The Ethics of Nanotechnology

Nanotechnology has both good and bad implications for consumers, workers and the environment. But health and safety aside, what’s at stake from an ethical point of view? As we near a future of stain-resistant clothing, cell phones that morph into bracelets and odor-free socks, we need to question what we are truly gaining and what we have to lose.

I don’t know anyone who’s been ostracized simply for his or her foot odor and I’m pretty sure we could continue to survive without wearing cell phones as jewelry. While these things seem trivial, nanotechnology will also be responsible for incredibly innovative discoveries that could solve many of the world’s problems.

Cheap and efficient technologies could bring clean water, electricity and medical care to the world’s poor. Computers may run on light instead of electricity, and their entire memories could be stored on one tiny chip. By reducing waste and depending on solar thermal power, we could greatly decrease our environmental footprint.

Furthermore, we could save lives. Scientists are developing nanorobots that can travel through a sick person’s body and deliver medication directly to the place of infection, possibly resulting in fewer side effects. Nanotechnology may help break up blood clots and kidney stones, remove parasites and even fight cancer. ­Nanotech-enabled sensors could “smell” cancer by sensing its airborne chemical pattern and then destroy it.

These technologies could prove to be invaluable. But along with saving lives, they could also enhance human capabilities in unnatural ways. Some scientists think that nanotechnology could improve our senses, reverse the aging process or enhance our intelligence. Is this ethical? If we start down this path, who is to say when and where we should stop?

Because much of this is speculation, it’s important to differentiate between what is realistic and what is just hype, which can be difficult to do. Nonetheless, these technologies involve reconstructing the most basic structures of living organisms and possibly adding synthetic parts. Once we start replacing parts of living human beings with manufactured machines, where should we draw the line? It’s one thing to save someone’s life with nanotechnology, but we enter a whole different realm when we start enhancing natural human characteristics. Will this be the beginning of one of those horror movies where man-made machines outsmart humans and take over the world? Most scientists deem this an unrealistic fear, at least for the foreseeable future. It is highly unlikely that we could engineer artificial life forms that are better adapted to the environment than the natural ones created over years of evolution.

But even if we avoid recreating any horror films, we’ve got to watch out for the ways in which nanotechnology could change our society. For example, scientists can make nanoscopic machines called assemblers that can manipulate molecules and atoms. These assemblers could then replicate themselves. Trillions of assemblers and replicators (which would be invisible to the naked eye) could create automatic assembly lines to manufacture products. If these eventually replaced existing labor methods, what would happen to all the workers with jobs in the labor force? Even if this scenario is a stretch, it still points out how nanotechnology could create some serious changes in our economy and our society as a whole.

Clearly, precautions must be taken. But it’s easy to get swept up in the excitement, especially when global revenues from products using nanotechnology are estimated to reach $2.8 trillion by 2015 (Global Industry Analysts Inc.). Regulations need to keep up with the booming business, and they’ve already fallen far behind. But regulations for things like safety are much more straightforward than those that involve ethical questions. Nanotechnology may allow us to replicate anything in the future; we could even create food and water to feed the hungry and help end poverty. But when we start making things like diamonds, we enter more controversial territory. The bottom line is that we face a new era of innovation that could do a huge amount of good and also a fair amount of harm. We need to move forward with caution; without some solid traffic laws, the world of nanotechnology could turn into an unruly and dangerous game.

Sign the petition urging congress to stop the commercialization of nanotechnology before we understand the risks involved. 




megan m.
megan m8 years ago

hey... how about that greatly underestimated quote from Ian Malcolm of Jurassic Park....
"Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could that they didn't stop to think if they should."

Its time to think about it. REALLY think about it.

Kim Neff
Kim Neff8 years ago

If a loved on of mine had cancer and this technology cured them, I'd be fine with that...jubilant in fact. No matter what kind of technology we are dealing with there will always be the opportunity for unethical practice. It's about human nature really. It's not the technology that we need to fear.

Christoph Wuth
Christoph Wuth8 years ago

Let's quit fooling ourselves. What will be gained by asking whether nanotechnology is ethical or not, when people end up doing whatever their leaders deem correct? Cloning of humans, nanothechnology or whatever else, will become moral and ethical the very instant politicians [aided by their supporting majority] "decree" that what yesterday was considered immoral and unethical in reality is quite acceptable and convenient, until a different politician turns up and changes the tabs around and so on, ad infinitum.

Dominic C.
Dominic C8 years ago

There's always be that argument about ethics of new technology but more importantly, we should tread on this lightly because religious groups will hound this even more. Lets not forget about cloning or curing with stem cells, the objectives perpetrated by these groups have already put doubt on them and I am not sure whether the technology will have a future. The only I can see this doing well is perhaps in Europe where eccentricities only focused for those who undoubtedly needs a feasible cure.

Cindy M.
Cindy M8 years ago

I'm all for this, but the caveat is that the good comes with bad. As long as there's greed, and I'm guessing there will be to counteract the generous, bad will come out of this great new thing. But that's life. Yet if it weren't for greed and the way many of us eat, the necessities of this new technology wouldn't even be needed. If we could get past that, we could feel safe about letting this go wherever it will, without having to worry about what negative thing may come of it, ever, we wouldn't have the need for it in the first place. I'm all for taking chances and learning about it, but with restrictions for safety and all. Nothing can stay the same, horrible things come out of stagnation.

Michael Alexander

There will always be people who dont want change, especially with new technologies. For some reason they are able to instill fear in the masses who follow like sheep to whatever is being printed. I am all for nano technology. I see a golden age approaching where we can cure diseases, right the wrongs associated with brain disorders caused from trauma, improve the memory and senses. Wow, for the low man it seems to be something that can change the world for the better.

I personally am ready to see a world free of disease!

Subhash Joshi
Subhash J8 years ago

To begin with medicine was an excellent idea and remains so. That applies to nanotechnology also. Medicine went wayward and off course when greed overtook its social and scientific content.

When we understand our responsibilities as researchers, technologists, manufacturers, administrators and users of nano or any other technology, I believe nanotechnology, quite like all others, is a blessing. But, do we understand ?? The common all over the world is always at the receiving end and is the looser.

In conclusion, all I say is :

- Nano-technology is certainly a step forward.

- It must be researched, put into manufacure for utilisation by human beings and other life forms for common good.

- Results must be made affordably, conveniently and easily available to all.

- Minimal interference but effective control must be ensured so that no exploitation occurs.

These principles apply to all technology but lamentably people and govts ignore them to the Mother Earth's and humanity's peril.

ian L.
ian l8 years ago

I say bring on the technology. I think if we can use this technology to better our lives we should, but as with anything it should be carefully monitored. If we can figure out how to make these amazing things, I think we should be able to figure out how to recycle them too.

Doug Wilson
Doug Wilson8 years ago

Noam Chomsky said that a lot of the studies to develop these new technologies are funded by the military (or tax payer). Which means is automatically owned(?) by branch of the government. So wanting sound oversight is out.

Does anyone know who the original author is? If so could you go here and post it in a reply? Thanks...

Sablicious K.
Sablicious K8 years ago

One word: EVOLUTION.

If we are meant to 'evolve' into beings who use 'manufactured parts' to assist in our existence, then so be it. I don't see the down side of, say, living forever(!) if all the trade-off was was that we need some nanobot 'shots' once a week!