Be More Than You Can Be


Cambridge, Massachusetts— A dozen scientists and one reporter peer into a jungle setting, stalking two mannequins in camouflage. The lights go out, making the task more difficult as they struggle to pass around two pairs of night-vision goggles. Imagine being a soldier in this darkness, fumbling for your goggles to find some hidden enemy. Wouldn’t it be easier if you didn’t need them, if your eyes had been injected with tiny machines that link to optic nerves so you could see in the infrared?

It sounds like the biomechanical Borg in Star Trek.But army recruits of 2025 can expect such implants–and more–as scientists learn to manipulate atoms and assemble molecules, an area of research known as nanotechnology. The commander of the future will be able to track his troops, using implanted chips that monitor their location and physical condition. Soldiers will wear “smart uniforms” that respond to environmental changes and protect them from incoming fire. Their bodies will be “enhanced” for endurance, thanks to microscopic nanorobots in their muscles. War games that use man/machine integration are already being played.

“Today we strap on night-vision devices,” Admiral David Jeremiah, a former member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, announced in 1995, “but by 2025 we almost certainly will implant enhancements in the human body to deal with biological warfare, to enhance visibility [and] increase strength of the soldier.”

To shape this future (and perhaps to compete in a field dominated by the navy), the army invited over 200 scientists from government, industry, and academia to attend a three-day conference on “Nanotechnology for the Soldier System” in Cambridge, Massachusetts, last week. The bright-eyed organizers of the conference were from Soldier Systems Command (SSCOM), whose task is to feed, clothe, and protect men and women in uniform. “Most people like us because we aren’t killing people,” explains Richard Walunas, SSCOM’s head of strategic communications.

But in his keynote speech, Colonel Richard Ross told a different story: “Using technology to our advantage, our soldiers are becoming more lethal, more survivable, and more mobile than ever before.” In fact, SSCOM considers the soldier to be a complete weapons platform. “The individual soldier of 2025,” Ross said, “will be as effective as a tank of 1995.”

Most conference participants were unwilling to speculate about inserting molecular machines into men, but Philip Brandler, director of the army’s Natick Research, Development, and Engineering Center, is anything but shy about the prospect. “In general, our intentions and plans have not explored the issue of invasive procedures,” he says, not because we reject it, but because of the difficulty of introducing it. But if the medical community can get it through the FDA, then we’ll embrace it.”

Brandler is quick to add that today’s armed forces are sensitive to the health and safety of their troops. This is not, Brandler assures, the same military that conducted radiation experiments on prisoners, hospital patients, and soldiers during the development of the atomic bomb. “Only once it appears to be acceptable to you,” Brandler says, “we will ask it of your sons and daughters who have chosen to wear the uniform.”

So far, the applications of nanotechnology have been positive: ink-jet printers, flavor enhancers, lubricants, and photo development processes have all been improved by it. And, with the advent of the nanocomputer, much more becomes possible, as scientists envision shrinking processors to the size of one-tenth of a grain of sand. The implications for medicine are enormous: from cancer treatments to organ replacements and anti-aging therapies, people will be healthier and live longer.

But the military regards this incredible technology as a way to maintain its supremacy on the battlefield. With a martial nonchalance, presenters at the conference predicted that, within 10 years, the army will use “biochips” to keep track of supplies and personnel. Within 20, nanorobots in the body could act as artificial blood cells to protect against biological and chemical warfare, while smart bullets could find their way to targets with perfect precision.

The idea behind nanotechnology is that molecules can work like machines to grab other molecules and press them together until they bond. When scientists reach the point where these machines can replicate, nanotechnology becomes a powerful manufacturing tool that could produce everything from a potato to a diamond space shuttle, all at a remarkably low cost. While this could end fighting over resources, it might also enable nations–and even small groups–to make weapons that would be undetectable yet highly destructive.

Enter the Foresight Insitute, founded by nanoguru Eric Drexler in 1986 to help guide the application of this science. Out in Palo Alto, Christine Peterson, Drexler’s wife and the institute’s executive director, was happy to share her thoughts on the future of nanotech. “As a child of Vietnam, I was told the military were terrible people,” Peterson says. “But so far I’ve been pleasantly surprised. The reaction is not, ‘Oh, we’ve got to be first.’ ” But at the conference, researchers kept using phrases like “owning the battlefield,” and one slide proclaimed the goal of this gathering: helping the military “own the Nanoworld.”

The Foresight Institute’s worst-case scenario is for nanotechnology to be developed in some military “black” program–one with no accountability. At this early stage in development, there is little risk of that happening. Nanotechnology remains in the military’s “6.1” category, meaning it is basic research whose findings are published. But as a science matures and moves up the system towards 6.4, “advanced development,” research tends to get classified. Perhaps the greatest impediment to secrecy is the need to share information–if only to keep an edge.

Part of that edge will come from the private sector, whose participation is ensured by the Technology Transfer Act, which encourages partnerships between the military and industry. Since army strategists predict that future battles will occur in urban terrains, their research is relevant to civilian law enforcement, and SSCOM works with agencies like the San Francisco Police Department and the FBI. Nano-technology will boost surveillance to an unimaginable degree. One expert from the conference asserted that terabit computers will allow police to track virtually everyone as they move through their daily lives. Welcome to The Truman Show.

In the conference’s final day, one participant asks a taboo question: With the capabilities of nanotechnology, has anyone considered how it will destabilize the world? The room is silent. A few people sneer. After a minute, someone else raises his hand to ask a question, totally unrelated. The conference moves on. No one has even tried to give an answer.