Ethics for a Very Small World
Nanotechnology, Vol. 14, No. 3, March 2003, Bristol When most people think of technology run amok, visions of computers taking over the world or genetically modified plants cross-pollinating to create superweeds might come to mind. Nanotechnology, however, might not. Nanotechnology is a field devoted to the design and manufacture of tiny machines, which could be ...
Nanotechnology, Vol. 14, No. 3, March 2003, Bristol
Nanotechnology, Vol. 14, No. 3, March 2003, Bristol
When most people think of technology run amok, visions of computers taking over the world or genetically modified plants cross-pollinating to create superweeds might come to mind. Nanotechnology, however, might not.
Nanotechnology is a field devoted to the design and manufacture of tiny machines, which could be as small as a few molecules and are created out of both organic and inorganic matter. The promise of these nanomachines is staggering: Injected into the human body, they could repair organs and fight disease. Sent into outer space, under water, or into other environments, they could mine valuable resources or clean up pollution. Applied to information technology, they might empower mobile phones or wrist watches to tackle problems once the preserve of supercomputers. Already, products from sunblock to computer displays contain nanoscale materials. In 2004, technology giant Hewlett-Packard will have prototypes of a computer memory device that uses nanoelectronic parts to store thousands of times more data than can the conventional electronic memory now used in computers. And the U.S. House of Representatives recently approved more than $2.3 billion for further nanotech research and development.
The trouble, of course, is that these machines might go awry. Like Frankenstein’s monster, they might display a "mind of their own," to draw on a frequent motif of science fiction and Hollywood. Nanomachines might wreak havoc on our bodies and environment. Terrorists might even harness this technology to nefarious ends. Thus, the argument against these invisible gremlins, like the one some activists make against genetically modified foods, is simple: Why mess with them?
It is precisely because the neo-Luddite argument seems so sensible that scientists in the nanotech community have taken the offensive, presenting probing analyses of the risk-reward ratio of innovation in small machines. One example is "Mind the Gap: Science and Ethics in Nanotechnology," an article published in a recent issue of Nanotechnology, a leading and well-respected monthly journal in the field. The authors, Anisa Mnyusiwalla, Abdallah S. Daar, and Peter A. Singer, are a trio of medical professors and specialists in bioethics at the University of Toronto. They cite a Nobel laureate in chemistry, who believes that nanotechnology will have "at least" as great an impact as the computer on humanity, to bolster their claim that a growing backlash against the technology is a cause for worry. The authors fear that a terrified public might back a halt to nanotech research, thus robbing future generations of great benefits.
The authors acknowledge that their case is not helped by the hype associated with nanotechnology, whose boosters even admit to the existence of a "cult of futurists who foresee [nanotechnology] as a pathway to a technological utopia." When claims about a future innovation are so grand, the authors rightly worry, the backlash can be exaggerated, too. They are troubled, moreover, that "while the number of publications on [nanotechnology]… has increased dramatically in recent years, there is very little concomitant increase in publications on the subject of ethical and social implications" of the emerging field.
Mnyusiwalla, Daar, and Singer outline four reasons for funding more social and ethical studies of nanotechnology (skipping over the ethical conflict of writing what seems like an extended advertisement for their consulting services). In brief, the reasons are the possibility that the rich will benefit more from nanotechnology than the poor; the promise of revolutionary benefits to surveillance technologies from nanotechnology, which might bring about "near-invisible microphones, cameras and tracking devices"; the potential for nanomachines to create an asbestos-type environmental hazard; and the likelihood that nanomachines, once injected into the human body (for therapeutic purposes), will be "met with great skepticism by much of society."
The authors convincingly demonstrate that there is a lack of ethical and social analysis accompanying the nanotech movement. But they ultimately don’t shed light on how much the world should be concerned about nanotechnology’s potential to do harm. That not-so-small mystery is left for readers to resolve on their own.
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