Sunday, February 17, 2008

Is nanotechnology morally acceptable?

The Next Bit comes to us from The Center for Responsible Nanotechnology (CRN)

“For a significant percentage of Americans, the answer is no, according to a recent survey of Americans' attitudes about the science of the very small.” The survey, by Dietram Scheufele, University of Wisconsin-Madison professor of life sciences communication, shows that “religion exerts far more influence on public views of technology in the United States than in Europe.”

To understand where the nano-nay-sayers come from, note especially this paragraph describing just what nanotechnology is, and see if in fact it differs from any other set of technologies, hundreds of which enable our current life style:

“Nanotechnology is a branch of science and engineering devoted to the design and production of materials, structures, devices and circuits at the smallest achievable scale, typically in the realm of individual atoms and molecules.”

Hmmmmmm… just science. Can’t blame the science, nor the resulting technologies, for things we don’t like. Blame perhaps each of us for not participating in the decisions that can enable or stifle new technologies.

“In a sample of 1,015 adult Americans, only 29.5 percent of respondents agreed that nanotechnology was morally acceptable.”

Let me go out on a limb and state that these folks equate anything “not occurring in nature” as unnatural. Have they given even the smallest bit of thought to the many “unnatural” bits and pieces found in everyday 21st Century life? Things such as, oh, let’s see….. most modern medicine (diagnosis and treatment), the vast majority of technologies that create functional items from base materials and components, etc. Almost everything we do and see and eat owes some part of its existence to one or more “unnatural” elements.

My point? Do not equate the science nor the resulting technologies with how they will be used and how they effect society. Science is neither good nor bad. (Geez, how many times have we heard that. Did we all pay attention? Apparently not everyone.) Good and bad come from our use of technologies, for instance by allowing some to be used to impinge on another’s rights. Just google “Genocide” to get an idea of what I mean.

Are there some technologies that we should ban? Excellent question, glad I asked. Absolutely. The world, as a body, has banned the use of some weapons of mass destruction, such as nerve gas. So yes, we can make “morality-based” decisions, as an informed group. Have we made mistakes, allowing some bad technologies to live and some good ones to die on the vine? I’ll leave that up to each of you to decide.

Where are we now?

Once again we find ourselves at a crossroad, trying to decide which of many technology-paved paths to take. Many of them could lead us to a nanotech-enabled, globe-spanning, prosperous future, where no person is treated as having less value than another. A future where the few don’t get to decide for the many. Where everyone is heard, anyone can speak, and decisions-makers listen.

Because more and more of us are paying attention to and participating in the debate surrounding nanotech-enabled technologies, I am hopeful that we are traveling down the better paths.

In Closing, let me hammer home this point, yet again (I will undoubtedly do so again, and probably many times, right up to the point where it doesn’t matter, one way of the other):

No informed person doubts that developments at the nanoscale will be significant. We debate the time frame, the magnitude and the possibilities, but not the likelihood for large-scale societal change. The least-speculative views suggest that we're in for changes of an order that justifies--if not demands--our undivided and immediate attention.

Will we be ready?

One of the best places to stay informed about preparing for advanced nanotechnologies is at The Center for Responsible Nanotechnology (

Find news and information about nanotechnologies at Nanotech Now (

Read entire article at

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