Emerging science compared to splitting the atom: holds potential for great
good but also requires advance study of horrific consequences
SANTA BARBARA, CA –
October 3, 2005 –The Nanoethics Group today officially launched as a non-partisan think tank
to study the societal, ethical and policy implications of nanotechnology –
or the manipulation of molecule-sized materials to create new products.
Driven by public anxiety and a lack of information in this area, the
research group will tackle a broad range of unanswered and troubling
questions about the new science, from terrorism to health concerns and more.
Scientists predict that the new science will profoundly affect modern life,
much as the Industrial Revolution has. Nanotechnology is an entirely new way
to think about manufacturing – such as building things from the ground up,
one atom at a time – and is expected to give us such products as digital
monitors that are as flexible as plastic wrap, and in the distant future,
even steak without the cow. However, as business and investors rush to
capitalize on the trend, few have paused to think about the implications of
the brave new science.
“If we had given foresight to how the invention or discovery of electricity,
factories, automobiles, nuclear power and the Internet might affect people
and society, we might have done a much better job in managing their negative
consequences – such as economic disruption, urban sprawl, pollution, nuclear
arms race and high-tech crimes,” explained Patrick Lin, Ph.D., research
director for The Nanoethics Group. “Today, we find ourselves in a unique
position to learn from our past, and we now understand the critical need to
make predictions about nanotechnology’s future in order to guard against
possible catastrophes in advance.”
Industry groups and the broader public have been calling for such a study,
with the media picking up on this building crescendo. In the past few weeks, a
study entitled “Informed Public Perceptions of Nanotechnology and Trust in
Government” by Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars found that
approximately 40% of concerns expressed by survey participants focused on
three key areas: true unknowns, regulation and human health risks. Other
concerns identified include: environmental effects, privacy, military uses,
“playing God”, social upheaval and more.
The Nanoethics Group will address important issues such as these and help
educate the public which is still largely unfamiliar with the new
science and how it might affect their lives for better or worse. Some of
the scenarios to be explored include:
o Terrorism. Radical groups can use nanotech as new,
unimaginable forms of torture, such as disassembling a person at the
molecular level or worse. How do we prevent this abuse, if we can at all?
o Privacy. As products shrink in size, eavesdropping devices
too can become invisible to the naked eye, more mobile and even implantable
in our bodies without our knowledge. What are the privacy issues at stake?
o Health. Artificial red blood cells might continue to deliver
oxygen in the event of a heart attack. In an athlete, it would boost
performance. Like steroids, should we regulate nanotech if used for human
enhancement versus healing purposes?
Unlike other organizations in the field, The Nanoethics Group is led by
professional ethicists with qualifications in both nanotechnology and
communications. Co-founder Fritz Allhoff, Ph.D., is a professor at Western
Michigan University and was recently a senior research fellow at the
American Medical Association’s Institute of Ethics, and Patrick Lin, Ph.D.,
will also be a post-doctoral associate at Dartmouth College, under a
submitted National Science Foundation research grant.
Even before its official launch today, the research team has already been
working quietly for a couple years, including on a number of active projects
such as: the Center for Responsible Nanotechnology's task force to
develop comprehensive policy recommendations for the safe use of molecular
manufacturing, and other work with
distinguished experts, such as James Moor, Ph.D., chairman of Dartmouth
College's philosophy department, and John Weckert, Ph.D., of Australian
National University and Charles Sturt University.
Dr. Lin continued, “In addition to turning a much-needed spotlight on
nanotechnology and its impact on society, we hope to strike a balance
between business executives and others who are trying to brush aside ethical
concerns and the other extreme of alarmists who predict gloom and doom. We
think the truth is somewhere in the middle.”
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