December 5, 2005 - RESEARCH
(2005): Vol. 19, Issue 23: 10
Now is the time to wrestle with the ethics of this Pandora's Box
By Patrick Lin
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.
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.
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.
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
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 (email@example.com)
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.
Nanotechnology Initiative: Leading to the Next Industrial Revolution,
National Science and Technology Council's Committee on Technology
2. E Ghedin et al,
"Large-scale sequencing of human influenza reveals the dynamic nature
of viral genome evolution," Nature 437: 1162-6. Oct 20, 2005.
3. D Appell "The new
uncertainty principle," Sci Am 2001.
4. JJ Bell "Exploring
the 'Singularity,"' The Futurist 2003, 37: 18-23.
5. KE Drexler Engines
of Creation: The Coming Era of Nanotechnology, New York: Anchor Books