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Nanotechnology's Dilemmas

Nanotechnology can learn much from history.

By | December 5, 2005

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© David Luzzi, Univ. of Pennsylvania/Photo Researchers Inc.

Nanotechnology can learn much from history. As the biotechnology industry recently discovered, ignoring public policy and social issues – namely, possible heath and environmental hazards from genetically modified foods – invites a public backlash that crippled progress and sent corporate stocks plummeting. If nanotechnology is billed as the "Next Industrial Revolution",1 then it also must raise a host of important social and ethical questions that we need to consider now.

The following are some of issues in "nanoethics." Many of them are familiar to philosophy and ethics, but considering them in the context of nanotechnology is important and can reveal new insights.

Regulation

Do we have a right to research, or is some too dangerous to publish or conduct, such as a recently published recipe for making the 1918 killer influenza virus?2 Nanotechnology has the potential to be even more destructive, since it gives us the power to precisely manipulate the very building blocks of our world and may even enable such things as self-aware artificial intelligence systems – though that same power can also profoundly help humanity. Strong regulations and compliance monitoring may help mitigate these concerns, but others worry that they bring us closer to a "Big Brother" state.

Environmental and Health

How much safety must we prove in nanomaterials, before introducing them into the marketplace or environment? The precautionary principle seems to require that if the impact of our research is unclear, but catastrophe or other undesirable events are possible, then we should pause to conduct more investigation to avoid these scenarios.3 But how strong is this principle, really? After all, other products, such as mobile phones, are brought to market amid continuing questions about their safety.

Society

How will nanosensors evolve our concept of privacy, particularly if they are ubiquitous (such as "smart dust") and virtually invisible? Does national security justify a tradeoff of our rights? Nanotechnology also promises to enhance our capabilities, but does this threaten the idea of being human? For instance, if some people are enhanced to become smarter or to see in infrared, that may create a "nanodivide" that gives significant advantages to only these people and creates a communication gap, if others cannot have the same basic experiences.

Politics and Markets

How will nanotechnology affect global security and the distribution of power, if it can radically change the face of war and terrorism? Suppose a nondemocratic country develops it first? Will nanotech create a new arms race? In the long term, if nanofactories enable us to make anything we want, what will be the impact on local and global economies? These issues speak to a need for cooperation, regulation, as well as forethought to minimize any political or economic disruption.

Personal

A critical application for nanotechnology will be in medicine, such as repairing cellular damage to reverse or retard aging. But how does a longer lifespan affect Social Security, overpopulation, and retirement? Is living in the shadow of death an essential part of being human? Will we lose our personal identity as we become more integrated with our technologies, when human and machine become one, as the "theory of Singularity" predicts?4

Religious and Moral

Are we "playing God" by developing nanotech, and is that bad? This concept is not as clear as it might seem. If playing God is defined as "unnaturally manipulating nature," that begs the question of what "natural interaction" is – an equally vague concept. Further, in the rush to produce products from nanotechnology innovations, little focus has been put on solving fundamental human challenges, such as alleviating poverty and hunger in developing nations. Don't we have a moral obligation to help others? In the long term, if nanotech makes life too easy, do we lose opportunities for "soul making"?

<p>Patrick Lin</p>

It is too early to tell whether some of these worries will turn out to be merely hype. As the field evolves, the industry will be in a better position to separate fact from fiction, but for the moment, prudence requires that we consider them as real possibilities until shown otherwise. And as just the preceding short list of questions suggests, nanoethics will require the collaboration of scientists and experts across various fields, including artificial intelligence, biology, economics, government, law, medicine, philosophy, and theology.

The urgency for nanoethics is perhaps best highlighted in the first book about nanotechnology, which asks: "Will we develop monster technologies before cage technologies, or after? Some monsters, once loosed, cannot be caged."5 Science will and must continue to move forward, but at the same time, we must be prepared to face what we unleash.

Patrick Lin (patrick@nanoethics.org) is the research director for The Nanoethics Group, a nonpartisan organization based in Santa Barbara, Calif., that studies the ethical and social implications of nanotechnology.

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