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The Ethics of Nanotechnology

Last Update: February 7th, 2007

What kind of world do we wish to inhabit and leave for following generations? Our planet is in trouble if current trends continue into the future: environmental degradation, extinction of species, rampant diseases, chronic warfare, poverty, starvation and social injustice.

Are suffering and despair humanity's fate? Not necessarily. We have within our grasp the technology to help bring about great progress in elevating humanity. Or we can use our evolving knowledge for destructive ends. We are already immersed in fiery debates on genetic engineering, cloning, nuclear physics and the science of warfare. Nanotechnology, with its staggering implications, will create a whole new set of ethical quandaries. A strong set of operating principles is needed -- standards by which we can guide ourselves to a healthier destiny.

Excellent work on nanotechnology ethics, including technical standards and policies, has been compiled by the Foresight Institute, and we encourage everyone working in this field to support their work. See also the The Center for Responsible Nanotechnology (CRN), a non-profit organization, formed to advance the safe use of molecular nanotechnology; and The Nanoethics Group a non-partisan and independent organization focused generally on the ethical and social implications of nanotechnology.

The following are some ethical guidelines gleaned from both Foresight and our own philosophy and experience in this field:

* Nanotechnology's highest and best use should be to create a world of abundance where no one is lacking for their basic needs. Those needs include adequate food, safe water, a clean environment, housing, medical care, education, public safety, fair labor, unrestricted travel, artistic expression and freedom from fear and oppression.

* High priority must be given to the efficient and economical global distribution of the products and services created by nanotechnology. We recognize the need for reasonable return on investment, but we must also recognize that our planet is small and we all depend upon each other for safety, stability, even survival.

* Military research and applications of nanotechnology must be limited to defense and security systems, and not for political purposes or aggression. And any government-funded research that generates useful non-military technological advances must be made available to the public.

* Scientists developing and experimenting with nanotechnology must have a solid grounding in ecology and public safety, or have someone on their team who does. Scientists and their organizations must also be held accountable for the willful, fraudulent or irresponsible misuse of the science.

* All published research and discussion of nanotechnology should be accurate as possible, adhere to the scientific method, and give due credit to sources. Labeling of products should be clear and accurate, and promotion of services, including consulting, should disclose any conflicts of interest.

* Published debates over nanotechnology, including chat room discussions, should focus on advancing the merits of the arguments rather than personal attacks, such as questioning the motives of opponents.

* Business models in the field should incorporate long-term, sustainable practices, such as the efficient use of resources, recycling of toxic materials, adequate compensation for workers and other fair labor practices.

* Industry leaders should be collaborative and self-regulating, but also support public education in the sciences and reasonable legislation to deal with legal and social issues associated with nanotechnology.

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