Peril and Promise: Emerging Technologies and WMD

By Natasha Bajema and Diane DiEuliis


Emerging technologies are transforming life, industry, and the global economy in positive ways, but they also have significant potential for subversion by states and nonstate actors. National security experts, lawmakers, and policymakers have become increasingly concerned about the interactions among a number of emerging technologies that could alter and increase the threats from weapons of mass destruction (WMD). Many emerging technologies have an indirect impact on the WMD space, but only a handful are likely to have direct enabling effects for state and nonstate actors seeking WMD. Such technologies are expected to have serious effects on both the nature of the WMD challenges faced by policymakers and options for countering WMD. Emerging technologies may create new WMD development pathways and/or enhance access to existing ones, leading to increased capabilities of state and nonstate actors to develop and use WMD. Moreover, these technologies might one day lead to a meaningful paradigm shift in how policymakers define WMD, view the threat of WMD, and counter WMD in the future. To assess the impact of various emerging technologies, it is important to understand how they may be game-changers for state and nonstate actors actively seeking to develop WMD and for policymakers attempting to prevent the proliferation and the use of WMD. Policymakers with responsibilities for countering WMD need answers to the following questions:

  • What are the national security risks posed by emerging technologies? What are their enabling effects for the WMD space?
  • What new opportunities or solutions do these emerging technologies offer to national security problems and/or the challenge of countering WMD?
  • How will these emerging technologies impact traditional tools and approaches for countering WMD? What new types of governance do we need to mitigate the risks?

In its multi-year study entitled Emergence and Convergence led by Dr. Natasha Bajema and Dr. Diane DiEuliis, the WMD Center will explore the risks, opportunities, and governance challenges for countering WMD introduced by a diverse range of emerging technologies. On 13–14 October 2016, the WMD hosted a workshop at the National Defense University to explore the risks, opportunities, and governance challenges for the WMD space caused by emerging technologies—in particular, additive manufacturing, advanced robotics, nanotechnology, nuclear technology, and synthetic biology. About 100 participants from government, academia, industry, and the nonprofit sector took part in the workshop over the 2 days. This report provides a summary of the proceedings followed by a more in-depth treatment of the discussion for each technology group.