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Emerging Technologies and Ethical Issues in Engineering: Papers from a Workshop, October 14–15, 2003 The Ethics of Nanotechnology VISION AND VALUES FOR A NEW GENERATION OF SCIENCE AND ENGINEERING GEORGE KHUSHF Center for Bioethics and Department of Philosophy University of South Carolina Big, well funded science needs a vision that can grab the public imagination. For the superconducting supercollider the goal was to discover the fundamental building blocks of the universe. For the Human Genome Project it was to read the book of life. Now the metaphor shifts from discovery to creation, from reading nature to rewriting nature. For nanoscale science and technology the vision involves understanding and manipulating matter at the atomic scale. The vision was described in Nanotechnolgy: Shaping the World Atom by Atom, a report by the National Science and Technology Council (NSTC, 1999): 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. Obviously, any activity with such huge potential raises a host of ethical and social questions. However, before we can explore these issues, or rather, as a first step in exploring them, we must first clarify what we mean by nanotechnology (Keiper, 2003; Stix, 2001). There are several competing meanings of nanotechnology, and the definition we choose will influence the ethical issues that must be addressed. For this reason, the first part of this essay concerns the debate about how nanoscale science and technology should be understood. I then review the ethical issues that should be considered.
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Emerging Technologies and Ethical Issues in Engineering: Papers from a Workshop, October 14–15, 2003 THE MEANING OF “NANOTECHNOLOGY” “In order to have meaningful discourse on the societal impact of nanotechnology, we must first agree on what we mean by nanotechnology” (Theis, 2001). There are three general approaches to defining nanotechnology. One approach has a very narrow focus but a grand vision; this is Eric Drexler’s project of molecular assemblers, or molecular manufacturing. A second approach has an extremely broad focus but no vision; nanotechnology is a grab bag category that includes anything and everything related to the nanoscale, with no significant integrating ideals. The third approach, which has been advanced by the National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI), attempts to steer a middle way; it focuses on a cluster of factors associated with the nanoscale and articulates a vision of the unique opportunities offered by emerging science and technology. I will argue for the third approach, but first we should appreciate how the other two approaches are shaping and influencing public debate. Molecular Manufacturing Eric Drexler coined the term “nanotechnology” in 1986 in his book, Engines of Creation, to describe a dramatic new technology—manufacturing at the molecular scale (Baum et al., 2003; Drexler, 1986). Drexler believes that tiny factories could be created that could assemble anything at the atomic scale. These “assemblers” would have molecular computers that would receive blueprints for anything that is naturally possible from which they would then construct these things from raw materials (atoms). Drexler describes assemblers this way: Assemblers will be able to make virtually anything from common materials without labor, replacing smoking factories with systems as clean as forests. They will transform technology and the economy at their roots, opening a new world of possibilities. They will indeed be engines of abundance. In addition to solving environmental problems (for example, assemblers could be dispatched to remove greenhouse gases from the atmosphere and eliminate global warming, inexpensively), these “engines of abundance” could greatly extend human life, solve all energy problems, and enable us to colonize space, to mention just a few of their benefits (Drexler, 2001). There is virtually no limit to what might be accomplished once assemblers have been brought into existence. Drexler believes their construction would not require any new science but would be simply a large engineering project, akin to landing on the moon, for which all of the basic knowledge is already available (Baum et al., 2003; Drexler, 1992), and he has been trying to convince organizations, such as NNI, to include molecular manufacturing in their research portfolios. A large group of futurists and technophiles (Transhumanists and Extropians, among others) have adopted Drexler’s vision. In their literature, these advocates often link nanotechnology with artificial intelligence. They believe that humans
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Emerging Technologies and Ethical Issues in Engineering: Papers from a Workshop, October 14–15, 2003 will soon merge with machines, uploading consciousness into computers with vast computational capacity, and that swarms of micro- and nanomachines, such as the “Utility Fog,” will lead to smart environments that can change instantly, much like the Holodeck on the science fiction series, Star Trek. In their active pursuit of this Brave New World, these advocates use nanotechnology as a buzzword for a radically transformed humanity (Kurzweil, 1999). Another group associated with the Drexlerian vision of nanotechnology, a group radically opposed to it, is composed of people who believe that such technological power threatens humanity with extinction. Perhaps the best representative of this view is Bill Joy, former head of Sun Microsystems. In a widely cited essay in Wired magazine, “Why the Future Doesn’t Need Us,” Joy warns against the potential catastrophe that could result from the convergence of nanotechnology, genetics, and information science (Joy, 2000). One of the risks, he says, is that Drexlerian assemblers will run wild and replicate themselves uncontrollably; using all biomass as raw material, they will ultimately destroy the environment (including all human life). This is the so-called “gray goo problem”—the earth transformed into an indistinct mass of swarming nanobots (Drexler, 1986). To avoid that fate, Joy argues, we must refrain from developing all such technology. Bill McKibben (a noted environmentalist) and Francis Fukuyama (a member of the President’s Commission on Bioethics) have joined Joy in calling for a moratorium on using this new technology (Fukuyama, 2002; McKibben, 2003). The ethical issues raised by nanotechnology understood in its most radical sense—what Drexler now calls “molecular manufacturing”—are framed in grand terms. How can we prevent engines of destruction from reducing the world to gray goo (Freitas, 2001)? How can we ethically navigate a collapse of the world economy that would result from unlimited production by assemblers (Phoenix and Treder, 2003)? Several groups have been formed to address these issues. The Foresight Institute, founded by Eric Drexler and Christine Peterson, regularly sponsors workshops to address the ethical and social impact of nanotechnology. This group has formulated guidelines for the development of nanotechnology that would minimize its adverse impacts (Foresight Institute, 2000). The Center for Responsible Nanotechnology (2002), headed by Mike Treder and Chris Phoenix, focuses on anticipating radical transformations and providing guidance for the new economic and legal order that will follow. In addition, some lawyers, such as Glen Reynolds, are considering the legal issues that might be associated with nanotechnology (Forest, 1989; Reynolds, 2001, 2002). All of these groups and individuals are sympathetic to the general goal of molecular manufacturing. In fact, they celebrate that goal and wish to see it actively advanced. To allay the fears of people like Bill Joy, however, they attempt to show how nanotechnology can be developed responsibly. Other groups, like the ETC Group (an environmental organization that has been influential in keeping genetically modified organisms out of Europe), share
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Emerging Technologies and Ethical Issues in Engineering: Papers from a Workshop, October 14–15, 2003 a similar view of nanotechnology but are opposed to its development. They hope that research will be halted altogether so that a more natural world can be preserved (ETC Group, 2003). By contrast, the environmental group Greenpeace is much more skeptical about the whole idea of assemblers (Arnall, 2003). Whenever the focus of the discussion is on the radical implications of nanotechnology, the debate on ethical and social issues takes on a grand tone, similar to the tone of the debate about nuclear reactors or genetic engineering. Issues are framed in visionary terms, with an unavoidable sense that we are dealing with a new world order. Framing the debate in this way has some advantages, because no matter how one understands nanotechnology, everyone appreciates that it is likely to have radical, long-term effects, and it is important that we try to anticipate them and respond accordingly. There are also significant disadvantages to framing the debate this way. The Drexlerian vision, although it is influential, does not address the great majority of research being done under the heading of nanotechnology. Only one company—Zyvex—has a stated goal of creating assemblers (Ashley, 2001), and many view this project with considerable skepticism. In fact, many scientists consider Drexler-type molecular manufacturing science fiction. In one very visible debate, Richard Smalley, Nobel Laureate in chemistry for the codiscovery of C-60 (fullerenes), argues that Drexler is “in a pretend world where atoms go where you want because your computer program directs them to go there.” He accuses Drexler of not appreciating basic concepts and constraints associated with chemistry (Baum et al., 2003; Smalley, 2001; Whitesides, 2001). Some may think Smalley is a bit unfair, and on one level the debate could be seen as a squabble between disciplines that converge in the nanotech arena, with Smalley on the side of chemistry and Drexler and associates, like Merkle (formerly with Zyvex), on the side of computer science and systems engineering. But even if Drexler’s vision is given a more sympathetic reading, his proposals must be considered speculative, and what he means by molecular manufacturing must evolve considerably before anything like it can be approximated in practice. (One already sees such an evolution of the concept in the way Zyvex conceptualizes its core goals.) The whole project of assemblers is still very much outside the mainstream of current research, and it would be unfortunate if the primary debate on nanotechnology were closely associated with developments that are, at best, on the periphery of what is actually being done by scientists. So the molecular-assemblers definition can be summed up as follows. Drexler’s vision is influential and has a high public profile. When the public hears about nanotechnology, it will probably be through movies like Agent Cody Banks, in which a secret agent has to protect the world from a deranged megalomaniac who wants to unleash self-replicating nanobots, or Michael Crichton’s novel, Prey (2002), in which a Zyvex-like company called Xymos, originally funded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Administration (DARPA),
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Emerging Technologies and Ethical Issues in Engineering: Papers from a Workshop, October 14–15, 2003 unwittingly releases nanoswarms that evolve toward a similar, destructive end. Thus, when the public thinks about nanotechnology, it is likely to be in Drexlerian terms. In addition to popular entertainments, people who have testified before Congress and who are often cited in media reports on nanotechnology are also associated with molecular manufacturing. Of course, we must be aware of this debate, and we must understand how the ethical issues are therein addressed. But, in the end, this is a small, marginal area of research in nanotechnology, and the ethical issues are much broader than this debate would indicate. In fact, molecular manufacturing—understood as a kind of directed, positional assembly of anything—is much too narrow a definition of nanotechnology, and the ethical issues associated with this definition are, at best, a subset of the broader issues. A Grab Bag of Unrelated Research In recent issues of Smalltimes, a journal associated with nanotechnology, there was an interesting debate on the meaning of the term. Ken Galleo (2003), a technologist at Cookson Electronics, wrote an open letter asking for clarification (see also Mickelson, 2003). Galleo notes that “nano definitions are murky and numerous, and those [like Drexler’s] that exclude mass chemical and bio reactions as too imprecise and random seem exceedingly limiting.” Smalley and other prominent researchers engaged in nanotechnology projects advance a notion of nanotechnology that goes far beyond the idea of assemblers. However, if one takes into consideration mass reactions (like those that take place in chemistry generally), it is difficult, if not impossible, to distinguish nanotechnology from other things that are in some way related to events at the nanoscale (and isn’t that everything?). Galleo concludes: Web sites, especially governmental [web sites], slip past a real definition to quickly praise nanotechnology without explaining terms and what they want to sponsor. No wonder we’re seeing articles about “nano-pretenders” and “nano-hoaxes.” So before the nanotechnology definition lapses into “anything less than 100 nm,” can we please get a better definition? Anthony Vigliotti (2003) responded in a later issue of Smalltimes with a letter given the headline of “A No-Nonsense Nano Definition.” Vigliotti compares definitions of nanotechnology to glitter at a birthday party, “the definitions are sparkling and exciting, yet annoying and quickly thrown in the trash.” He goes on to suggest that “the definition should be as small as possible and written like it came out of the dictionary of 2053, when the technology should be commonplace.” His proposed definition is “the creation and exploitation of 1 to 100 nm structures.” Many others who have advanced a minimalist definition of nanotechnology have skeptical or cynical reasons for doing so. Even some directors of nanocenters
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Emerging Technologies and Ethical Issues in Engineering: Papers from a Workshop, October 14–15, 2003 and prominent researchers in the field have opined, often with a whisper and a wink, that there is nothing more to nanotechnology than a general focus on scale (roughly 1 to 100 billionths of a meter). According to this definition, nanotechnology includes a host of diverse technologies and research endeavors, such as catalysis, molecular electronics, and new nanopharmaceuticals (just to mention a few), that are, at best, distantly related. The members of this heterogeneous group have little in common other than the scale of some components. According to skeptics, these research topics are grouped together solely for funding purposes. “Nanotechnology is really a convenient label for a variety of scientific disciplines which serves as a way of getting money from government budgets” (Doug Parr, in the Foreword to Arnall, 2003; Roy, 2002). Government and industry only come up with substantial funding for research when the subject is new and “hot,” and social and cultural forces have made nanotechnology a convenient label for lobbying and funding efforts. Benefiting from the hype associated with the science-fiction-like powers of assemblers, nanotechnology has become a catchphrase for “great new science with lots of promise.” In fact, a more precise definition than “1 to 100 nm” would actually exclude some research areas and could start a turf war that most researchers would rather avoid. Under careful scrutiny, people might discover that the emperor is not wearing any clothes. This skepticism and cynicism may have some basis. As Galleo notes, the more you read about nanotechnology, “the less clear and more ambiguous the meaning becomes.” This is partly because nanotechnology is the new area for megafunding. In 2003, $774 million in federal funds was allocated ($64 million more than the projected $710 million); for the fiscal year beginning in October 2003, the projected amount is $849 million (Roco, 2003a). Some researchers have creatively redefined their projects so they can qualify for funding associated with nanotechnology. In fact, it is hard to see how these diverse research endeavors can be included under a single heading. Nanotechnology has become a grab bag for loosely related science and engineering projects that focus on the nanoscale. Although most of these projects are valuable, they are very conventional. For scientific reasons, the minimalist definition will not do. Whereas Drexler’s approach is futuristic, narrow, and disconnected from current science, the minimalist definition is mundane and much too broad. If nanotechnology simply concerns the creation and exploitation of 1 to 100 nm structures, then, as Paul Alivisatos (2001) notes, “All of biology is arguably a form of nanotechnology.” In addition, most of chemistry instantly becomes nanotechnology, as does a great deal of materials science, physics, and so on. Although it is difficult to pinpoint, something unique and exciting is emerging in nanotechnology, but putting that something into words is more of a philosophy-of-science project than a science project per se. It is a metascientific endeavor important for scientists because it will facilitate the development of that emergent something.
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Emerging Technologies and Ethical Issues in Engineering: Papers from a Workshop, October 14–15, 2003 A clear definition is also important for addressing ethical and social issues. If nanotechnology is nothing more than a grab bag for a host of unrelated projects, then the ethics of nanotechnology becomes nothing more than the ethics of unrelated projects taken individually, or the ethics of science and engineering in general. Of course, a host of ethical issues are associated with science and engineering, including research integrity, workforce and product safety, and the impact of new products on society, just to mention a few. The question of “hype and funding” (Arnall, 2003; Roy, 2002), how socioeconomic factors affect the configuration of research enterprises, will also be important. Of course, all of these issues will be part of a nanoethic, no matter how nanotechnology is defined. The basic question remains, however. Are there unique ethical issues associated with nanotechnology? If so, what are they? We cannot really answer this question until we determine if nanotechnology is in some way unique, and, if so, how its uniqueness can be characterized. In that sense, an appropriate characterization/definition of nanotechnology is an important preliminary to a discussion of nanoethics. The Middle Way In general, it is difficult to define a phenomenon until it has reached maturity. In the words of G.W.F. Hegel, philosophy (and science—Hegel equated their logic) can only paint its conceptual gray on gray after a form of life has grown old. Only then, at dusk, does the Owl of Minerva take flight. Dusk is the time of definitions. However, “nanotechnology is still in its infancy” (Roco and Bainbridge, 2001). At dawn, when ideas first struggle forth, there is always a tangle of science and fiction, vision and value, thought and feeling. The richest ideas often emerge as apparent contradictions, strange juxtapositions of future and present. Perhaps this is a time for characterization, rather than definition. Characterization can provide content and coherence and can define the scope and range of issues, but not an identification of necessary and sufficient conditions. Beyond a description of what already exists, a characterization can direct our gaze toward the future and suggest a shape that can only be seen faintly and with great effort. By providing coherence that is not yet fully there, characterization itself becomes a moment in the process of formation, in this case, a moment in the development of nanotechnology. Thus, characterization is both descriptive and constructive, capturing where nanotechnology is now and where it should go. The word “should” has both an ethical and a scientific component. Where will this science take us? What will be its form, and how will the body of knowledge be structured so the world is appropriately known and we are situated to intervene? These questions cannot be answered without scientists and engineers. But answering them requires an act of will, a decision about where we should go and what we should be.
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Emerging Technologies and Ethical Issues in Engineering: Papers from a Workshop, October 14–15, 2003 This new knowledge, with its tremendous capacity to alter our landscape permanently, is intimately intertwined with values, which cannot be fully disentangled from questions of science. How should we shape our future? What social institutions should be put into place, and how should the public participate in the formation and use of this technology? These are questions of ethics and social policy. The initial characterization of nanotechnology must include all of these considerations, which heralds a radical change in the way we address ethical issues. Traditionally, we have assumed a kind of linear development from science to engineering—first knowledge, then the application of such knowledge to advance human ends. Ethics and values only came in at the second step, in assessing the uses and abuses of scientific knowledge. That model is no longer satisfactory. In the realm of technoscience, fact and value are intertwined, as are the basic and applied domains of science. As Roco and Bainbridge (2001, 2002) note, nanoscale science and technology are “at the unexplored frontier of science and engineering,” and both science and engineering will be fundamentally transformed as a result. The broader relationship between science, engineering, and ethics will also be transformed. Science and ethics can no longer relate in a two-step process. Each informs the other, playing a co-constructive role in the process by which a new science and technology, such as nanotechnology, evolves (Weingart, 2002). The ethics of nanotechnology belongs in this richer, collaborative context of sciences and humanities. The first step in defining that ethic is to characterize what exactly is at issue. Characterization in this context is formative and constructive, not an act that can be done once and for all. It is an ongoing process that must attend the development of the science. The first step in that characterization has been taken by the leaders of NNI. Nanotechnology is defined in National Nanotechnology Inititiative: The Initiative and Its Implementation Plan, issued in 2002 (NSTC, 2002): The essence of nanotechnology is the ability to work at the molecular level, atom by atom, to create large structures with fundamentally new, molecular organization. Compared to the behavior of isolated molecules of about 1 nm (10−9 m) or of bulk materials, the behavior of structural features in the range of about 10−9 to 10−7 m (1 to 100 nm) exhibit[s] important changes. Nanotechnology is concerned with materials and systems whose structures and components exhibit novel and significantly improved physical, chemical, and biological properties—and that enable the exploitation of novel phenomena and processes—due to their nanoscale size. The goal is first to exploit these properties by gaining control of structures and devices at atomic, molecular, and supramolecular levels and then to learn to manufacture and use these devices efficiently. Maintaining the stability of interfaces and the integration of these “nanostructures” at micron-length and macroscopic scales are all keys to success.
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Emerging Technologies and Ethical Issues in Engineering: Papers from a Workshop, October 14–15, 2003 New behavior at the nanoscale is not necessarily predictable from that observed at larger size scales…. Being able to reduce the dimensions of structures down to the nanoscale leads to the unique properties of carbon nanotubes, quantum wires and dots, thin films, DNA-based structures, and laser emitters. Such new forms of materials and devices herald a revolutionary age for science and technology, provided we can discover and fully utilize the underlying principles. Although this is called a “definition,” it would be more accurate to call it a characterization, because it does not identify the necessary and sufficient conditions for an object or activity to be counted as nanotechnology. It does provide a useful description of nanotechnology. It captures the idea that at the 1 to 100 nm scale, novel properties emerge. The task of nanoresearch, then, is to discover these properties, learn to control their expression, develop the tools for scaling them up to microscales and macroscales, and then develop manufacturing on a large scale (Roco et al.,1999). If successful, the results would lead to “a revolutionary age for science and technology.” The characterization also raises several questions. What accounts for the unique properties? Why do they emerge, and what are they? How is science altered, and what is revolutionary about this? Are these claims inflated, or is there something qualitatively different about what happens on the nanoscale? A detailed discussion of these questions and of the features identified in the NNI definition is far beyond the scope of this paper, but we can briefly touch on some of them to get a sense of the stakes in nanotechnology (Khushf, 2004b). The Mesorealm The nanoscale bridges quantum and classical effects. At the bottom end of the scale, quantum effects dominate; at the top end, classical effects dominate. Many of the interesting properties associated with nanotechnology exist in this strange middle world, the mesorealm, where, as Michael Roukes (2001) notes, “unforseen properties of collective systems emerge.” These properties include the relationship between the size of a quantum dot and the wavelength of light it emits and the quantum character of thermal or electrical conductivity on the nanoscale. A Bridge between Physics, Chemistry, and Biology Developments in the natural sciences have converged at the nanoscale. “At the nanoscale, physics, chemistry, biology, materials science, and engineering converge toward the same principles and tools” (Roco and Bainbridge, 2001). Thus, the metaphors used to describe the relations between these sciences have changed. In the past, hierarchical metaphors were used. Physics was understood to be the base; chemistry was built upon that base; and biology drew upon both physics and chemistry. The grand goal, the unity of science, involved reducing
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Emerging Technologies and Ethical Issues in Engineering: Papers from a Workshop, October 14–15, 2003 the higher levels of the hierarchy to the lower level. Ultimately, everything was to be understood in terms of, and translated into, the terms of physics, the most foundational science. With nanotechnology, the relationships between the sciences are more symmetrical. Biology is still informed by physics and chemistry, but biology and medicine have taken a “molecular turn,” with revolutionary implications for the future of both. Physicists and chemists also look to biology, not just for applications, but also for a better understanding of fundamental science in their own domains. The neat distinctions—between organic and inorganic chemistry, between living and nonliving systems, and between the natural and the artificial worlds—have been blurred (Buchand and Montemagno, 2000; Goldstein, 2003a, 2003b; NSTC, 2002; Roco, 2003b). The metaphors of hierarchy and reduction have changed to a metaphor of bridging. Tools for Visualization and Manipulation in the Nanorealm In essays often regarded as founding documents for the field of nanotechnology, Richard Feynman (1992, 1993) said one of the most important things that can be done to advance biology, and the broader project of scaling down in all areas, was to improve the resolution of the electron microscope. This has, of course, been accomplished; the electron microscope is now capable of “seeing” even beyond the low end of the nanoscale. For important reasons, the scanning probe microscope, rather than the electron microscope, is now a significant icon of nanotechnology (Baird and Shew, 2002). The use of such a microscope for the directed manipulation of atoms (to write “IBM” with xenon atoms, for example) is a paradigm of the potential of nanotechnology (NSTC, 1999). In this example, “seeing” and “acting” merge in complex ways, much as they do at the quantum level, with as yet unexplored implications for the meaning of both “visualization” and “manipulation.” Multiple strategies, from various forms of microscopy to x-ray crystallography to theoretical and computational tools, are now used to understand structure and function. Overlapping imaging techniques are often used to produce a single image; thus, seeing merges with constructing on multiple levels, knowledge merges with doing (Baird, 2004). Strategies for Manufacturing At the top end of the nanorealm, some manufacturing strategies simply scale down macro- and microstrategies; for example, in photolithography, an image of a desired pattern (e.g., a silicon chip) is projected and etched. At the bottom end of the nanorealm, some chemical methods work through mass action, and with quantities assessed in moles, to form new kinds of molecules. The challenge for
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Emerging Technologies and Ethical Issues in Engineering: Papers from a Workshop, October 14–15, 2003 nanotechnology has been to develop methods that link bottom-up, mass-action strategies with top-down, directed manufacturing. At this point, much of the research is still seen in terms of alternatives—either more practical, top-down strategies or bottom-up, self-assembly strategies. But the key challenge involves a merging of chemical self-assembly and systems engineering strategies that will create new interdisciplinary boundaries and new conceptions of both the theory and practice of manufacturing (Whitesides, 2002; Whitesides and Love, 2001). CENTRAL FEATURES OF NANOTECHNOLOGY These scientific considerations must be part of our ethical deliberations because they are linked to the kinds of properties that will emerge, the principles that will be used, and the tools for manipulation at the molecular scale. Until we know the properties and how they arise, we cannot assess risks or contemplate how we should intervene. Broad concerns must be confronted—how living and nonliving systems will be linked and how we will “see” and “act” in the nanorealm. To ignore these concerns would be like ignoring the details of embryology in the stem-cell debate or ignoring the mechanisms of heritability in genetic engineering. The concepts of manipulation and self-assembly (just to give two examples) are not purely scientific. They can be scaled up to the macrolevel (but often not directly because they have only analogous links to common-sense notions of these concepts); thus, they interface with broader ethical concepts. The debate about the meaning of these terms will thus have a social/values component that should be made explicit even at this early stage in the discussion. In addition to the core scientific considerations, there are also certain characteristics of interfaces between diverse disciplinary sciences, science and broader engineering projects, and science and social policy. The following characteristics are often considered central to nanotechnology. Nanotechnology Is Fundamentally Interdisciplinary Entirely new facilities are being designed to support and foster the interdisciplinary possibilities of nanotechnology. In addition, there are obvious implications for the education of new scientists and engineers and the allocation of resources to establish the necessary infrastructure to sustain nanoresearch. These workforce and infrastructure issues have an obvious societal dimension; in fact, this is one of the social implications addressed by NNI (NRC, 2002; NSTC, 2002; Roco and Bainbridge, 2001, 2002). The interdisciplinary nature of nanotechnology also has serious implications for the social configuration of scientific and engineering practices. Issues related to interdisciplinary pursuits and projects are notoriously difficult to address,
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Emerging Technologies and Ethical Issues in Engineering: Papers from a Workshop, October 14–15, 2003 potentially change every area of life by changing the interfaces between humans and their environment. “Everyone and everything conceivably could be linked all the time and everywhere to a future World Wide Web that feels more like an all-encompassing information environment than just a computer network” (NSTC, 2002). The implications involve privacy, the economy, communications, public policy, even how we understand ourselves as social beings. Nanomaterials Materials with new properties can be built on the basis of nanotechnology. Nanocomposites will enable the construction of lighter cars and planes, which would greatly reduce energy consumption. Nanofiltration systems could address environmental problems. In addition to technologies that could improve sustainability, there may also be new risks, such as toxic health effects or adverse environmental effects. The focus should be on identifying new materials, new properties, and new products so that their ethical and social implications can be addressed early on. Military Applications The Army has provided the Massachusetts Institute of Technology with $50 million to develop nano-based technology to equip future soldiers. The key areas of research include: “threat detection, threat neutralization, concealment, enhanced human performance, real-time automated medical treatment, and reducing the weight load of the fully equipped soldier” (NRC, 2002). In addition, the DARPA funds a great deal of research related to nanotechnology, which is likely to have a huge impact on the military (e.g., on human-machine interfaces). Military uses of nanotechnology should be the subject of careful ethical analysis, not only because they will affect military personnel, but also because they are likely to be transferred quickly to nonmilitary settings. One need only consider DARPA’s funding of the Internet to imagine the potential impact of such technology. We also need to consider how nanotechnology might be used by hostile groups, including terrorists, and how it might be used to improve global security. Space Applications As Samuel Venneri (2001), chief technologist at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), has noted, “nanotechnology encompasses the attributes of self-generation, reproduction, self-assembly, self-repair and natural adaptation. These are all attributes we attribute to living things…. Nanotech-nology will enable NASA to build future systems with many of these
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Emerging Technologies and Ethical Issues in Engineering: Papers from a Workshop, October 14–15, 2003 ‘life-like’ characteristics.” Such developments are needed so we can travel great distances from Earth and withstand the harsh environments that will be encountered in space. Venneri also notes that building things with these lifelike characteristics will challenge NASA’s traditional ethics. Many of the issues, he says, “are moving beyond the typical bounds of technology into the domain of natural philosophy.” Biomedical Applications Nanotechnology has the potential to transform medicine, enabling new diagnostic and therapeutic capabilities that could “fundamentally alter patient-doctor relationships, the management of illnesses, and medical culture in general” (Alivisatos, 2001; NSTC, 1999; Roco, 2003b; Smalltimes, 2003). In addition, nanotechnology could greatly enhance human performance by slowing aging processes, providing new sensory capabilities, and enabling direct brain-machine interfaces (Fukuyama, 2002; McKibben, 2003; Mnyusiwalla et al., 2003; Moore, 2003; Roco and Bainbridge, 2002). Alan Goldstein, the director of biomedical materials engineering at Alfred University, has expressed serious concerns about these developments: “Even at this primitive stage, bioengineering creates a startling constellation of ethical considerations; for the patient’s humanity, for health-care policy, and society. The need to integrate technology and ethics will only increase in scope and significance as the field becomes more mature. Enabled by nanotechnology, bioengineers will soon be integrating neurons with diodes, DNA with transistors” (Goldstein, 2003a,b). Ethical issues at the nano/bio interface will require intensive research and reflection. Energy Nanotechnology has great potential to address energy and environmental problems. Examples include high-efficiency fuel cells, artificial photosynthesis, new catalysts, and technologies for reducing energy consumption. Despite its great potential, some environmental groups have already compared nanotechnology to nuclear energy in terms of promise and risks (Arnall, 2003; ETC Group, 2003). This is why it is important that we address the ethical issues early in a broad public debate, not just in terms of promise and risk. We will need a constructive dialogue about the promise of nanotechnology for addressing energy needs before attitudes based on old ideas and insufficient information have been developed and become embedded. Environmental groups are not the only groups that may be skeptical about nanotechnology. The energy industry (particularly the oil industry) may be opposed to the development of nanotechnologies for economic reasons.
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Emerging Technologies and Ethical Issues in Engineering: Papers from a Workshop, October 14–15, 2003 Other Areas for Ethical Consideration Many general ethical/social concerns not related exclusively to nanoscale science and technology pervade all of the topical areas mentioned above. These include: workforce and education; environmental and health impacts; the nanodivide; commercialization and funding; privacy and security; general cultural and societal impacts; the form of public debate; images in science, science fiction, and the media; and legal issues. Extensive work will be necessary in all of these areas. We already have a sufficient knowledge base for developing summary documents in many of these areas, so we can begin to situate nanotechnology in the context of the larger ethical and social debate. But first we must determine the degree to which nanoscience is unique in that it raises specific problems that require specific solutions and the degree to which it can be considered an instance of the ethical concerns associated with all sciences and technologies. This will require a dialogue between those working in nanoethics and those working on the general ethics of science and engineering. Some of the work on engineering ethics, for example, ethical considerations associated with a culture that sustains research integrity, can surely be integrated into nanoethics. To this extent, at least, researchers in engineering ethics, business ethics, environmental ethics, and bioethics must participate in this dialogue. Another strategy for organizing and addressing topical areas in nanotechnology is a timeline. A recent conference on the societal implications of nanotechnology was based on this strategy. The conference “propose[d] a vision and alternative pathways toward that vision integrating short-term (3 to 5 year), medium-term (5 to 20 year), and long-term (more than 20 year) perspectives” (Roco and Bainbridge, 2001). Richard Smith (2001) showed how a timeline could be used to address ethical issues; for each time period he characterized what nano-technology would entail and the kinds of problems that were likely to be raised. In Smith’s account, in the short term, nanotechnology will be mostly in the research phase; some microelectromechanical systems (MEMS) and nanosensors will be tested and deployed, and various coatings and materials will be nearing the final stages of development. Ethical and social issues will revolve around the education of the next generation of researchers; commercialization; preliminary risk assessment; the use of terms, such as “nanosystems”; interdisciplinary problems; funding priorities (especially for visionary kinds of nanotechnology); and international competition and cooperation. In the short term, funding, research, and focus will be “widely dispersed politically, geographically, technically, and scientifically.” In the midterm, Smith believes nanotechnology will involve super-MEMS and “entirely new classes of materials and manufacturing processes” that will become part of our everyday lives. New, nano-based diagnostic systems will be
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Emerging Technologies and Ethical Issues in Engineering: Papers from a Workshop, October 14–15, 2003 available, communicating and programmable nanosystems will be on the horizon, and nanobots will be considered a real possibility. The questions raised at this stage will include new diagnostic capabilities that lead to diagnoses of diseases long before cures are available, the extension of Moore’s law beyond the limits predicted for current manufacturing strategies, and new sensors, just to name a few. Midterm ethical issues will include: upheavals in global financial and manufacturing systems; marginalization of the poor (and perhaps also the rich, who are invested in older systems); new kinds of risk assessment; privacy and security issues raised by new capacities; implications for crime and the environment; new interest groups; a debate between optimists and pessimists about the prospects for these radical new technologies; and even questions about strong artificial intelligence and the status of computers (based on claims of people like Ray Kurzweil about “spiritual machines”). At this stage, there will be a mix of traditional and visionary questions, and coordination between government and industry will be necessary to address them. In the long-term, Smith believes that although assemblers will still not be available, nanobots and “communicating and/or programmable nanosystems are becoming available,” and a new kind of nanomedicine will emerge. On the basis of these capacities, many diseases will be cured, aging will be slowed, and a host of environmental and energy concerns will be solved. At this stage, some radical questions will be raised, such as what will happen if nanotechnology allows scarcity to become scarce; how much nanoprosthesis it will take to make a person nonhuman; how the concept of property will change if most things become replicable; if nanotechnology is as transformative as optimists predict, how difficult the transformation will be; what the implications will be of truly sentient artificial intelligences; how the nature of man will change; and how humans will/should interact with nanobots. Smith believes these radical questions will arise fairly soon, whereas others (myself included) think they will not arise that quickly. Nevertheless, I think he rightly appreciates that the ethical questions about nanotechnology will “morph” as new capacities are introduced. Even the conservatives among us must acknowledge that by the end of the twenty-first century, many of these visionary scenarios will be realized, although they may come about in completely unexpected ways and have implications that cannot now be anticipated. In any case, it is not too soon to consider them seriously. Smith’s near-term nanotechnology closely resembles the loosely associated, more traditional kinds of research I addressed earlier under the rubric of the nanotechnology grab bag; his long-term nanotechnology approximates the more visionary definition (but without Drexler’s universal assemblers, although Smith thinks they might be possible). In the short term, nanotechnology tends to be fragmented in a host of topical areas, with more global issues addressed in terms of future planning. As one moves from the short term to the long term, integration
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Emerging Technologies and Ethical Issues in Engineering: Papers from a Workshop, October 14–15, 2003 increases, as does the need for a more coordinated public/private response. A core task in anticipating these developments involves careful attention to the midterm vision, which should be formulated in a way that can guide the transition into an exciting, but disruptive, future. The midterm task of addressing ethical issues merges with the general task of characterizing nanotechnology; both jointly provide an anticipatory coherence of the emerging science and its interface with society. NANOTECHNOLOGY AS AN ENABLING SCIENCE AND TECHNOLOGY In this essay, I have focused directly on nanoscale science and technology. However, some of the most significant ethical concerns are not about nanotechnology itself, but about how this emerging science will converge with and make possible other radically new and developing technologies, especially those associated with biomedicine, information technology and robotics, and cognitive science. In the more radical visionary scenarios, this convergence leads to a “post-human” future (Joy, 2000; Kurzweil, 1999). The prospects and character of this convergence are beyond the scope of this presentation, but a discussion of the ethics of nanotechnology would not be complete without at least briefly addressing issues in this area. A major public/private initiative is under way to enhance human life by seeding the convergence of nanotechnology, biomedicine, information technology, and cognitive science (NBIC) (De Rosnay, 2001; Khushf, 2004b; Roco and Bainbridge, 2002). Leaders in NNI, such as Mike Roco, leaders of major corporations, such as IBM and Hewlett Packard, and political leaders, such as Newt Gingrich and the current undersecretary of commerce for technology, Philip Bond, just to mention a few of the most prominent figures, are all involved in this initiative. The purpose is to establish a knowledge base and infrastructure to integrate current areas of rapidly developing science and direct efforts toward improving the human condition. Radical changes are being contemplated. It is believed that in 10 to 20 years we could significantly alter the aging process, develop human-machine interfaces, realize goals of space exploration, develop advanced robotics, and create smart environments. The summary NBIC document describes the longer term implications (Roco and Bainbridge, 2002): The twenty-first century could end in world peace, universal prosperity, and evolution to a higher level of compassion and accomplishment. It is hard to find the right metaphor to see a century into the future, but it may be that humanity would become like a single, distributed and interconnected “brain” based in new core pathways of society. This will be an enhancement to the productivity and independence of individuals, giving them greater opportunities to achieve personal goals.
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Emerging Technologies and Ethical Issues in Engineering: Papers from a Workshop, October 14–15, 2003 The architects of this initiative appreciate that such radical prospects will require comprehensive discussions and debate to address ethical issues, which include broad human and environmental goals and potential impacts on every aspect of society. Core challenges are associated with balancing individual and communal well-being, a task that has always been central to ethics and social policy, as well as conceptualizing the notion of human flourishing that should guide the initiative. Although fairly specific goals have been put forth—namely, NBIC convergence for the purposes of human enhancement—the initiative could be understood in a more general way as a forum for exploring the future impact of all science and engineering, including qualitative changes just over the horizon. Nanotechnology is the key enabling technology that will make possible NBIC convergence; thus serious reflection on these enabling capacities will require an approach that integrates issues raised by many other areas of science and engineering and issues raised by nanoscience and nanotechnology. The NBIC documents call for an increasingly integrated approach to sciences and technologies, and they suggest a conceptual framework for a holistic understanding. The development of this framework will require philosophical, ethical, and social analysis because it will surely influence how diverse activities associated with the research enterprise are integrated with each other and with the rest of society (Khushf, 2004b). THE URGENCY OF THE TASK I would like to close on a cautionary note. Although some radical developments, such as those associated with human-machine interfaces and smart environments, are already in the early stages of implementation (Maguire and McGee, 1999; Moore, 2003; Nicolelis, 2003; Nicolelis and Chapin, 2002; Roco and Bainbridge, 2002), I do not believe the qualitative difference between nanotechnology and other more conventional technologies will be apparent in the near term. Most research and commercialization is currently directed toward fairly traditional ends, and the first nanoproducts will be far from revolutionary. This does not mean we can take our time about reflecting on ethical issues. Unless we focus significant efforts on the ethical and social issues, the debate could be framed in a way that could make it extremely difficult to respond constructively to the radical capacities on the midterm horizon. I believe it is imperative that we put forth extensive efforts to address these ethical issues now. There are already some indications of problems ahead. Consider, for example, the potential impact of the upcoming movie of Michael Crichton’s book, Prey, in which swarms of self-replicating nanobots emerge as a threat to all of humanity. As one reviewer has said, “[p]ut Hollywood and Michael Crichton together and you’ve got the next big science scare” (Smith, 2003). Although the book is purely science fiction, Crichton begins with an introduction and ends with references that give the impression that his story is based on current
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Emerging Technologies and Ethical Issues in Engineering: Papers from a Workshop, October 14–15, 2003 science. The project described in the book resembles the Drexlerian project, and Crichton cites Drexler in the introduction; and the fictional evil company, Xymos, seems to be patterned after Zyvex. The book is a version of the dystopian scenario of Bill Joy (2000). Many leaders in nanotechnology are greatly concerned that public perceptions will be formed by these images, which could lead to a reaction against the whole research enterprise of nanotechnology. Debates like the one between Drexler and Smalley on the feasibility of assemblers may become part of the public perception of nanotechnology, with science and movie images merging. There are also indications that some current nanoproducts, such as nanorods, might have toxic effects, raising questions about the health and environmental impacts of nanotechnology (Smith, 2001; Wardak and Rejeski, 2003). It is possible that public debate on the toxic effects of current nanoproducts will resemble the debate about genetically modified organisms. Even worse, these discussions might become enmeshed in the assembler and dystopian debate, which could lead to a complex mixing of the meanings of nanotechnology. It is difficult enough for researchers to tease out the diverse meanings of nanotechnology, and it may be impossible for the public. Thus, the public could become polarized, with some people advocating for and others advocating against the whole initiative. Examples of such polarization can be found in the debates on nuclear technology and genetically modified foods. But there is one significant difference. In the end, we cannot choose to forego nanotechnology. Nanoscale science and technology are too broad, and they signify developments in all of the sciences. Foregoing nanotechnology would be like foregoing chemistry or physics. We must find a way to make some clear distinctions to frame the debate about nanoscale science and engineering activities (Roco and Bainbridge, 2001). And we should attempt to open this debate before polarization occurs. As Arnall (2002) notes, “both precautionary principle and industry advocates agree that there is time to create dialogue and consensus that could prevent the kind of confrontations … that plagued the development of biotechnology.” To do that, we will have to develop the right kinds of visions, situated ethical theories, and topically based distinctions to guide the debate, and we will have to ensure that they are widely disseminated. Distinctions must be made in a way that anticipates and guides public debate. Unfortunately, we are just beginning to address these issues in a nuanced way. In many ways, we are unprepared for a debate that is already at hand. To think through the challenges ahead, we will need the same kind of exponential growth in ethics research that is taking place in nanotechnology (Mnyusiwalla et al., 2003). In fact, we have a lot of catching up to do already. A whole new kind of science and technology lies ahead, with capacity to alter humanity in unprecedented ways. We will need a new kind of dialogue to enable us to think through these capacities in a mature and responsible way.
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Representative terms from entire chapter: