Saturday, January 01, 2005

Superficial consideration of nanoethics

I suppose that it is a good thing that it is being discussed, but this report on nanoethics by Bert Gordijn sponsored by UNESCO (called “Nanoethics: From Utopian Dreams and Apocalyptic Nightmares towards a more Balanced View”) is particularly superficial and shows a very minimal desire actually to pursue the ethical issues behind nanotechnology. The claim in the introduction of the report is that “the focus of the paper is on the methodology and not on normative analysis.” However, an objective reading of the report reveals significant normative analysis and minimal concern for studying actual ethical issues.


The sections on the definition of nanotechnology (entitled “Terminology and basic idea,” “Practical development,” “Theoretical development,” and “State of the field at present”) are full of a strong biases in favor of both a Drexlerian view of nanotechnology and in distinct favor of the “utopian dreams” over a more balanced view. In section 2.2, “Practical development,” Gordijn seems to find that the only practical development worth talking about in nanotechnology was the scanning probe microscope (and the atomic force microscope – a type of SPM) and that the seminal achievement with the scanning probe microscope was the pushing around of 35 xenon atoms to write “IBM.” There is no doubt that this was a major achievement. But the development of SPMs and the writing of ‘I-B-M’ occurred twenty years ago. Are we to believe that there have been no practical developments in nanotechnology that have ethical implications? Furthermore, Gordijn footnotes this section by saying that “Feynman already pointed out the importance of better microscopes for the further development of nanotechnology.” Though Richard Feynman did point out this importance, he was discussing making electron microscopes better. In actuality SPMs are not microscopes in any sense that Feynman was talking about. For viewing applications, SPMs are a lot like Braille. They see by feeling and with molecules and atomically precise materials this can be a very destructive process.

The “theoretical development” section focuses exclusively on Drexler’s books and the “theory” that he developed in them. Unfortunately, the vast majority of nanotechnology research that goes on is not developed from Drexler’s theories. Also, let’s not pretend that this paragraph isn’t slightly (just slightly) biased towards the “utopian dreams” of Drexlerian nanotech

According to Drexler, the development of universally applicable assemblers is essential for the further development of nanotechnology. Assemblers could obviously also be programmed to replicate themselves. From a commercial point of view, this would have the interesting advantage of being able to manufacture products in a feasible time frame. After all, if accomplished by only one assembler, constructing a car in a molecule-by-molecule way could take ages. If, on the other hand, millions or billions of assemblers could work together, things would look far more optimistic
The “State of the field at present” section discusses some of the actual non-Drexlerian nanotech work – but only in the footnote.

Finally, we come to the part where the utopian dreams of nanotechnology are mentioned. I was heartened to read the following - “It is even expected that it will contribute to the enhancement of man. Not only will it be possible to overcome contemporary diseases, pain and other unpleasant bodily symptoms. Over and above, nanotechnology will enable us to enhance all our human capabilities and properties” – as I assumed that it foreshadowed later looking in to what it means to be human and the impact nanotechnology will have on it (i.e. a discussion on what changes to humanity nanotechnology will cause).

But we do not get any such discussion – or any real mention of these types of issues at all. Instead we get a list of questions masked as steps.

  1. Step one: what specific field of nanotechnology is to be assessed? Though there are many different parts of nanotechnology and it spans many different concerns of research (though from the introduction we got in this report you wouldn’t know it), to separate them from each other in the cookie-cutter manner that Gordijn suggest is going to succeed in diluting the central issues that occur when we can alter atomic and genetic structures through nanotechnology.
  2. Step two: what are the objectives of that specific field of nanotechnology? See what I said about the previous step. Also, as if only the objectives of technology are its responsibility. What of the unintended “side-effects?” Are those not to be considered?
  3. Step three: are these objectives ethically desirable? This strikes me as the sort of question that ought to be answered long before we even get to step one. No?
  4. Step four: will further development of the field of research contribute to the realization of these objectives? Because otherwise why would we even do it? But this isn’t really an ethical question so much as it’s a logistics question.
  5. Step five: what are the ethical problems connected with further development of the field of research? So finally we get to the meat of the matter. The only question really worth answering and it gets treated as one in a list of six. Unfortunately, nowhere in Gordijn’s discussion this question do we see that he has any concerns over the nature of man and the impact that nanotechnology will have on that. Instead mainly we get the Rawlsian issues over global justice. Important, yes, but somewhat superficial and obvious.
  6. Step six: are these ethical problems surmountable? Sigh. In other words, how do we skirt by ethical issues. This is the completely wrong way to think about ethical issues. Ethics are not something to get around in order to pursue other goals. Ethics can help guide the way.


Though I am happy that people are actually considering some of the ethical issues that go along with the development of nanotechnology, it seems that the ones that are being considered are only the very superficial ones and not any of the deeper questions that need to be considered.

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