Note: Not all of the
articles summarized here are "about" ethics, but they are all at least
relevant to a broad understanding of ethical issues in NT.
Nanotechnology Will Work." (From www.howstuffworks.com).
At some point in the near future, nanomachines will produce consumer
goods, rather than the bulky machines that are used today. NT works “…by
piecing together one atom or molecule at a time…” For nanotechnology
(NT) to work, small devices called assemblers must be created in order to
combine atoms that will produce consumer goods. Replicators will also have
to be made to produce enough assemblers that will be required to create
Of the many positive features of NT, nanomachines will
produce: stronger products than those produced by traditional methods;
food and water will be able to be replicated, thus, eliminating hunger
worldwide; computers could become dramatically more powerful without any
increase in size; nanosurgeons could undertake delicate operations much
more precise than current surgery is able to; and nanorobots could be used
to alter one’s physical features such as ears, nose, eye
Nanotechnology could also have many positive effects on
the environment, including: reconstruction of the ozone layer; quickly
cleaning up oil spills; purifying water; and eliminating the use of
non-renewable resources (which could be made by nanomachines).
"Nano Litterbugs? Experts See Potential Pollution Problems."
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has begun research into the
possible negative impacts associated with NT. Even as some products using
NT have begun to be widely distributed, the environmental impact is still
A concern for Vicki Colvin, who is director of The Center for Biological
and Environmental Nanotechnology, is that no research is being conducted
into how to control nanomaterial if it was discovered to be harmful to
humans or the environment.
Based on preliminary research on animals, it is known that nanomaterials
do accumulate within the body. Also, nanomaterials can be overtaken by
bacteria, which could mean nanomaterials could infiltrate the food chain.
Bacteria enhanced by nanomaterials could produce more potent bacteria.
While NT promises to have numerous benefits for society, many of the
potential risks remain uninvestigated.
"Why the future
doesn’t need us." (In Wired magazine.
Joy’s concern over NT is amplified, due to the fact
that engineered organisms can self-replicate. Such replication could lead
to situations where things could quickly get out of hand. “A bomb is blown
up only once – but one bot can become many, and quickly get out of
control.” An additional worry for Joy is, unlike weapons of mass
destruction (WMD) – which require hard-to-get materials and highly
specialized knowledge – genetics, nanotechnology, and robotics (GNR) are
available to a wide range of people, thus making them all the more
dangerous. While WMD are strictly controlled by the military, GNR’s are
corporate sponsored. Such a wide dispersion of NT increases the risk. Joy
emphasizes prudence in our development of NT, because if we proceed too
quickly, we could cause our own extinction. After all, we are still unable
to control the spread of viruses and other undesirable components of life.
Joy draws a parallel between NT and the atomic bomb.
The creation of the atomic bomb led to the development of an arms race
that lasted nearly half a century and had many detrimental effects. Atomic
and nuclear weapons have the ability to destroy the world many times over,
as does NT. We should not repeat the same mistakes with NT that we did
“The only realistic alternative I see is
relinquishment: to limit development of the technologies that are too
dangerous, by limiting our pursuit of certain kinds of knowledge.”
Limiting access to critical information involving NT must be enforced
because it contains such a destructive force to humanity (e.g.
exterminating the entire race). People will inevitably object to the
infringement on their right to privacy and pursuit of intellectual
property, but this is a necessary step if we are to avoid the dangers NT
poses. Additionally, scientists will have to comply with strict ethical
codes to ensure compliance with relinquishment rules.
While humanity’s dream of immortality will likely
continue forever, certain limits to the means creating this end must be
imposed due to the inherent danger.
Mehta, Michael D.
"On Nano-Panopticism: A Sociological Perspective."
This article deals with
privacy issues associated with surveillance, and how surveillance will be
changed with the development of NT.
It has been
scientifically documented that observation of a subject
will change the regular behaviour of that subject. For
example, prisoners who are held in prison cells that are in open view of a
prison guard behave better than those prisoners who are afforded more
privacy. Therefore, if this concept is applied to society as a whole, one
can see the ramifications increased surveillance might have on public
behaviour. Increased surveillance with the use of NT may have many
damaging effects that may express themselves through a decrease in public
trust, less involvement in public life, and may result ultimately in an
several suggestions on how to deal with the dangers related to
nano-panopticism. They are: develop an independent agency to monitor and
regulate progress in NT; introduce tough laws to ensure that privacy is
protected; a review of a corporation’s code of conducts to ensure nano-panopticism does not become a problem; public consultation of the
appropriate uses of NT; and finally, increase the awareness of scientists
so that they are better able to understand the impact new technologies
have on society.
Abdallah S. Daar, & Peter A. Singer
the gap’: science and ethics in nanotechnology." (From
Nanotechnology, February 13, 2003).
As NT quickly develops, the
ethical evaluation of such a development has yet to begin. Research into
NT’s impact on ethical, environmental, economic, legal, and social
implications (NE³LS) must try to keep pace with the technological progress
that has been made. Otherwise, the technological progress will slow down.
K. Eric Drexler, author of
Engines of Creation, and currently working for the Foresight
Institute, has begun to develop guidelines for the use of NT, particularly
concerning self-replication, but also issues such as wealth distribution
and environmental protection.
While there is a call for
increased research into the effects of NT on society, the environment,
etc, and furthermore, that the funds for such research are available, very
little research has been done. For example, The National Nanotechnology
Initiative (NNI) spent less than half of its budget on studying the
impacts NT will have on society. In addition, the National Science
Foundation (NSF) did not fund any research into the societal implications
of NT due to lack of research grant proposals.
issues associated with NT fall into a variety of categories including:
1). Equity: NT does not stand to
help developed countries only, but also (and perhaps mainly) developing
countries. For example, third world countries suffer most from things that
can be improved upon from advancements made in NT. For instance, providing
cleaner water, developing cheaper energy, and also the enormous health
benefits to be reaped from NT are all aspects of NT that could have a
dramatic impact on third world countries.
2). Privacy and security: While
NT could dramatically improve surveillance systems and would undoubtedly
have numerous military applications, some are left wondering how personal
privacy would be affected. Questions concerning the regulation of this new
technology are arising without many answers being offered.
3). Environment: The effects of
NT materials on the environment are unknown. The EPA has increased funding
to study the effects of NT on the environment.
4). Human or machine? How far are
humans willing to go with replacement of human parts with replacement
Earlier lessons from genomics and
A percentage of the research and development funds
should go to study the societal impacts of NT. In the Human Genome
Project, 3-5% of the total budget was dedicated to studying the
Large-scale interdisciplinary research platforms should
The capacity for research should be increased. This
would include research grants, career awards, increased funding, etc.
There should be a cross-section of groups working on the
implications of NT in order to have a variety of views expressed.
A global opinion-leaders network for social and ethical
implications ought to be established so that third world countries may
Public engagement is crucial if NT is to have the impact
it potentially holds. The public needs to have accurate information
concerning the social and ethical implications of NT. Science museums
could include exhibits on NT; as well, schools could discuss the issue
Moor, James & John
"Nanoethics: Assessing the Nanoscale from an Ethical Point of View."
Weckert and Moor argue that
nanoethics cannot develop fully or effectively until the technology
develops further and its consequences become known. Weckert and Moor do
acknowledge the potentially enormous impact NT will have on society, but
are hesitant to develop strategies to deal with problems that do not yet
exist. They recommend continued monitoring of NT.
"DNA nanoballs boost
gene therapy." (In New Scientist, May, 2002).
NT is now beginning to
enhance older technologies used to treat patients with cystic fibrosis.
Nanoparticles made up of a single DNA molecule are much smaller, and
therefore much better able to reach the nucleus of a cell, than were
previous methods involving modified viruses. NT shows promising signs of
contributing to the advancement of the cure for cystic fibrosis.
Phoenix, Chris & Mike
"Applying the Precautionary Principle to Nanotechnology." (From
The Center for Responsible
Nanotechnology, January, 2003).
There are two forms of the
precautionary principle: (1) the strict form; and (2) the active form.
Strict form: “…requires inaction
when action might pose a risk.”
Active form: “…calls for choosing
less risky alternatives when they are available, and for taking
responsibility for potential risks.”
One shortcoming of the
strict form of the Precautionary Principle is that most actions carry some
sort of risk. If we follow the strict form, much of the scientific
research currently underway would have to be halted. Second, sometimes
inaction can be more harmful than action. Sometimes the benefits to be
gained by scientific research outweigh the minimal risks involved.
The Center for Responsible
Nanotechnology (CRN) believes that a total ban on development of NT would
not be practical; enforcement of such a ban would be nearly impossible.
Not only is such a ban not practical, it may not be desired. There are
many benefits that could be brought about by NT, including increased
health, less environmental damage, cheap and efficient production of
goods, etc. These factors must be considered when determining the fate of
believes that the strict form of the Precautionary Principle is inadequate
for dealing with NT. This is so because inaction carries with it certain
other solution may be found for certain pressing problems.
Inaction on the part of responsible people could simply lead to the
development and use of MNT by less responsible people.
of understanding of the technology will leave the world ill-equipped to
deal with irresponsible use.
The CRN does,
however, believe that the active form of the
Principle is adequate in dealing with
research into NT. Because the active form seeks to develop the least risky
solution to existing problems, this is more desirable than the strict
The final recommendation of
the CRN is to create “…one–and only one–molecular nanotechnology
program, [which would permit] the widespread but restricted use of the
resulting manufacturing capability.
Phoenix, Chris & Mike
Treder “Safe Utilization of
Advanced Nanotechnology.” (From The
Center for Responsible Nanotechnology, January, 2003).
many risks associated with NT. For instance, Drexler’s “gray goo”
problem–where self-replicating nanoassemblers multiply out of control; NT
falling into the hands of rogue states; and decreased privacy due to the
sizing-down of surveillance equipment, to name a few. Given these risks,
it would appear that some regulation of NT is in order. If NT is regulated
too strictly this could lead to the development of a black market where
irresponsible users could do a great deal of damage. Phoenix and Treder
propose a two-dimensional approach to the restriction of NT which will
reduce risks associated with NT, yet allow the technology to further
products that use NT do not necessarily pose any extraordinary risks, they
are simply products that have been enhanced in some way by the use of NT;
they will not be able to self-replicate whatsoever. However, the factories
used to produce NT products could quite easily be very dangerous. NT
factories, if controlled by the wrong people, could hold great danger for
humankind with the potential to develop destructive weapons much greater
than are available today. Phoenix and Treder stress that “…research
leading to advanced nanotechnology will have to be carefully monitored and
controlled. However, the same is not true of product research and
factories are to be safe, certain precautions must be taken. First,
assemblers need not ever leave the factory, they can easily be fastened to
the factory to avoid them escaping into the environment and getting out of
control. Second, factories can be programmed to produce only specified
products that are known to be safe. Third, one could go so far as to build
in a tracking device to ensure that NT products were being used safely and
for their intended purpose. Furthermore, nanofactories could be made
tamper-proof so that they could shut down if attempt at alteration was
made. Finally, a nanofactory could be connected to a central controller
which would then determine if the desired product was safe. If the central
controller determined the product to be unsafe, the controller could
disable the factory. Additional advantages of this scenario would be that
the controller could automatically provide updates to the nanofactories
and also relay the location of the factory.
"Measuring the Risks of Nanotechnology."
(In Technology Review, April, 2003).
Vicki Colvin, Director of
The Center for Biological and Environmental Nanotechnology at Rice
University, states that the possible dangers associated with NT are
largely unknown at this point. Despite the fact that nanomaterials have
been put to use in products such as sunscreen, the potential risks of
these materials is unknown. It is believed that some nanoparticles can be
transmitted from the blood stream to brain material. Colvin believes that
the benefits of NT–especially its medical applications–far outweigh any
risks that have been hypothesized.
Groups such as
Greenpeace have begun to investigate NT for any risks it may pose.
"Handle Nano-Technology with Care,"
(In African Business. March, 2003). [not available on-line]
The action group on Erosion,
Technology and Concentration (ETC) is worried that developments in NT are
going unnoticed both by the public and government regulatory agencies.
This is of great concern given that NT will have such a profound impact on
society. One problem with regulating NT is that it has such a wide variety
of applications and is therefore difficult to control under one regulatory
agency. Furthermore, because many of the products that have incorporated
NT merely use the same compounds that were previously used but on a lower
scale, many people do not recognize any associated risks whatsoever. ETC
is calling for a worldwide evaluation of the potential impacts of NT, and
until such a process has begun, production of nanomaterials ought to cease.