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  • "Nanoethics"?What's New?
  • Paul Litton (bio)

We have "genethics." We have "neuroethics." And now there are pleas for a "nanoethics." The nanotechnology hype, engendering both fanatical optimism and apocalyptic fears, has produced calls from different commentators for "a radical change in the way we address ethical issues"1 and a "novel [ethical] approach to the future" that must be divorced from existing moral theories.2 But what ethical issues will nanotechnology raise that will be novel? How could an ethical approach be novel, and why would that be necessary?

Commentators also strongly urge ethical reflection to begin now on all aspects of nanotechnology, including the kind of atom-by-atom manufacturing predicted by optimistic futurists. But what issues call for immediate attention? And given that those responding to these calls would require intellectual and financial resources, does reflection on speculative visions of nanotechnology warrant that expense?

We can predict, first, that nanotech innovations will raise serious ethical issues in the present and upcoming decades, and we should be thankful to the commentators for beginning discussion. The unique properties of many nanoparticles and materials that scientists are beginning to exploit raise significant health and environmental concerns. Second, advances in nanomedicine will probably be accompanied by ethical concerns about human enhancement, rising health care costs and rationing, and increasing diagnostic powers. Third, nanoenhanced tracking devices may threaten individual privacy, especially if they become ubiquitous. Finally, nanotechnology will likely raise justice-related concerns about the economic effects of a technological revolution.

But we must resist equating new technological powers with novel ethical challenges. These ethical issues are already raised by other technologies, and we would waste resources and forget lessons already learned by unreflectively assuming that nanotechnology requires us to invent a whole new ethics-as if that were possible-with its attendant conferences, journals, centers, and funding mechanisms. Moreover, even if the most radical futuristic visions of nanotechnology are realized, history teaches us that such extreme prophecies should not, at this time, frame debate or warrant ethical attention.

There is no settled definition of "nanotechnology," but all the candidates say something about understanding and manipulating matter on the scale of one to one hundred nanometers. However, that criterion alone subsumes much of conventional science and technology, including most chemical reactions. If nanotechnology represents a new field, it should refer to the exploitation of newly discovered laws and properties that nanoparticles uniquely possess, such as their conductivity and quantum effects.

Even without a precise definition, nanotechnology holds great promise for human welfare both on its own and through its convergence with other technologies. Nanomedical research already shows signs of that potential. Cancer researchers have successfully tested in mice a nanocell drug delivery system that enables a slow release of antiangiogenesis agents and chemotherapy.3 DNA nanoparticles have been used to accomplish gene transfer and improve physiological functioning in patient-subjects with cystic fibrosis.4 Researchers have nanoengineered membrane systems designed to clean water efficiently by targeting pollutants.5 Other nanotechnologies are likely to produce stronger, lighter materials and faster, more efficient computers.

Despite the potential of manipulating matter at the nanoscale, Eric Drexler, nanotechnology's best-known visionary, laments its association with that broadly construed endeavor.6 On his view, we are losing sight of nanotechnology's truly radical promise-molecular manufacturing-first imagined by Richard Feynman forty-five years ago: "[I]t would be, in principle, possible (I think) for a physicist to synthesize any chemical substance that the chemist writes down. . . . Put the atoms down where the chemist says, and so you make the substance."7 The essence of nanotechnology, on Drexler's view, lies in the use of self-replicating assemblers that can carry out Feynman's vision by guiding chemical reactions that result in any desired atomic configuration. Disassemblers can also break down rock and other raw materials, which will then be reshaped into anything we want. In Drexler's words, we could "grow spaceships from soil, air, and sunlight."8

Initially, the ethical concerns about nanotechnology focused on Drexler's vision. Commentators expressed fantastic fears of self-replicating nanobots breaking down all matter, [End Page 22] turning the world into "gray goo." Recent dialogue has centered on...


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pp. 22-25
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Archived 2012
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