppenheimer was no mad man. He was a brilliant scientist, with the best motivation, and the purest of intentions. But he did precisely what you contend only a "mad man" would do.

Anonymous said...

Your assuming that a defense against the weapon being developed would not take place at the same time.

No, I'm assuming that we can't safely assume that. To do so is a roll of the dice. How lucky do you feel?

Anonymous said...

Ah, but we did do defense testing against nuclear weapons during their development. We found that distance was the best defense. Don't use these weapons on your on soil. Don't use them in close proximity to your own troops.

Watch the movie "Nightbreaker" if you need more info on these tests.

As for "safely assume", no one can "safely assume" anything. There are far too many variables involved. The most anyone can do is make educated guesses about future events.

You at CRN are guessing that nanoweapons will be produced that could wipe out all life as we know it. I am guessing that these weapons will not be developed because there will be no need for these types of weapons. I don't consider this rolling dice. That is far too random. Consider it instead a game of chess. The player that can think more moves ahead will win the game.
Now that I and the rest of the blogging world know about the possibility of "flying syringes" we can start building defenses against them.

Balance is the key. You guys keep thinking up the doomsday scenarios and I'll keep thinking up the defenses.

Mr. Smith

Anonymous said...

Please do keep thinking up defenses to the doomsday scenarios. We applaud scientists who do that, and encourage you to continue with it. That is a sincere comment, by the way, lest you get the impression that can't say anything without sarcasm.

But distance proved to be of little help with nuclear weapons, since inter-continental ballistic missles rendered distance irrelevant.

How can we see to it that brilliant scientists, with the best intentions, won't let humanity down again in such a big way, as Oppenheimer did?

Anonymous said...

Oppenheimer didn't let humanity down, humanity let Oppenheimer down.

And as for distance being irrelevant, I was talking about proximity to the blast, not the ability to hurl the weapon. Do you really think that any country would use nuclear weapons against an enemy on its own soil? What would be the point? No one wins in that situation.

The same goes for releasing "flying syringes" against an enemy. If you release them into the atmosphere over an enemy target, they will eventually make their way around the entire world. Better have a good defense plan for yourself if you plan to do this.

My point has and always will be don't simply talk about the "bad" things that nanotech will bring humanity. Mention all the "good" things too. Reporting one side of a story never does anyone any good.

Mr. Smith

Anonymous said...

Mr. Smith,
No offense intended (and that too is a sincere statement.)

But I have to say, most of what we see reported about nano is positive hype. Maybe we're looking in the wrong places?

Articles like Mr. Choi's appear to be the exception, not the rule.

Perhaps one of the marketing types who lurks here could present some data on positive vs. negative nanohype? We realize that production of a film based on Crichton's book could upset the balance, but that hasn't happened yet, and the balance seems to favor positive nanohype.

We're trying to balance what we perceive to be an imbalance.

Anonymous said...

I doubt the DoD wants to develop 'nanoweapons'. What's my reasoning? Well, what sort of weapons do the DoD currently use?

1) Explosive. A 'nano' explosive wouldn't pack much punch, even if you used one with the highest chemical potential. No, the Air Force likes 500 lb - 1000 lb bombs, the Navy wants faster projectiles (rail / laser guns), and the Army wants faster troop movement with _lighter_ guns. (The Stryker vehicle has less armor and less firepower than the Abrams. But it moves much faster on the battlefield.)

2) Biological? Eh. If you're the king of conventional weaponry (which is the U.S is) why would you ever want to mess with biological weapons? There's a greater chance of infecting your own troops and the resulting damage would hurt our army more than the enemy's (even if only 2 U.S soldiers died while killing 10000 of the enemy's, the resulting firestorm over the use of biological weaponry would lose the war.)

3) Nuclear. Nuclear bombs are big and are going to remain big for a long, long time (or, they won't be made smaller by the U.S.). There's great technical difficulties in making them smaller. The critical density of uranium / plutonium is a set number. Getting to that density using high explosives requires a lot of explosives. Collapse via lasers is possible, but there's huge problems with it.

4) Chemical. Chemicals are already 'nano'. No surprise here.

I think the biggest usage of nanotech in the U.S Armed Forces will be in DEFENSE. Things like

1) Better armor for soldiers. Nanotech is a source of better materials.

2) Clothing which enhances wound closure and other first aid on contact.

3) Better communications & sensors. 'Smart dust' might be networked ground sensors that detect the sound of vehicles and maybe even footsteps.

4) Recon. Miniature recon droids that look like insects.

None of these things are weaponry. Each of them would be highly useful to the U.S DoD.

And, really, when was the last time you heard the U.S Armed Forces having trouble killing someone (once they found them)? No, they have more problems reducing the already small number of casualties to an even smaller, more politically acceptable number. (And problems finding the real bad guys.)

I would worry more about other countries whose conventional weaponry is not as dominant, but are looking for trouble. Perhaps ... Iran and North Korea?

-Howard (Not Lovy ;) )

Anonymous said...


You are correct when you say that there seems to be a large amount of nano "hype" out there. The problem with this is that is as equally unbalanced as the negative reporting. I want to see both sides presented in a reasonable and calm manner at the same time in the same article.

Most of the hype is just that, hype. It doesn't realistically display what nano can and can't do. A lot of it is "pie in the sky" kind of stuff. Speculation is a wonderful thing. If not for the "What if?" questions, nothing would ever change. There is a point where it can be taken too far. Usually this is called Sci-fi or Fantasy. In nano's case, it mostly falls in to the category of Horror.

Rather than see "Nano will make us all Gods!" or "Nano will kill us all!" I would like to see more "Nano is a technology that can make existing technologies work better, faster, and more efficent" articles.

Nanotechnology is nothing more than working with existing materials on a smaller scale. Will this change in scale cause a change in the properties of the material? Yep, it sure does. Does this mean that we need to go back and look at the MSDS for all of these materials and update them? You better believe it! Is this type of research taking place now? Every day.

Any rational scientist will tell you that there is no such thing as good technology or evil technology. These labels are best applied to how the technology is used. A knife in the hands of a trained surgeon can remove cancer. The same knife, in the hands of a child, can wound, maim, or kill. The key is not to let the child play with the knife.

Thus we come to the crux of the problem. Who should have access to nanotechnology? How do we police it? Can we prevent it from being used for neferious purposes? These and many other questions are being debated all over the world every day. Stay tuned for the answers.

Just so you know, I have yet to buy a pair of nanopants. Not because I am afraid of unexpected properties, I just don't have a need for them at this point in time. It's a cool idea, but I get along just fine with regular old pants.

Mr. Smith

Anonymous said...

Howard S.

I can tell you for a fact that all of the defense possibilities that you mention are being worked on as we speak.

Mr. Smith