Nano Technology and Nano Ethics - Introduction

By Ted Peters

Are We on The Brink of a Nano Revolution?

Are we in the beginning stage of a new revolution in technology: the Nano Revolution? Like the genome revolution of a decade ago, will nanotech call for social impact assessment? Will Nano Ethics become a new field?

By any measure, world attention to nanotechnology indicates something big is about to happen. In 2004 industries and governments worldwide invested $10 billion in Research and Development. At least 60 nations now sponsor national nanotech research programs. In 2006 President George W. Bush budgeted $1 billion in U.S. federal support for the National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI), this on top of $5 billion already spent. This is more than either the Apollo moon shot or the Human Genome Project.

We use the term nanotechnology to refer to the manipulation of matter on the scale of atoms and molecules. From the Greek word, nanos, meaning dwarf, a nanometer (nm) equals one billionth of a meter. It takes ten atoms of hydrogen side-by-side to equal one nanometer. Compare this to a DNA molecule which is 2.5 nm wide, or a human hair which is 80,000 nm thick. Only atomic microscopes are able to see things on the nano scale.

The NNI Reports Some of Their Recent Discoveries:

Looking ahead, we can expect the field of nanobiotechnology to integrate biological materials with synthetic materials to build new molecular structures. New living systems may be built in laboratories out of a synthesis of living and non-living parts which will be programmed to perform specific tasks in the human body. For example, nanosized robotic machines - called nanobots or nanites--could circulate in the human blood stream transporting oxygen or hormones faster and more efficiently than what nature to date has been able to do. Some nanotechies such as Ray Kurzweil speculate that if we replace 10 percent of our red blood cells with these nanobots, we could do an Olympic sprint for 15 minutes without taking a breath or sit at the bottom of a swimming pool for four hours. Nanobots could travel inside the body and brain to perform therapeutic functions as well as enhance our strength and intelligence.

Can Nanotech in our Brains Make us Smarter?

Can nanotech make us smarter? Can we put nanobots in our brains to enhance our memory or increase our computational abilities? Plans for neuro-cognitive enhancement are introducing new terms such as ‘intelligence amplification’ (IA) or ‘cognitive augmentation’ and even ‘machine augmented intelligence’. Nano-neuro-techies are fomenting a revolution in the cybernetic industry, which has been underway since the 1950s and 1960s. The Enhancement Technologies Group, for example, wants to increase the capability of a person to approach a complex problem and solve it. “Increased capability in this respect is taken to mean a mixture of the following: more-rapid comprehension, better comprehension, the possibility of gaining a useful degree of comprehension in a situation that previously was too complex, speedier solutions, better solutions, and the possibility of finding solutions to problems that before seemed insolvable.”

Even more dramatic secnarios can be imagined. Suppose small incremental enhancements are introduced. Then these small changes are amplified and re-amplified until they grow exponentially. These new levels of intelligence could transfer themselves to accelerated computing platforms, such as optical nanocomputers or quantum nanocomputers. This would allow them to accelerate the brain's thinking speed significantly. Futurists have called the possibility of such an event the "Singularity." The idea of this singularity implies an impact upon our world that could “exceed that of any other foreseeable technological advance,” says the Accelerating Futures group. A “Singularity, if successful, would create a massive upward spike in the quantity of intelligence here on Earth, a persistent positive-feedback process, continuously enhancing itself. In a favorable scenario, our freedom and potential could be maximized, opening up astonishing new possibilities that might have taken trillions of years for unaided humans to create alone.”

Such are the futuristic scenarios being spun by nanotech prophets searching for nanotech profits. Like previous technological revolutions, this one can be expected to have an impact on society, with ethical and legal implications. Because of the bodily enhancement potential of nanobiotechnology, it will pick up religious implications as well. Theologians will ask: could advances in nanobiotech actually change or alter what we have come to know as human nature? If so, according to what ethical guidelines should we proceed? 

Nano Ethics and the Future

The futuristic dimensions of nanotech along with nanobiotech lead us to project scenarios and then evaluate them according to ethical criteria. Techno futurists operate according to what I call the understanding-decision-control (u-d-c) formula. The first task is to understand the direction current trends are taking us. In this case, we need to project the possible future scenarios nano research will bring about. Such understanding includes distinguishing between desirable and undesirable futures. This is where ethical deliberation helps us distinguish what we should pursue, what we should avoid, and where to urge caution. The second task is decision - that is, we make the decision now to pursue the technological scenario most likely leading to the most desirable future. The third task is to take control of what is projected to happen, in order to aid and abet a positive future becoming actualized. Control, of course, can be an elusive phantom; yet making decisions in pursuit of control is intrinsic to future planning.

            The basic contribution an ethicist can make belongs at stage one, envisioning a better future and setting the moral criteria for determining what counts as a better future. A second contribution is to urge caution where caution is warranted. Nano speculation is rife with wild-eyed and enticing scenarios, especially for medical therapy and human enhancement. So we need to ask: what counts ethically as we compare various scenarios? The field of nano ethics today sees its task as shouldering moral responsibility for what should happen tomorrow.

What Questions Might a Nano-Ethicist Ask?

Moral issues ride technology like a rider does a horse. Wherever technology goes, ethical questions go right along. A technological horse that tries to run away to avoid its ethical rider will not be able to stray long.

Even though the nano horse is hardly out of the barn, we can already foresee ethical questions for consideration and deliberation. By ‘ethical’ here I do not mean moral pronouncements, let alone moral dogmas. The field of ethics, like other scholarly domains, is a field of analysis, study, and evaluation. We will begin here with ethical questions, pointing to possible directions for tentative answers.

  1. Personal Safety. When it comes to placing nanobots within the human body, will they influence larger biosystems in unpredictable ways? Might neurocognitive enhancement measures disturb the far more complex neural systems which are yet poorly undersood? Might a high degree of caution be called for here?

  2. Environmental Safety. Nanoparticles can be taken up by other cells. What will be their effect? It has already been shown that nano particles have been absorbed into the livers of research animals; and they have caused brain damage in fish. Is there a risk nanoparticles could enter the food chain, then be eaten by animals and people? Might caution be advised here as well?

  3. Coercion to Enhance. We can imagine a scenario where neurocognitive enhancement has been standardized. What will be the impact on employment or other institutional relations? We could easily anticipate employers insisting that their employees obtain intelligence augmentation to perform their jobs. Do we need now to consider legal protections against discrimination against the unenhanced?

  4. Distributive Justice. It is likely that nanotech therapies and neurocognitive enhancers may not be distributed fairly. Present economic inequities might be exacerbated when some persons are enhanced while others cannot afford to be. Does this call for alert attention to matters of economic justice? Does it call for governmental scrutiny instead of throwing nanotechnology into the winds of the free market?

  5. Cultural Values. When enhancement shines on the horizon beckoning us to come forward, how will we value what previously has been normal for us human beings? Are we at risk for medicalizing normal human behavior, judging it to be inferior? Could we end up pathologizing the normal human attention span or our normal capacity to remember things? Could nano enhancement undermine classic values attributed to self-discipline and hard work? Revulsion against professional athletes whose steroid enhancement enables them to break records of previous more mortal heroes indicates widespread fear of unfairness. Athletes of all kinds deserve a level playing field. Could testing for nano enhancers along with steroids provide that level playing field?

  6. Neurocognitive Liberty. What will happen to us once we receive nano sized brain implants? Could they, like existing electronic devices, make what is inside our heads knowable to those outside? Could wireless broadcasting make it possible that our minds would be subject to external monitoring and perhaps even manipulation? Might enhanced persons find themselves subject to a new electronic tyranny? Should legislators begin now to prepare protections for privacy of mind?

  7. Playing God. Ethical concern over “playing God” was hot during the period of the Human Genome Project. It may become hot again during the nanotech revolution. Will implantation of nanobots or other modifications of the human body and brain so alter human nature that we will give birth to a new species, the post-human or trans-human? If so, does this amount to a desirable or undesirable future?

  8. Why? What good might result from the advance of nanotech and nanobiotech? This is not a rhetorical rejection. It only asks for ethical justification.

What Might Theologians Think About Nano Ethics?

When we turn to motives, nanotech investors are obviously motivated by visions of a big financial return. Those who will line up to purchase nanobiotech services such as brain augmentation may be motivated to increase their competitive edge. Most of the ethical questions above are directed toward protecting the wider society and environment from risks posed by investors and self-enhancers.

This does not cut much mustard with theologians, however. This is because theologians begin their ethical deliberations with a transcendent ground for value, God. What is good for us is the vision of well being God has in store for us. To manifest that vision of well being, Jesus gave us a double commandment: love God and love your neighbor. In bioethics, this translates into the principle of beneficence - that is, if you see an opportunity to do good, take it.

What is not clear to date from future scenarios regarding nanotechnology is whether its advances will offer anything relevant to our commitment to love God and love our neighbor. One manifestation of such love, of course, is striving for justice in society. Perhaps Christians and other religious persons committed to the love ideal will put their energies into ensuring fair distribution of nanotech benefits. Perhaps the U.S. government and other governments might find the pursuit of distributive justice worthy of investing effort as well.

Recommended Reading