Just what is nanoethics, and why does it matter?
[Full disclosure: Adam and I talked a lot about the ideas he covered in his article as he was preparing it, but he did not show me the piece in advance. I consider him a friend, even though, as you'll see, his criticisms of CRN's work are sometimes hard-hitting.]
I'd like to share some of Adam's piece with you and respond to it.
Nanoethics is first and foremost plagued by a persistent confusion about what exactly nanotechnology is—a confusion that researchers themselves sometimes exacerbate. The term “nanotechnology” is used nowadays as a catch-all to describe a wide range of research efforts that involve understanding and manipulating matter at the molecular level. The great bulk of this research seeks to find new uses for nanoscale particles or to engineer new materials, some of which have been incorporated into consumer products you can buy today, such as cosmetics, stain-resistant clothing, and antibacterial food containers. This type of nanotechnology is essentially a branch of materials science, and in the years ahead it is expected to yield powerful medical diagnostic tools, ultra-efficient water-filtration systems, strong and lightweight materials for military armor, and numerous breakthroughs in energy, computing, and medicine.
The expectations for those nanomaterials, however, pale in comparison to the hope and the hype surrounding another kind of nanotechnology: theoretical nanomachines. This more radical vision, first described in detail by Eric Drexler in the 1980s, involves molecular manufacturing—building things “from the bottom up” by precisely placing atoms. Personal nanofactories the size of a microwave oven could, so the thinking goes, be programmed to convert raw materials into complex objects like laptop computers. Other nanomachines could replace or repair damaged cells in the body, helping to stave off aging. Still others could make terrible new world-destroying weapons.
This is a good start, to note that nanotechnology means different things to different people. To some, nanotech is all about the revolutionary concepts described by Drexler and his colleagues (including CRN); to others, nanotech is mostly about more mundane stuff.
The divide between these two versions of nanotechnology is stark. Today’s work on nanomaterials is evolutionary. It promises to improve our lives relatively soon with better products and tools. Hundreds of companies and universities are engaged in this work. Governments around the world are pouring billions of dollars into such research—including the U.S. government, which is now spending around $1.4 billion each year through its National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI), an umbrella program that coordinates nanoscale research among more than a dozen federal agencies.
By contrast, the far more revolutionary notion of nanomachines, which has caught the eye of legislators and tickled the imagination of science fiction writers, is the bailiwick of a tiny group of researchers who spend their time on technical analysis and computer modeling of devices that do not now, and might not ever, exist. No federal R&D dollars have been spent on this kind of advanced nanotechnology, although that may change if the NNI follows the advice of a long-awaited report the National Research Council released in late 2006. Noting that the preliminary work on nanomachines has primarily involved “abstract models,” the report called for “experimentation leading to demonstrations” so as “to better characterize the potential for use of bottom-up or molecular manufacturing systems.”
I'm pleased that Adam mentioned last December's important NNI review, which we reacted to here.
Nanomachines could well raise all sorts of social and ethical questions, depending on what form they end up taking, if any. But that kind of nanotechnology does not exist yet, and the kind that does raises only a fairly narrow set of familiar concerns...
It should come as no surprise that the question of safety has emerged as the first nanotech issue around which diverse stakeholders and observers can coalesce. It is low-hanging fruit, after all. Environmental activists worry about the damage that nanostructured materials could inflict on the natural world. Consumer groups worry that nanoparticles might cause cancer or have other adverse health effects. Business leaders worry that unfounded fears could lead to public rejection of nanotech products...
To his enduring credit, Adam does not simply stop after describing those "familiar concerns." He's willing to consider the much weightier, if far less certain, issues raised by more advanced forms of nanotechnology. Specifically, he discusses four "very broad categories of inquiry":
The first is the question of safety, the most fundamental concern of the modern state. Although, as described above, researchers still understand very little about the health and environmental effects of nanoparticles, it seems likely that, as they learn more, some kind of regulatory regime will be developed. But what about the more distant dangers of more advanced forms of nanotechnology? While the “gray goo” apocalypse, in which uncontrolled self-replicating nanomachines devour Earth’s biosphere, is now regarded as passé by the cognoscenti of nanotechnology, there are other potential physical dangers that far-out nanotech might bring. For instance, the Center for Responsible Nanotechnology frequently frets about the possibility of a dangerous “unstable arms race” that could follow the advent of molecular manufacturing; they worry that “gradual escalation” could lead to “conflagration,” and caution that the “destruction caused by nanotech-based weapons could be more targeted and contained than nuclear explosions.” Nanotech “arms control” is needed to avert the worst, they warn. Disregard, for a moment, the many simplistic political and social assumptions underlying both their description of the problem and their proposed solution—the point is that advanced nanotechnologies could conceivably pose dangers beyond the immediate concerns about the health and safety of nanoparticles.
The second category of concern to nanoethicists could, for the sake of convenience, be given the heading “social justice.” This category includes questions about equity, access, and socioeconomics, as well as questions about how much control governments, militaries, or corporations should have over nanotechnology. Similar concerns have been raised about a broad array of new technologies, and they are now being dressed up with a “nano” prefix as in the past they have worn “bio,” “digital,” or “eco.” So, for instance, the “digital divide,” the 1990s-era fear that the computer age might leave millions of poor people behind, has a nano-analogue: the worry of a potential “nano-divide” between nano-haves and nano-have-nots. Another byword for activists and academics for the last two decades, “sustainable development,” is now being applied to nanotech. And countless other social and economic concerns, including the effects of globalization and the old Luddite worry about job displacement caused by technology, are now getting linked to nanotechnology.
The third area of nanoethical inquiry relates to vast and genuinely novel social changes that the development of nanotechnology might wreak. Could nanotechnology play a part in the development of artificial intelligence, and if so, would that development be as socially transformative as many of its advocates hope? Could nanotechnology radically erode privacy, as it becomes easier to gather vast amounts of information about each of us, not just through surveillance but through new kinds of genetic and forensic analysis based on nanotechnology (a prospect one scholar has dubbed “nano-panopticism”)? Might molecular manufacturing bring about an end to scarcity?
The final category is also revolutionary; it involves the use of nanotechnology not just to transform society but to redefine our very humanity. Some of the scientists and policymakers involved in the federal government’s nanotechnology initiative have made extreme claims about the medical benefits nanotechnology will bring relatively soon. It is, for instance, slated to play a key role in the National Cancer Institute’s plan to “eliminate suffering and death from cancer” by 2015. But even such grand ambitions pale in comparison to the claims made by National Science Foundation officials about the looming “NBIC convergence”—the notion that biological science, information technology, and cognitive research will all converge at the nanoscale, opening up new possibilities for the radical control and enhancement of the human form.
Those are four extremely important areas of interest. While we understand the complaint about CRN's "many simplistic political and social assumptions," it seems an inevitable result of stretching towards understanding in areas where prior work is scant, if it exists at all. At this stage, we're not ready to go into finer detail with either our analyses or proposed solutions. Our task for now is to raise awareness of these issues and to stimulate more comprehensive work by other groups, especially those with deeper expertise in specific areas.
And then we get down to the nitty-gritty, the three biggest problems, as Adam sees it, with nanoethics:
The first problem relates to facts. It is difficult, if not impossible, to have any discussion, let alone serious ethical reflection, if there is not first some basic agreement about the facts at issue. There is no such agreement when it comes to nanotechnology. In much of the burgeoning nanoethics literature, there is a sloppy and lazy tendency to slip from today’s cutting-edge science to the most far-out imaginings of futurists, as though the former were old news and the latter were ineluctable. This ignores the chain of uncertainties that makes the future unknowable: Just because a particular technological development is imaginable or conceivable doesn’t mean it is possible; just because it is possible doesn’t mean it will happen; even if it happens, it may not come to pass quite as anticipated; and even if it does happen approximately as anticipated, it will surely have unintended and unexpected consequences. These glaring epistemological problems of course confront anyone who engages in futurism and forecasting. But they are especially nettlesome for nanoethics, where they are compounded by technical ignorance and by fantasies both utopian and apocalyptic, and where—far more than in bioethics, for instance—the possibilities under discussion are often terribly implausible.
Ouch. That's not easy to hear, but I think it's a highly valid criticism.
CRN's only hope for having a meaningful impact on the future of nanotechnology is if we are regarded as worth listening to. I certainly hope that Adam's paragraph above does not describe the Center for Responsible Nanotechnology. If some people think that it does, then we have got to do a better job of explaining our positions.
But beyond that, we're not willing to accept an argument that because the future is unknowable, it is therefore uninteresting or unworthy of speculative exploration. Indeed, it is because we cannot say for sure how nanotechnology will evolve and how it will affect society that we feel the need to provoke such discussion.
[T]here is something to be admired about the impulse to anticipate the social and ethical consequences of advances in nanotechnology. But much of the nanoethics literature seeks to go further—not merely to anticipate, but to direct and to govern the consequences of nanotechnology. This is where the second problem of nanoethics arises: the problem of politics. Much of the nanoethics literature involves suggestions for concrete action to protect the promise nanotechnology may hold out and to mitigate or remediate the perils it may pose. But these suggestions are often severed from practical reality. What will be the use of a “global dialogue on nanotechnology”? How would “arms control” for nanotech ever come about before nanotech weapons even exist? If “public control” of nanotechnology is really more desirable than “private control,” who could or would ever make that happen? How far should we go to prevent a “nano-divide”? What, for goodness sake, does it even mean for “an ethical nanotechnology initiative” to be “threaded into the social fabric of the persons and communities that have a stake in its appropriation”? A nanoethics so detached from practical politics will be useless—or worse.
Again, this is a useful and valid criticism. There is absolutely no point in proposing "solutions" that have no chance of being implemented in the real world.
The third problem facing nascent nanoethics is the problem of values. As Charles T. Rubin has suggested, when values enter discussions about nanotechnology, as they must, they are generally treated as givens, either in the manner of survey research (how many people think this or that is good?) or by adopting uncritically the normative discourse of the moment (nanotechnology should contribute to sustainable development because whatever that means, it’s supposed to be a good thing, right?). Today’s early nanoethics literature evinces our postmodern inability to seriously discuss questions of ethics, and it reveals just how parched the language of academic ethics has become. What are the great social goods we seek to preserve? What are the high human goods we wish to defend? Those involved in nanoethics seem uninterested, unwilling, or unable to engage these deeper questions. The oft-heard refrain—that ethics has to “keep up” or “catch up” or “evolve” with advances in technology—is a prescription for a shallow and reactive ethics, one that ignores the questions that matter most.
Well, we certainly do not want to be shallow or reactive. I agree that there is a need for engaging with the deepest questions. I'd say, though, that this is a challenge not only for groups like CRN that are working to understand societal implications of emerging technologies. It applies as well to almost anyone involved in a stakeholder group, whether in government or in civil society. We all could gain from a more considered exploration of our core values.
And now, Adam's final prescription:
Nanoethics, as it has begun to take shape, lacks [a] sense of humility. And it lacks also a well-defined object of concern. Bioethics was, if anything, late in coming. Nanoethics, on the other hand, bears all the signs of prematurity. Its time may come someday, but it is too soon to say just when and how.
So I guess maybe we're all just supposed to pack up and go home. No, sorry, we will not hang back and wait until it is easier and safer to do this work while avoiding the charge of being premature. Much better, in our view, to be a little too early than a little too late.
But wait! I left the best for last. Adam also includes this little tidbit:
Still, as Bertrand de Jouvenal has written, “forecasting would be an absurd enterprise were it not inevitable.” We must make predictions about the future in order to decide what to do now.
We will. CRN will continue to work on forecasting the future of nanotechnology, on gaining the facts, on defining our values, and on crafting politically realistic solutions that give us the best hope for a safe and responsible world of tomorrow.