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Nanoscience, nanoengineering, and nanotechnology involve the study, design, and manipulation of natural phenomena, artificial products, and technological processes at the nanometer level. Because a nanometer is one-billionth of a meter (10−9 meter), this effectively means research, design, and operations at the atomic and molecular levels. Nanoethics aims to promote critical ethical reflection in this relatively new field. It complements other efforts to explore the moral dimensions of the scientific and technological transformations in human action such as nuclear ethics (dealing with very large scale power generation and its challenges), biomedical ethics (focusing on the bio-scientific and bio-technological aspects of medicine), and computer ethics (emphasizing the technological redefinition and processing of information).

Background and Prospects

Early inspiration and vision for the pursuit of nanoscience and nanotechnology is widely credited to physicist Richard P. Feynman's (1918–1988) talk "There's Plenty of Room at the Bottom" at the 1959 annual meeting of the American Physical Society. He concluded that speech with a financial challenge, offering $1,000 to the "first guy who can take the information on the page of a book and put it on an area 1/25,000 smaller in linear scale in such a manner that it can be read by an electron telescope" ( In 1982 Gerd Binnig and Heinrich Rohrer invented the scanning tunneling microscope (STM), which made Feynman's challenge technically feasible and essentially marked the technological beginning of nanoscience and nanotechnology research. International Business Machines (IBM) patented the invention, and demonstrated the microscope's incredible power by writing the initials IBM with thirty-five individual xenon atoms.

Thirty years after Feynman's talk, President Bill Clinton, at a 2000 appearance at Feynman's home institution, the California Institute of Technology, announced the U.S. National Nanotechnology Initiative. Other initiatives were subsequently launched in many other countries indicating significant political and economic motivations to promote this new area of scientific knowledge and to accelerate nanoscale technical understanding and control of the physical world. Together with private funding from corporations and venture capital investors, support for nanoscience and nanotechnology initiatives is anything but small.

K. Eric Drexler's Engines of Creation (1990) provided the one of the first dramatic visualizations of possible nanotechnology futures general overview of nanotechnology. Subsequent developments led to the production of rapidly produced nano-scaled devices, such as nanoscale storage and nanotube transistors; molecular transistors and switches; atomic force microscopes; focused ion and electron beam microscopes; novel materials; nano-wires and nanostructure-enabled devices; non-volatile RAM, nano-optics, nanoparticle solubilization, and nano-encapsulation for drug delivery. Products already on the market by the early 2000s included sunscreens, fabrics, sports equipment, house paint, and medical devices.

A report by the National Science and Technology Council claims that "the emerging fields of nanoscience and nanoengineering are leading to unprecedented understanding and control over the fundamental building blocks of all physical things. This is likely to change the way almost everything from vaccines to computers to automobile tires to objects not yet imagined is designed and made" ( Endorsements of the U.S. National Nanotechnology Initiative refer to the possibilities of miniaturized drug delivery systems and diagnostic techniques, positive environmental impacts through drastic reductions in energy use and the rebuilding of the stratosphere, extending and repairing deficits in the human senses, and security systems smaller than a piece of dust. One nanotechnology visionary, whose ideas are controversial, Drexler envisions that molecular assemblers could make possible low cost solar power; cures for cancer and the common cold; cleanup of the environment; inexpensive pocket supercomputers; accessible space flight; and limitless acquisition and exchange of information through hypertext.

Concerns and Criticisms

Some dismiss these claims as hype, not grounded in scientific reality. Nobel Laureate in chemistry (1996) Richard Smalley disagrees with Drexler about the ability to create self-replicating, self-assembling devices. Harvard University chemist George Whitesides concurs, arguing that there exists no concept of how to design a self-sustaining, self-replicating system of machines. There is a great deal of speculation and debate over future applications, and no one knows if the machines created will be able to do the things hoped for, such as to remove molecules from their environments, cause them to reproduce themselves in new environments, and use them to create devices such as molecular robots for engineering purposes.

Extreme reactions, such as those expressed in Michael Crichton's novel Prey (2002), where swarms of nanobots aggressively and intelligently seek to eat human flesh, reflect fear that scientists will not have complete control over the products of nanotechnology. These opinions call for moral reflection about the inevitability of nanotechnology development, the risks and harms imbedded in precise, atomic manipulation by humans, and potential inability to undo harmful technological advances. Aside from the more dramatic concerns expressed in science fiction (such as nanobots) are questions pertaining to (a) equity and access; (b) environmental safety; (c) irreversible and mysterious changes to food, water and air; (d) privacy and security; and
(e) the philosophical considerations of introducing mechanical systems into biological organisms.

One cause of concern that ensued early in the emergence of nanotechnology developments was over the idea of grey goo; the possibility that nanoscaled robots (nanobots) originally designed for specific manufacturing processes might make copies of themselves, atom by atom, replicate endlessly and consume large areas of matter, even the world. Although the debate over grey goo has lessened over time, the idea still occasionally surfaces in public debates and science fiction.

The Canadian based Action Group on Erosion, Technology and Concentration (ETC), a nanotechnology watchdog organization, is concerned that nanotechnology development is moving too quickly, without any real oversight regarding environmental safety, public heath, and other societal concerns. The ETC identifies three phases of nanotechnology development. The first (which is already well underway) involves bulk production of nano-scale particles for use in products such as sprays, powders, coatings, and fabrics. In these applications, nanoparticles contribute to lighter, cleaner, stronger, more durable surfaces and systems. In the second phase, scientists seek to manipulate and assemble nanoscale particles into supra-molecular constructions for practical uses. The third phase would be mass production, possibly self-replicating nanoscale robots, to manufacture any material, on any scale. Ultimately, according to the ETC, nanomaterials will be used to affect biochemical and cellular processes, such as for engineering joints, performing cellular functions, or combining biological with non-biological materials for self-assembly or repair.

Ethical Issues and Analysis

The rapid development of nanoscience and nanotechnology is not simply a technological initiative, but has social aspects as well. While fueled by scientific ingenuity, it is also motivated by political pressures, competition for new international markets, venture capital ambitions, and competing conceptualizations of the public good. There is a sense of urgency that because of potential dangers (such as freely migrating carbon nanotubes penetrating plant, animal, and human cells, or uncontrollable self-assemblers) science must learn how to respond effectively and proactively to avert any consequential and irreversible social and environmental harms.

In this vein, some have called for implementation of a precautionary principal and a moratorium on further nanotechnology pursuits. Bill Joy reflected upon the potential dangers of genetics, nanotechnology, and robotics, and stated that "These possibilities are all thus either undesirable or unachievable or both. The only realistic alternative I see is relinquishment: to limit development of the technologies that are too dangerous by limiting our pursuit of certain kinds of knowledge" (Joy 2001, p. 11).

Joy's writing unleashed vigorous debate, and was strongly criticized by nanotechnology proponents such as Christine Peterson of the Foresight Institute. In the interest of providing safe opportunities for the development and commercialization of molecular manufacturing, the Foresight Institute has written a set of self-regulation guidelines for the development of nanotechnology, and argues that, if adopted by research scientists and the industries involved, those guidelines should suffice in addressing ethical concerns over the development of nanotechnology. Others defend the continued pursuit of nanoscience, nanoengineering, and nanotechnology on moral grounds, contending that they are relatively benign enterprises, representing a good and natural evolution in scientific inquiry, and further, that any restraint on development of nanotechnology will inhibit the improvement of humankind. Many important questions remain unanswered regarding the prevention of potential environmental accidents and abuses, or threats to human health and safety that may result from the release of nano-scaled devices into the atmosphere, waterways, the food chain, and medicine.

The use of nanotechnology to design improved surveillance systems raises the issue of the privacy rights of individuals. The potential of nanotechnology to produce powerful and precise new weapons calls into question the purposes of advanced and redefined forms of military combat and intervention. Miniaturization and hybridization of commonly used electronic devices tests the assumption that faster and cheaper is equal to better, and demands examination of how market imperatives could supercede other social goods and respected human values.

Scientists have a moral responsibility to be conscientious in their research because nano-scaled science and engineering fundamentally entail risk taking with novel, unpredictable, relatively untested new materials and devices in the realm of public and environmental safety. Of course, as with any new technology, responsibility for the ethical development of nanotechnology also lies with those who make public policy and society in general. The more philosophical questions will be answered not by scientists, but in the public domain: How does society identify what is the good or the harm? What new materials and processes should society be exposed to? What values can be sacrificed in the attempt to achieve precise human control and manipulation of matter?

Policy Responses

Matters to be resolved include how government is to be held accountable for funding stipulations that influence actual nanoscience research, timeline and reporting of results, the ethics of basic research questions that grantees study, and the technologies they are asked to develop. Provisions for access to education and technical training in this new field is also a matter of public policy. Who will pay for and provide the specialized retraining needed for teachers, or for the equipment, facilities and supplies needed for the schools? How will society assure democratic inclusion and full public access in this fast moving new initiative?

In the United States, the NSF has taken a leadership role in consideration of social and ethical issues in the development of nanotechnology. The NSF sponsors major conferences and panels for the purpose of considering the societal and ethical issues involved in nanotechnology. It allocates funding for individual researchers, and has established major centers of research. The European Commission regularly releases sponsored reports on issues related to nanotechnology health and safety. The European Parliament has held public hearings on nanotechnology, and sponsored various other public forums for widespread discussion of the emerging concerns. Yet because nanoscience and nanotechnology are still in an early stage of development, there is a significant lack of international consensus over distinctions of fact and fiction in their potential, and few clearly agreed upon articulated nodes of ethical concern.

There are multiple questions to be considered and new policies to be debated regarding who will receive the benefits of nanotechnology developments, and at what cost and to whom. Ownership, power, and control issues regarding devices and processes that are fundamentally invisible to the human eye present interesting ethical challenges both legally and socially. Some political rhetoric uses the language of competition, describing the international climate of nanoscience initiatives as a race. The very notion of a race raises the questions of why science is in such a hurry and to what end. The issues of who will win this race, and how world powers will implement and control the applications of nanotechnology have not as yet been effectively examined. Public policy must also respond to the potential for private individuals to gain access to the raw materials of nanotechnology, such as carbon nanotubes, or eventually, assemblers. Who, then, will oversee or control the use individuals make of those materials, such as for the building of experimental devices or weapons of mass destruction? To protect society from possible harm, external controls may have to be put in place to regulate and govern the types of nanotechnology that corporations can develop. Moral responsibility dictates that corporations adhere to rigorous self regulation, abide by widely adopted rules, principles and codes, such as those proposed by the Foresight Institute, and/or become involved in public policy, citizen review groups, and the like.

Public policy must also address the management of nano-related toxicity, release and control of nano-scaled, self-replicating artifacts, subtleties of nano-scaled surveillance mechanisms, inequities in access to power, and other unpredictable nano-related implications for society.


Through the tools now available, extensions of human hands and eyes (such as the atomic force and atomic probe microscopes) allow scientists to observe and manipulate atoms directly, move them, rearrange them, and reconfigure them. The resultant potential, to create atomically built hybrids of synthetic, mechanical, and biological components and turn them into novel devices, suggests that society is embarking on an incredibly powerful, tremendously exciting, but possibly dangerous undertaking. The development of nanotechnology could mean fundamental and beneficial changes to our relationships with the physical world, as human beings gain greater power to manipulate their bodies and environment. Where might such awesome abilities lead? What will happen when nanoscience and nanotechnology advance enough to achieve the results aimed for by scientists? What society does with this new knowledge may determine the changing substance of the physical, social, cultural, economic, moral, and perhaps even spiritual lives of humankind. Are people fully cognizant of and fully prepared to accept and adapt to those changes? Are science and the public in general proceeding with conscientious commitment? The ethical challenges are as daunting as the technical ones.


SEE ALSO Bioengineering Ethics;Biotech Ethics;Environmental Ethics;National Science Foundation;Posthumanism;Science Fiction.


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