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.
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