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  • Field Notes
  • Gregory E. Kaebnick

Small talk.

Nanotechnology-that is, techniques for controlling matter ranging in size roughly from one to one hundred nanometers-seems poised to be the next big technology wave. Certainly it is the next big technology topic. Countries around the world are reportedly scrambling to gain an edge. In the United States, the effort is led by the National Science Foundation's National Nanotechnology Initiative, which has invested hundreds of millions of dollars in nanotech research since its creation in 2001. Quite a number of states have launched their own nanotech initiatives as well.

The NNI is also allocating millions of dollars to research on nanotech's ethical, legal, and social implications. Perhaps because of these implications (and maybe also with an eye to new job opportunities), people who might do that research have called for the creation of a "nanoethics." What nanoethics might be about was the subject of the 2006 end-of-year board meeting for The Hastings Center and a white paper that several of the Center's associates are now writing for the National Institutes of Health. (See also "'Nanoethics'? What's New?" an essay in this issue.)

Certainly nanotechnology raises moral questions. Following Eric Drexler's warning that self-replicating nanodevices could someday cover the world in "gray goo," there have been lots of questions about safety and environmental risks-many of them more plausible than the gray goo scenario. Because nanodevices might someday be able to uncover personal information, there are also questions about personal privacy. Because rich countries will win the race to develop nanotech, strength making the strong stronger, questions arise about the distribution of wealth and the obligations of the rich to help the poor. And because nanotechnology could either assist existing biotechnologies or itself present a new kind of biotechnology (carbon nanotube muscles, anyone?), other familiar questions arise-about medical enhancement and the investment of health care resources, for example.

However, as became clear in the sessions at the Center's board meeting, the coining of a new term may overemphasize the newness of the questions nanotechnology raises. The ethical questions here are variations of concerns that have been around since the pre-Socratics, and even their modern forms-questions about privacy, autonomy, human welfare, and the good of scientific progress-are by now very familiar.

Maybe what's new about nanotechnology is just the nano part. Controlling matter at such a small scale, sometimes manipulating individual molecules, we may work with substances not en masse, but particle by particle. Sometimes, too, we may coax substances to exhibit traits they lack at larger scales. It can look, then, like we have gained a new kind of control over nature. Philosophers talk about "carving nature at the joints"; nanotechnology looks close to doing just that. Just as genetic science appeared to open "the book of life," nanotechnology appears to give us an instruction manual for basic substances. Perhaps what makes nanotechnology seem to need nanoethics, then, is that it prompts questions about our control over nature-analogs to the ethical questions about changing human nature.

Of course, these analogies also hold a lesson in skepticism: philosophers often talk about carving nature at the joints only to dismiss the idea, and biologists now say that the book of life is not written only in the language of deoxyribonucleic acid, that understanding life requires systems thinking. Nature has no one special code. [End Page 1]



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Archived 2012
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