Another far-fetched idea or the future of warfare?

Before we can look at the possibility of nanoweapons, we have to understand exactly what nanotechnology is. In short, it’s a kind of hybrid science that combines engineering and chemistry to build “structures” at a molecular level. (For more detailed explanation, I heartily recommend reading the nanotechnology node.) Anyway, some scientists believe that within the next couple of decades, the possibility might exist to build what are being called “self- replicating assembler” or robotic systems that could be programmed to build (or destroy) just about any structure. It would be accomplished through the precise placement of individual atoms and a little hardwiring..

So what’s that got to do with war?

How would you like to build a “gun” that can aim itself? Or, how about building surveillance devices and/or weapons of sabotage that look like your normal everyday bird or insect? Still not satisfied, how about that instead of dropping weapons from the sky, we make weapons that can burrow under the earth to reach their target? Scary huh?

Well, recent advances in the field of nanotechnology might make these and other more unpleasant scenarios a distinct possibility. Scientists have theorized that a nanoweapon would consist of a bunch of “nanomachines”. These tiny machines would act like little robots that have something in common with both you and I. They would be capable of replicating themselves by using the resources they gathered from the environment. In simpler terms it means you cannot freakin’ kill the damn things.

One might argue that the size of these nanoweapons would be so small as to be insignificant. After all, it would take a shitload of precisely placed atoms to make even the smallest nanoweapon a viable threat.

For those of you who believe that, I got one word for you. Bacteria. Yep, that tiny little organism that has inflicted plague upon plague and accounted for the deaths of more human beings than we can ever hope to inflict upon ourselves.

We’re probably all familiar in some way or another about the threat that biological warfare might have on each and every one us. Therein lies the problem. Biological warfare is indiscriminate. In sufficient doses, it will kill or incapacitate anything that gets in its path. Now, imagine if you will that you were able to “program” or “target” this bacteria to attack a certain culture, crop, material, or even individual or structure within a given area?. Sounds too good to be true huh?

I don’t know what would happen to the nanoweapon once it had accomplished its task. How strong would its survival instinct be? Would it die or would it turn to other similar “targets” in order to survive? This is where the gray goo and/or the blue goo theory comes into play.

Simply put, the self-replicating nature of nanomachines would cause them to devour everything in its path thereby leaving nothing (and I mean nothing!) to survive in its wake. They would be the only things left.

Many folks have argued that so-called conventional warfare leaves nothing but a path of destruction. Nuclear war, in addition to the carnage it would cause, also has the added benefit of placing contamination to the equation. The long-term effects of chemical warfare are too hard to predict and also add contamination to the equation. Proponents of nanoweapons make their case by stating that the use of nanomachines/weapons would not have the inherent destructive nor contaminative effects upon our lives and the landscape. These proponents theorize that they could even prove beneficial if one was able to “program” or hardwire these nanoweapons to build new things with the matter they have destroyed.

Don’t get me wrong, I trust technology and science as much as the next person but I can’t fathom the implications of an experiment in which nanoweapons have gone awry. When it comes to warfare, no matter how primitive and horrible it seems, I’ll take my chances on what we have today.

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Science Fiction Author's Guide To Nanoweapons

Talking about the impact of any scientific advance is always hard, since nobody can see the future. Of course, if you're a science fiction author, making up the future is your job. Nanoweapons, particularly in hard science fiction or science fiction with a dark, military bent, are plot gold.

Before you can talk about the -weapon- part of nanoweapons, you need to talk about the nano- part. All of the talk about nanoweapons is predicated on the invention of "nanites", complex machines the size of a molecule. These machines are controlled (somehow) by a central device or programmed (or alternately able to make their own decisions, but sentient nanomachines are a w/u unto themselves) to do, well, anything. Depending on the setting, nanites can be used to cure disease, build things, rebuild the human body, improve the human body, gobble up pollution or radiation or whatever, or do any other kind of far-future nifty stuff. Any writer not too terribly concerned with internal coherance (space opera or comedy, for example) can use nanites as a deus ex machina or as a handy justification for anything.

For the record, nanotechnology is also used to describe using X-pseudoscientific-justification (replicators from Star Trek, for example) for being able to build things from the molecular level up. Since X could be any number of things, I'm only dealing with the ramifications of tiny machines the size of molecules, which is the most common X by far.

Okay. Now we've got tiny machines the size of molecules. Let's kill someone!




The simplest military application of nanites is just tearing people/weapons/targets apart at the molecular level. Flesh- (or steel-, or concrete-) eating "goo," appearing often enough in science fiction to be known as "Grey Goo." Grey goo devours anything or everything, and would definately be a horrible weapon indeed. Additionally, this could only devour a certain substance (which is possible peaceful application, devouring trash, radioactive waste, dog crap, etc.) In any case, it would be a nasty weapon indeed.

  • Authors with a psychological or philosophical bent could easily consider whether a weapon that kills cleanly is worse that one that causes horrible destruction along with killing everyone.
  • Grey goo could be combined with builder nanites discussed below; consider the sheer horror of dumping a load of goo onto an area, devouring the buildings and the people and turning them into high rises, or fuel, or weapons, or a nice aged cheese.
  • Accidental grey goo could come of misused or reprogrammed builder nanites; this could be anything from a once-in-a-lifetime to a common problem in any world with builder nanites.



Alternately, the nanites could be more autonomous, taking on the characteristics of a disease; this is usually known as a nanoplague. This has all the potential of traditional biological warfare, of course. If the society has the technology, the nanites might even discriminate (although this only works in the case of attacking a certain genotype or species, in the case of interspecies conflicts with aliens or transhumans or whatever). The only real way to counter this is with immunity nanites, although the virulence of nanoplagues could find itself in a race with improvements to the immune system.

  • The plague caused by the nanites have to be that terrible; it just might not be possible (how about a nanoplague that causes a perpetual cold, until you die of old age?), or there might be some other effect desired. Causing birth defects? Crippling soldiers to force a nation to surrender? The possibilities are endless.
  • Nanoplagues as written don't work if nanites need a transmitter in the proximity. The latter would allow for interesting assassination ploys: "Hide this transmitter on the enemy general, so the Grey Death can do its thing." Of course, if a central trasmitter is needed, just not one in the proximity, you've got a story seed for knocking it out.
  • Things get progressively less realistic, but potentially more fun, when the nanites can discriminate based on phenotype, physical characteristic, or other factors. Nanites to kill minority racial groups? Nanites to kill genemods? Nanites to kill hybrids? The list goes on and on.
  • If nanites are a secret technology, nanoplagues could be cooked up to match existing diseases. Now you've got a futuristic medical drama, especially if the nanoplague targets a group mysteriously.
  • The most common ideas of nanoplagues just turn the victims into more nanites. Combine nanoplagues with the builder nanites from below, and you've got...a device to rehabilitate battlefields? The ultimate weapon for a revolutionary group? A horrible disease that turns victims to bombs? A good way to compost the garbage? All of the above?
  • All of the biological weapon and meddling with nature stories work just as well here. What if a nanoplague mutates? What if it gets out and goes wild? What if other nanites turn into a plague?
  • A nanoplague doesn't need to target people (humans or otherwise). What about crops? Or housepets? Or the helpful bacteria in the large intestine? People tend to rely on other organisms to survive, and a non-harmful but human-carried disease that kills hydroponic farms could annihilate a space station.
  • What about a helpful "plague," seeded in a friendly population? How would people react to suddenly and unexpectedly being twice as strong, or telepathic, or whatever? (Cybergeneration, for all its flaws, had an interesting take on this.)



Nanoweapons could instead by items made by/of nanites, rather than the nanites themselves.

A common nanotech "miracle" is nanoconstruction; using nanites as miniature factories to build, well, anything. That anything could easily be weapons, giving you another form of nanoweapons. Nanites could also build incredibly complex devices with the right program, offering you a stock justification for having beam weapons, energy shields, time travel devices, a better mousetrap, whatever. (Authors who want to get really crazy can use this to justify anything, but there's no reason more conventional science couldn't build spy cameras that look like animals, or whatever.)

  • Builders combined with grey goo have a lot of potential, discussed above.
  • The potential of reprogramming nanites has a lot of potential. What if terrorists can reprogram chair-building nanites into, well, anything? This has the potential for SF stories "ripped from the headlines," so to speak.
  • Really fast, small-scale builders could make foot infantry incredibly versatile. Need an anti-tank weapon? Let's cook one up; it'll just be a second. Extremely fast builders could change a missile or bomb midflight!
  • Builder nanites in the human stomach could mean the end of needing to forage; all you'd need is something mode of organic compounds. ("Why does this taste like crap?" "That's because it is.")
  • Items built entirely of nanites are potentially more useful to a writer, as they can be used to justify anything at all. Want guns that aim on their own? You've got them. Want the bodily incarnation of your evil AI? There you go. Any limitations on this will need to be constructed of whole cloth, because the possibilities are literally infinate. Unfortunately, this tends to lose internal coherance; when anything is possible, there's little incentive or ability to take risks. (Making the characters omnipotent tends to cripple drama.) This is a good option for those who don't want to fiddle with the science, though.



This is obviously not an exhaustive guide, but ideas or concepts I've missed can be /msg'ed to amib.

Thanks to the creators of Transmetropolitan for getting my brain stuck on SF again, and borgo for giving me the original seed with his original w/u.

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