Nanotechnologies and Ethics

September 2018 Pulse

Imagine creating robots so small that they are able to swim swiftly through fluids like blood to a specific destination to deliver medicine to treat a cancerous tumour. Such nanorobots would not only negate the need for invasive procedures; they would also make possible delivery of medical payloads that is so precisely targeted that it would significantly reduce the side effects of the drugs.

This (and many other mind-blowing applications) is the promise of nanotechnology, a new category of technology that involves the manipulation of materials or molecules at the scale of 1 to 100 nanometres. A nanometre is one-billionth of a metre.

Here is how one journalist describes a nanometre: ‘If a nanometre were somehow magnified to appear as long as the nose on your face, then a red blood cell would appear the size of the Empire State Building, a human hair would be about two or three miles wide, one of your fingers would span the continental United States, and a normal person would be about as tall as six or seven planet Earths piled atop one another’.

Although the study of nanoparticles can be traced to 1914 when Richard Adolf Zsigmondy used an ultramicroscope to investigate colloidal gold and other nanomaterials, it was only recently that scientists are able to manipulate, use and even produce them.

The current applications of nanotechnology are already quite staggering, covering areas as diverse a medicine, air quality control and energy efficiency. For example, in the field of medicine, nanoscale silver is being used as an antimicrobial agent in the treatment of wounds. Nanotechnology is also being used to increase the efficiency of fuel cells and solar cells, while reducing the costs.

Some nanotechnology products have already been commercialised and made available to the general public, often at a speed that has caused disconcertion among some commentators.

As Patrick Lin and Fritz Alhoff note: ‘These nanotechnology products are quickly entering the marketplace today, from stain-resistant pants to scratch-resistant paint to better sports equipment to more effective cosmetics and sunblock’.

Transhumanists like Williams Sims Bainbridge and Raymond Kurzweil have welcomed nanotechnology with much enthusiasm because of their firm belief that the technology would one day be so advanced that it could save human beings from illness, ageing and even death. Some transhumanists even envision the day when the human species itself with be transformed into something much more superior, free from the encumbrances and limitations it currently experiences.

The speed with which nanotechnology is developing and the scope of its applications has led some ethicists to worry that ethical reflections have lagged behind, and perhaps are even unable to catch up with the science. To be sure, there is a paucity of rigorous ethical discussion, and scientists and ethicists alike have not always greeted the new-minted ‘nanoethics’ with enthusiasm.

The good news, however, is that ethicists wrestling with the problems tossed up by this rapidly developing science need not start from scratch. As Mette Ebbesen, Svend Andersen and Flemming Besenbacher have rightly argued, ‘a number of ethical aspects of genetics, biotechnology, and environmental science parallel ethical issues in nanotechnology’.

Following Tom Beauchamp and James Childress, they insist that principles such as respect for autonomy, beneficence, nonmaleficence and justice can help ethicists navigate the complex labyrinth of ethical and social issues associated with nanotechnology.

Be that as it may, there is still an urgent need to directly address the ethical and social concerns that are specifically tied to this new technology and its applications.

One serious concern has to do with the uncontrolled proliferation of self-replicating nanosystems that may in the long term irreparably harm the ecosystem as it spreads in the environment. In addition, nanobots that malfunction and could no longer be controlled or even detected could not only cause untold damage to the environment but also endanger human lives (K. Eric Dexler’s famous ‘gray goo’).

The dual-use nature of nanotechnology means that products that are meant for therapeutic applications can also be used for biological warfare and terrorism. Although this is a common issue for many technologies, in the case of nanotechnology the problem is much more complex and magnified (pun intended).

The list can easily be expanded.

In an important document on the ethical and social issues raised by nanotechnologies, UNESCO identifies several other peculiarities associated with nanotechnology, broader issues to which serious consideration must be given.

The first has to do with the fact that the ramifications and consequences of nanotechnology are global, affecting ‘even countries and societies that are not participating in nanotechnology as researchers, producers, or consumers’.

And the second has to do with the fact that nanotechnology will most certainly increase the inequalities that already exists between developing and developed countries, what some commentators have described as the ‘nanodivide’.

Although Ebbesen et al are right to point out that the issues addressed in nanoethics and general ethics related to technology bear some familial resemblances, there is still a need to think outside the box and anticipate novel scenarios when it comes to this new technology.

To do this scientists, ethicists and policy makers must not only learn to ‘problematise’ nanotechnology. They must also learn to ‘fictionalise’ it, that is, imagine possible utopian or dystopian futures in relation to this technology. As M. L. Brake and N. Hook note: ‘Science fiction helps to train our intellects to accept our imagination as a useful tool within science’s “toolbox”’.

Because the social and ethical issues associated with nanotechnology are immense and complex, scientists and policy-makers should not be too quick to commercialise nanotech products.

Engagement with the public involving as many sectors of society as possible is not only desirable; it is imperative. This is because the social ramifications of nanotechnology – positive or negative – can potentially impact everyone, users and non-users alike.



Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor for the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity.