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IEET > Security > Military > Fellows > Mike Treder

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Russia and Nanotechnology


Mike Treder
By Mike Treder
Respondible Nanotechnology

Posted: May 6, 2007

Of the many questions that must be answered about molecular manufacturing, one of the most important is: Who will attain the technology first?

It matters a great deal if this powerful and potentially disruptive new manufacturing technique is developed and controlled by aggressive military interests, commercial entities, Open Source advocates, liberal democracies, or some combination thereof. How each of those disparate groups, with different priorities and motivations, would plan to use and (maybe) share the technology is an issue that bears serious investigation. That’s a major purpose behind CRN’s project to create a series of scenarios depicting various futures in which molecular manufacturing could be developed.

One likely player in this high-stakes, high-tech drama is Russia.

Recently it was announced that “Russia will pour over US$1 billion in the next three years into equipment for nanotechnology research.” (That seems like a lot of equipment, and it may be that the quoted story conflated spending on tools and with spending on researcher salaries or other infrastructure, but in any case, a billion dollars over three years is plenty to get a strong program off the ground.)

“A program for the development of nanotechnology must be put in place in Russia in the near future,” said President Vladimir Putin in an annual address to the Federal Assembly in Moscow. “Russia could become a leader in nanotechnology.”

Some commentators have suggested that Putin’s statements may be mere posturing, intended to boost his political standing but unlikely to produce significant results. But that doesn’t appear to be the case. I’ve contacted a few scientific and academic sources in Russia who tell CRN that “this time money actually will be spent,” and “this money will be spent directly on nanotech.”

So it appears that big money will be invested in nanotechnology—funds made available, by the way, from huge new revenues accruing to Russia through oil and gas exports.

But what exactly will they spend the money on? Will any of it be used to study mechanosynthesis, with the goal of achieving molecularly-precise exponential manufacturing? There’s no clear indication that it will be, and most sources seem to think that’s unlikely, at least in the first few years. The vast majority of funding probably will be devoted to earlier generation nanotech.

We should point out, however, that some interesting work apparently has been done in Russia on producing “a roadmap to automated diamond mechanosynthesis.” We haven’t learned yet how well-funded or well-connected (or even well-qualified) the researchers on that project are, so we can’t say for sure whether their work will be supported by this new government initiative.

It’s also interesting to note that a few years ago a nanotech blog in Russia announced a “competition of Russian youth projects on domestic molecular nanotechnology development.” Again, though, no results have been reported.

More ominous are statements from Putin that at least part of his purpose in emphasizing nanotech development is to achieve ambitious military objectives:

“Russia’s economic potential has been restored, the possibilities for major scientific research are opening up,” Putin said. “The concentration of our resources should stimulate the development of new technologies in our country. This will be key also from the point of view of the creation the newest, modern and supereffective weapons systems.”

Another report describes Putin’s intentions this way:

He said nanotechnology will lay the groundwork for new weapon systems, both offensive and defensive, adding that nanotechnology is already being used in high-tech sectors of industry, medicine, transport, space research, and telecommunications.

“It is an area of activity in which the state is ready to invest on a grand scale. The only question is that this work should be well organized and effective, yielding practical results,” Vladimir Putin told a meeting at the Kurchatov Nuclear Research Institute in Moscow.

And, finally, there is this statement:

“Our resources should be concentrated on stimulating the development of new technology,” Putin said during a visit to the Soviet-era Kurchatov nuclear research center. “This could be the key to developing new, modern and effective military systems. Nanotechnology is an activity for which this government will not spare money.”

All this discussion of new weapons systems makes us uneasy, especially in light of previous rhetoric from India’s President Abdul Kalam, in which he asserted that nanotechnology “would revolutionize the total concepts of future warfare.”

In summary, it looks like: A) Russia will spend huge amounts of money over the next several years in an effort to become a world player in nanotech development; B) at least in the early stages, that spending will focus mostly on early-generation nanoscale technologies, and not on molecular manufacturing; and C) this announcement, and the language used in making it, would suggest that an arms race built around nano-enabled weapons is more likely now than it was before.

 


Mike Treder is a former Managing Director of the IEET.
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