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Home > Nanotechnology Columns > Nanoethics > Why the Future Needs Nanoethics

Patrick Lin
Ethics + Emerging Sciences Group

From the introductory chapter of the new anthology "Nanoethics: The Ethical and Social Implications of Nanotechnology" (Wiley, August 2007), this excerpt talks about why we need to investigate the possible impacts of technology in general and nanotechnology in particular.

August 3rd, 2007

Why the Future Needs Nanoethics

By Patrick Lin, PhD, and Fritz Allhoff, PhD.

Nanoethics, or the study of nanotechnology's ethical and social implications, is an emerging but controversial field. Outside of the industry and academia, most people are first introduced to nanotechnology through fictional works that posit scenarios - which scientists largely reject - of self-replicating "nanobots" running amok like a pandemic virus. In the mainstream media, we are beginning to hear more reports about the risks nanotechnology poses on the environment, health and safety, with conflicting reports from within the industry.

Anthology cover: Nanoethics

But within the nanotechnology industry, there is a strange schizophrenia afoot. We have heard about the wonderful things that nanotechnology might enable - not just today's mundane products, such as better sports equipment or cosmetics, but the truly fantastic applications. Our imagination seems to be our only limit, as scientists and other experts predict such innovations as: toxin-eating nanobots; exoskeletons that enable us to leap walls in a single bound; affordable space travel for everyone; nanofactories that can make anything we want; and even near-immortality.

Yet nearly in the same breath, many advocates continue to deny or to ignore that nanotechnology will cause any significant disruptions or raise any serious ethical questions that we have to worry about - dismissively labeling these as "hype." But how is this possible? How can such a brave new science, one that is so full of potential that it has been called the "Next Industrial Revolution" by governments and scientists, not also impact our relationships, society, environment, economy, or even global politics in profound ways?

Let's take a step back and consider any given technology we have created: gunpowder, the printing press, the camera, the automobile, nuclear power, the computer, Prozac, Viagra, the mobile phone, the Internet. Undoubtedly, these have brought us much good, but each has also changed society in important, fundamental ways and caused new problems, such as increased pollution, urban sprawl, cyber-crimes, privacy concerns, intellectual property concerns, drug dependencies, new cases of sexually-transmitted diseases, other unintended health problems, mutually-assured destruction and much more. The point here is not that we would have been better off without these inventions. Rather, we should come to terms that our creations can have unintended or unforeseen consequences.

Many of the social problems associated with the aforementioned technologies might have been anticipated and mitigated with some forethought. This is a lesson not lost on policymakers and scientists today, for instance, in having spent millions of dollars to study the ethical implications of decoding the human genome, such as privacy and genetic discrimination concerns. The same lesson, however, apparently was lost on the commercial biotechnology industry, which recently discovered that by ignoring its ethical and social issues - specifically, the possible harm from genetically-modified foods on human health and the environment - they invited a public backlash that crippled progress and sent corporate stocks plummeting.

To be sure, no one expects ethicists, scientists, policymakers and other experts to anticipate and address all possible scenarios. It is a plain fact of the human condition that we do not and cannot know everything. We do not fault Thomas Edison, for instance, for the copyright-violating devices that his phonograph would inspire, or Henry Ford for the agonizing commutes we endure daily, or Bill Gates for the email "spam" we receive.

And when we try to make predictions about technology, we are often wrong. Consider the following infamous predictions: "This ‘telephone' has too many shortcomings to be seriously considered as a means of communication. The device is inherently of no value to us" (Western Union, 1876); "Who the hell wants to hear actors talk?" (H. M. Warner, Warner Brothers, 1927); "I think there is a world market for maybe five computers" (Thomas Watson, chairman of IBM, 1943); "With over 50 foreign cars already on sale here, the Japanese auto industry isn't likely to carve out a big slice of the U.S. market" (BusinessWeek, August 2, 1968); and "There is no reason anyone would want a computer in their home" (Ken Olson, founder of Digital Equipment Corp., 1977).

Clearly, it is easy to be too conservative or short-sighted in estimating the future impact of technology. The dangers associated with technology can likewise be underestimated, for instance, as was the case with asbestos, lead paint and the pesticide DDT. But this is not just a failing of our distant past. In 2006 alone, a study has suggested that mobile phones, after all our years of using them, can cause brain tumors and infertility. Another study showed that computer manufacturing workers, after decades on the job, are at a much greater risk of death from cancer and other illnesses. In the same year, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency concluded that a key chemical (PFOA) used to make Teflon - the ubiquitous material used for the last 50 years in non-stick cookware, carpeting, clothing, food packaging and thousands of other products, and traces of which can be found in the blood of nearly everyone in the US and other developed nations - is a carcinogen.

At the other end of the spectrum, some predictions also overestimate the role of technology, as was the case with robotic maids, flying cars, meal-in-a-pill, and the death of privacy, for instance. So it is no surprise that the impact of nanotechnology should be both understated and overhyped, and in either case, we can trust that it will have consequences that we have not even considered or imagined. However, not being certain about the future does not relieve us of any moral obligation to investigate the issues we can anticipate as being reasonable possibilities or relevant. From the rapid pace of new technologies entering our lives, we can now appreciate that such technologies will have societal implications, for better or worse. Learning from history, we also now understand that we have a responsibility to consider these scenarios in advance to mitigate any harms, if not also to maximize benefits.

Discourse into the ethical and social dimensions of nanotechnology - so-called "nanoethics" - is therefore critical to guide the development of nanotechnology.


The above is excerpted from the introductory paper - "What is Nanotechnology and Nanoethics?" - of our new anthology "Nanoethics: The Ethical and Social Implications of Nanotechnology" (Wiley, August 2007). With papers from nearly 40 respected experts worldwide, the anthology is the first to address a full range of issues facing nanotechnology, such as related to: benefits, risk, environment, health, human enhancement, privacy, military, democracy, education, humanitarianism, molecular manufacturing, space exploration, artificial intelligence, life extension, and more.

For more information, including a full table of contents and list of contributors - which include such notables as Mihail Roco, Ray Kurzweil, Bill Joy, Christine Peterson, Richard A.L. Jones, Joachim Schummer, and many others - please visit .

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