The Ethics of Nanotechnology
By Andrew Chen
Imagine a world in which cars can be assembled molecule-by-molecule,
garbage can be disassembled and turned into beef steaks, and people can
be operated on and healed by cell-sized robots. Sound like science fiction?
Well, with current semiconductor chip manufacturing encroaching upon the
scale and the ability to move individual atoms at the IBM
Almaden laboratory, we are fast approaching the technological ability
to fabricate productive machines and devices that can manipulate things
at the atomic level. From this ability we will be able to develop molecular-sized
computers and robots, which would give us unprecedented control over matter
and the ability to shape the physical world as we see fit. Some may see
it as pure fantasy, but others speculate that it is an inevitability that
will be the beginning of the next technological revolution.
Laboratories, such as the Stanford
Nanofabrication Facility (SNF), have already been researching
nanofabrication techniques with applications in fiber optics, biotechnology,
systems (MEMS), and wide variety of other research fields relevant
to today's technology. MEMS, "tiny mechanical devices such as
sensors, valves, gears, mirrors, and actuators embedded in semiconductor
chips", are particularly interesting because they are but a mere
step away from the molecular machines envisioned by nanotechnology. MEMS
are already being used in automobile airbag systems as accelerometers
to detect collisions and will become an increasing part of our everyday
In 1986, a researcher from MIT named K.
Eric Drexler already foresaw the advent of molecular machines and
published a book, Engines
of Creation, in which he outlined the possibilities and consequences
of this emerging field, which he called nanotechnology. He was inspired
by Nobel laureate Richard Feynman's 1959 lecture, There's
Plenty of Room at the Bottom, about miniaturization down to the
atomic scale. Since then, Drexler has written numerous other books on
the subject, such as Unbounding
the Future, and has founded the Foresight
Institute, which is a nonprofit organization dedicated to the responsible
development of nanotechnology. It hosts conferences and competitions to
raise the awareness of nanotechnology and the ethical issues involved
in its development.
Today, nanotechnology research and development is quite wide spread,
although not high profile yet. Numerous universities, such as Univ.
of Washington and Northwestern
Univ., have established centers and institutes to study nanotechnology,
and the U.S. government has created an organization, the National
Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI), to monitor and guide research and
development in this field. In fact, as noted in an April 2001 Computerworld
article, the Bush administration increased funding to nanoscale science
research by 16% through its National Science Foundation (NSF) budget increase.
Advanced Research Projects Agency) and the NSF
are currently the two largest sources of funding for nanotechnology research
and have an enormous influence on the direction of scientific research
done in the United States. With so many resources dedicated to its development,
nanotechnology will surely have an impact within our lifetime, so it is
important to examine its ethical implications while it is still in its
What is Nanotechnology?
Nanotechnology, also called molecular manufacturing, is "a
branch of engineering that deals with the design and manufacture of extremely
small electronic circuits and mechanical devices built at the molecular
level of matter." [Whatis.com]
The goal of nanotechnology is to be able to manipulate materials at the
atomic level to build the smallest possible electromechanical devices,
given the physical limitations of matter. Much of the mechanical systems
we know how to build will be transferred to the molecular level as some
atomic analogy. (see nanogear animation on the right)
As envisioned by Drexler, as well as many others, this would lead to
no bigger than bacteria and nanomachines,
also known as nanites (from Star
Trek: The Next Generation), which could be used as a molecular assemblers
and disassemblers to build, repair, or tear down any physical or biological
In essence, the purpose of developing nanotechnology is to have tools
to work on the molecular level analogous to the tools we have at the macroworld
level. Like the robots we use to build cars and the construction equipment
we use to build skyscrapers, nanomachines will enable us to create a plethora
of goods and increase our engineering abilities to the limits of the physical
It would not take much of a leap, then, to imagine disassemblers dismantling
garbage to be recycled at the molecular level, and then given to assemblers
for them to build atomically perfect engines. Stretching this vision a
bit, you can imagine a Star Trek type replicator which could reassemble
matter in the form of a juicy steak, given the correct blueprints and
organization of these nanomachines.
Just given the basic premises of nanotechnology, you can imagine the
vast potential of this technology. Some of it's more prominent benefits
- Precision Manufacturing
- Material Reuse
- Pharmaceutical Creation
- Disease Treatment
- Nanomachine-assisted Surgery
- Toxin Cleanup
- Resource Consumption Reduction
Along with all the obvious manufacturing benefits, there are also many
potential medical and environmental benefits. With nanomachines, we could
better design and synthesize pharmaceuticals; we could directly treat
diseased cells like cancer; we could better monitor the life signs of
a patient; or we could use nanomachines to make microscopic repairs in
hard-to-operate-on areas of the body. With regard to the environment,
we could use nanomachines to clean up toxins or oil spills, recycle all
garbage, and eliminate landfills, thus reducing our natural resource consumption.
The flip side to these benefits is the possibility of assemblers and
disassemblers being used to create weapons, be used as weapons themselves,
or for them to run wild and wreak havoc. Other, less invasive, but equally
perilous uses of nanotechnology would be in electronic surveillance.
- Miniature Weapons and Explosives
- Disassemblers for Military Use
- Rampant Nanomachines
- The Gray Goo Scenario
- Self Replicating Nanomachines
Weapons are an obvious negative use of nanotechnology. Simply extending
today's weapon capabilities by miniaturizing guns, explosives, and electronic
components of missiles would be deadly enough. However, with nanotechnology,
armies could also develop disassemblers to attack physical structures
or even biological organism at the molecular level. A similar hazard would
be if general purpose disassemblers got loose in the environment and started
disassembling every molecule they encountered. This is known as "The
Gray Goo Scenario." Furthermore, if nanomachines were created to
be self replicating and there were a problem with their limiting mechanism,
they would multiply endlessly like viruses. Even without considering the
extreme disaster scenarios of nanotechnology, we can find plenty of potentially
harmful uses for it. It could be used to erode our freedom and privacy;
people could use molecular sized microphones, cameras, and homing beacons
to monitor and track others.
Ethical Issues & Analysis
With such awesome potential dangers inherent in nanotechnology, we must
seriously examine its potential consequences. Granted, nanotechnology
may never become as powerful and prolific as envisioned by its evangelists,
but as with any potential, near-horizon technology, we should go through
the exercise of formulating solutions to potential ethical issues before
the technology is irreversibly adopted by society. We must examine the
ethics of developing nanotechnology and create policies that will aid
in its development so as to eliminate or at least minimize its damaging
effects on society.
Ethical Decision Making Worksheet
Most relevant facts
We are reaching a critical point where technology will enable
us to build complex molecular machines. Molecular assemblers and
disassemblers could be developed from this technology, which would
have great potential for both good and bad. The two greatest threats
from development of nanotechnology are catastrophic accidents
- Currently, nanotechnology research is primarily funded
by DARPA and the NSF so the research agenda is primarily
controlled by the government.
- Since nanotechnology is being developed in many different
fields, how can everyone's principles be synchronized?
- Since nanotechnology concerns many different fields,
who should create and enforce policies regarding its
- What international laws should be made regarding the
safe development of nanotechnology? And who can enforce
- Nanotechnology will give us more "god-like"
- It has to potential to eliminate other ethical issues
(e.g. assembling beef instead of slaughtering cows, constructing
cells rather than getting them from reproduction, etc...)
- May lead to undetectable surveillance, Right to Privacy
could be jeopardized
- Do we have a duty to help and provide for others [countries]
with this technology?
- NSF - [the government] since it funds much of the nanotechnology
- DARPA - enforcing ethical guidelines may conflict with
- Researchers - their freedom of how to conduct their
research and what to conduct their research on
- Explicit users of nanotechnology - may slow down development
of the technology
- Potentially Everyone - nanotechnology may eventually
be so far reaching, it could affect everyone
- Nanotechnology R&D should be banned
- A non-government regulatory or advisory commission should
- Adopt design guidelines:
- Nanomachines should only be specialized, not general
- Nanomachines should not be self replicating
- Nanomachines should not be made to use an abundant natural
compound as fuel
- Nanomachines should be tagged so that they can be tracked
- With the first possible action, it may stop general
development of nanotechnology and prevent its wide spread
potential harms, but it will retard current day technological
advances and may not prevent rogue researchers, companies,
countries, or armies from developing it anyway.
- The second possible action could unify R&D policies
and procedures and force the research community to seriously
consider the potential consequences of nanotechnology
- The third possible action would minimize "accidents"
with nanotechnology by preventing potentially deadly behavior
The second and third options seem to be the most prudent
course of action since the second option is commonly done
now for emerging technologies and the third option consciously
prevents designs that could lead to the catastrophic scenarios.
The second and third options also seem to advance the most
common good since the second option involves promoting ethics
within the research community and the third option is a
set of design principles to discourage unethical or accidental
uses of nanotechnology.
Nanotechnology research should be allowed to continue but
with a non-government advisory council to monitor the research
and help formulate ethical guidelines and policies. Generally,
nanomachines should NOT be designed to be general
purpose, self replicating, or to be able to use an abundant
natural compound as fuel. Furthermore, complex nanomachines
should be tagged with a radioactive isotope so as to allow
them to be tracked in case they are lost.
It would be difficult to deny the potential benefits of
nanotechnology and stop development of research related to it since
it has already begun to penetrate many different fields of research.
However, nanotechnology can be developed using guidelines to insure
that the technology does not become too potentially harmful. As with
any new technology, it is impossible to stop every well funded organization
who may seek to develop the technology for harmful purposes. However,
if the researchers in this field put together an ethical set of guidelines
Nanotechnology Guidelines) and follow them, then we should be able
to develop nanotechnology safely while still reaping its promised benefits.
Drexler, K. Eric Engines of Creation.
New York: Anchor Books, 1986.
Drexler, K. Eric Unbounding the Future.
New York: Quill, 1991.
Feynman, Richard P. There's Plenty of Room at the Bottom.
03 March 2002.
The Foresight Institute.
03 March 2002.
Institute for Molecular Manufacturing.
03 March 2002.
National Nanotechnology Initiative.
03 March 2002.
Thibodeau, Patrick. "Nanotech, IT research given boost in Bush budget".
03 March 2002. (April 11, 2001)
03 March 2002.
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