November, 2005 - NEWS ARTICLE
"Preparing for Nanotech"
NN: How is The Nanoethics
Group helping to prepare for the likely near-term societal, environmental,
and technological implications of nanotechnology?
As our name implies, we focus on the ethics or moral evaluation of
nanotechnology's possible impacts and applications. Currently, the study of
nanotech's implications is incomplete without an ethics component. For
instance, experts might be able to anticipate a list of possible benefits
and harms from nanotechnology in a given area, but how do we determine
whether the benefits outweigh the harms? Just because something has a
downside or is opposed by a segment of our population doesn't mean we
shouldn't pursue it - every initiative has its costs.
So the questions we'd tackle are foundational to the study of
nanotech's impact and include: How strict is the Precautionary Principle -
should we ban nanotech products until all environmental and public health
issues have been addressed? In the near term and similar to the steroids
debate, should we be permitted to use nanotech to enhance our bodies, as
opposed to heal patients in true need? Richard Branson of Virgin Air plans
to offer commercial space travel by 2008, which could benefit from lighter,
stronger materials and more efficient power sources through nanotechnology -
but what are the ethics of introducing humans to outer space or other
planets, especially given the damage we've already done to our own planet?
Therefore, The Nanoethics Group is filling in a big piece of the puzzle. We
are helping to identify harms and conflicts that may arise from
nanotechnology as well as evaluate possible scenarios in a moral
framework, which has been missing. Common sense, intuition and public
attitudes are important, but as professional ethicists, we can help
articulate the reasons why a certain scenario should be desired or
Industry groups and experts, by the way, have been calling for the study of
nanotechnology's implications, but so far, we haven't really seen any
reports or research that do little more than repeat these calls. It's good
to galvanize people into action, but at some point, you have to do the work
NN: How has the public perception of nanotechnology changed in the past
three years? What issues still concern you regarding public perception? How
can those issues be ameliorated? What is The Nanoethics Group doing along
It seemed that the only people aware of nanotech a few years ago were mainly
scientists and investors interested in productizing that research. Yes, the
public has had a taste of nanotech through pop culture, such as the movie
The Hulk or, the usual example, Michael Crichton's book Prey -
but that's like studying urban crime by watching Batman. It's an
unbalanced or insufficient look at the subject.
Now, nanotech is making its way more into our daily vernacular, but there's
still not enough public education about what nanotech truly means or
implies. The public just has a vague understanding that nanotechnology is
about making really tiny things. Just ask the guys in charge of naming
Apple's new iPod nano, which is a misnomer.
Besides the lack of study in nanoethics, an issue that causes us great
concern is this: there is a lot of good research coming from universities
and other organizations about the societal impact of nanotechnology - but
the supply chain is stuck: these findings are not making their way out of
the ivory tower or industry circles and into the broader public. (Which is
ironic, given that universities exist to educate people.)
There is also still a lack of balance in today's discussions about
nanotechnology's implications. Typically, the most vocal groups are on the
fringes, predicting gloom and doom or calling for full research bans. On the
other side, business groups are ignoring a growing chorus of concern - which
is very dangerous, as the biotech industry has learned - and still feeding
an "irrational exuberance" in a technology we don't yet adequately
All the while, organizations doing much of the heavy lifting in thinking
about these issues - such as Foresight Nanotech Institute and Center for
Responsible Nanotechnology - are not getting the broader attention they
deserve, because much of their efforts are geared towards guiding policy ...
which is a practical and important matter, but this kind of research
typically does not get the public engaged, who has neither the time nor
technical background to jump into such a detailed discussion.
The Nanoethics Group hopes to change that by focusing on educational
initiatives, including partnering with leading universities. Our field is
especially conducive to public participation, because most everyone has some
sense of ethics, and ethics can often be stripped of technical details in
order to focus on the "big picture" or the moral principles behind a
dilemma. We are not activists or industry watchdogs, but rather our
strengths are in research and teaching, from a classroom setting to
literary channels to conferences to other public relations activities. We
also have much business experience to advise companies in nanoethics issues,
which will be important since these research labs and businesses are on the
frontlines of nanotechnology.
NN: If you had the collective ear of world leaders, what would you tell
them regarding strategies to improve the prospects for humanity in the
coming age of advanced nanotechnology? (advanced nanotechnology =
Molecular Manufacturing (MM), or even
Limited Molecular Manufacturing (LMNT) as described by Chris Phoenix of
If we can leave world leaders with one thought, it is to take a step back to
understand the ethical principles that guide human action, or if that's too
much to ask, at least surround yourself with critical thinkers, not
politicians or those with pre-set agendas. (Not just in nanotechnology, but
it would help resolve many other conflicts!) That will give us the best
chance at arriving at sound policy decisions. But this means more than
having strong beliefs - for example, if someone were dogmatically religious
for no reason other than that was their upbringing - but also having an
"examined life", which includes giving opposing viewpoints fair
It's not a coincidence that some of history's best leaders and influencers -
from Marcus Aurelius to Thomas Jefferson to, arguably, Henry Kissinger and
Nelson Mandela - have strong moral convictions that are supported by their
examination or thinking about related philosophical issues (though none of
them was or is perfect). This is what Plato urged in the
"philosopher-king"...a leader who has given critical thought to the issues
that affect the people.
After the spectacular failures and controversies in ethics in recent times,
people are recognizing again the essential role ethics must play in
everything from politics to business to our everyday relationships.
Companies, for example, are hiring chief ethics officers and consultants to
help guide them through the murky waters of privacy concerns and establish
fair practices, since people tend to favor businesses who act responsibly.
Hospitals need ethicists to help with decisions about life and death, which
doctors are not formally trained to do, at least to the extent they should
be. (This is not a criticism of doctors - we want them to focus on
what they do best, the healing arts, and leave non-core matters to others.
Division of labor works.)
NN: In your most optimistic moments, how do you see life in the year
2020? And in your most pessimistic? What do you consider to be the driving
factors in each case?
I believe Ray Kurzweil pointed out that, given the exponential rate of
Moore's law, the difference between now and the next 20 years can be
compared to the relative progress we've made in the entire 20th century. So
look at, for instance, the improvements made in the automotive field from
1900 to 2000. That's the order of progress we supposedly should expect in
the next 20 years.
So if no one in 1900 could reasonably predict or even envision what life
would have been like in 2000, then I'd say that we can't predict life in
2020, if Kurzweil and Moore are right. Even more recently, if we went back
to 1990, I don't think we could imagine the new industries enabled by
technology or the Internet life we have now in 2005.
Of course, some scientists we've spoken to believe that Moore's Law will
hold for only 10-20 more years, because the engineering improvements needed
to continue that rate of progress is about to hit a wall. We can only
miniaturize computer processors so far without solving major hurdles in
taking the tremendous heat they will generate out of the systems as well as
in providing the power source required. And because nanotechnology adds
complexity to engineering, we have to start over again in a sense - taking
many steps back before we can move past where we even are today. So maybe
life won't change that much in 15 years, but I guess we won't really know
until we get there.
Optimistically, I hope that nanotechnology will be rapidly deployed to give
us safe products that actually improve lives and solve real problems, such
as giving Third-World countries access to clean water, reliable energy or
more food. Of course, we can already do much of that today, but we don't
because it is still very expensive. Companies and governments don't see the
return-on-investment in helping others. So a key driver of this will be
whether these nanotech solutions are simple and cheap enough to distribute
where needed, even though there's not much profit in it, at least in the
Pessimistically, attitudes and beliefs don't change as rapidly as
technology, which is why many keep saying that ethics is always lagging.
Rather, ethics tends to have a slow and steady evolution and then spikes of
revolution. The beliefs we take to be obviously true today - for example,
that we should respect people of all colors, sex, religion, and so on - took
much blood, sweat and tears over the last century alone to establish (and
we're still not done!). People might be hardwired to be self-interested, and
we know that it is possible to have "enlightened self-interest", but it
takes much work.
A key driver of this is will be whether we can engage people in a broad
dialogue about how we want our future to be - to actually plan ahead. We
have a rare opportunity to control much of our own destiny now, with
emerging technologies as our tools. And this effort needs to involve serious
ethical study and reflection up front, not as an afterthought or a reaction
to an undesired event. By then, it may be too late.