Ethical & Social Issues in Nanotechnology

[Draft] Annotated Bibliography by Trevor Coffrin
(under supervision of
Chris MacDonald, Ph.D.)



Note: Not all of the articles summarized here are "about" ethics, but they are all at least relevant to a broad understanding of ethical issues in NT.

Bonsor, Kevin. "How Nanotechnology Will Work."  (From

            At some point in the near future, nanomachines will produce consumer goods, rather than the bulky machines that are used today. NT works “…by piecing together one atom or molecule at a time…”  For nanotechnology (NT) to work, small devices called assemblers must be created in order to combine atoms that will produce consumer goods. Replicators will also have to be made to produce enough assemblers that will be required to create goods.

Of the many positive features of NT, nanomachines will produce: stronger products than those produced by traditional methods; food and water will be able to be replicated, thus, eliminating hunger worldwide; computers could become dramatically more powerful without any increase in size; nanosurgeons could undertake delicate operations much more precise than current surgery is able to; and nanorobots could be used to alter one’s physical features such as ears, nose, eye colour, etc.

Nanotechnology could also have many positive effects on the environment, including: reconstruction of the ozone layer; quickly cleaning up oil spills; purifying water; and eliminating the use of non-renewable resources (which could be made by nanomachines).

Brown, Doug "Nano Litterbugs? Experts See Potential Pollution Problems."  (From

            The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has begun research into the possible negative impacts associated with NT. Even as some products using NT have begun to be widely distributed, the environmental impact is still unknown. 

            A concern for Vicki Colvin, who is director of The Center for Biological and Environmental Nanotechnology, is that no research is being conducted into how to control nanomaterial if it was discovered to be harmful to humans or the environment.

            Based on preliminary research on animals, it is known that nanomaterials do accumulate within the body. Also, nanomaterials can be overtaken by bacteria, which could mean nanomaterials could infiltrate the food chain. Bacteria enhanced by nanomaterials could produce more potent bacteria. While NT promises to have numerous benefits for society, many of the potential risks remain uninvestigated.

Joy, Bill "Why the future doesn’t need us."  (In Wired magazine. April, 2000).

Joy’s concern over NT is amplified, due to the fact that engineered organisms can self-replicate. Such replication could lead to situations where things could quickly get out of hand. “A bomb is blown up only once – but one bot can become many, and quickly get out of control.” An additional worry for Joy is, unlike weapons of mass destruction (WMD) – which require hard-to-get materials and highly specialized knowledge – genetics, nanotechnology, and robotics (GNR) are available to a wide range of people, thus making them all the more dangerous. While WMD are strictly controlled by the military, GNR’s are corporate sponsored. Such a wide dispersion of NT increases the risk. Joy emphasizes prudence in our development of NT, because if we proceed too quickly, we could cause our own extinction. After all, we are still unable to control the spread of viruses and other undesirable components of life.

Joy draws a parallel between NT and the atomic bomb. The creation of the atomic bomb led to the development of an arms race that lasted nearly half a century and had many detrimental effects. Atomic and nuclear weapons have the ability to destroy the world many times over, as does NT. We should not repeat the same mistakes with NT that we did with WMD.

 “The only realistic alternative I see is relinquishment: to limit development of the technologies that are too dangerous, by limiting our pursuit of certain kinds of knowledge.” Limiting access to critical information involving NT must be enforced because it contains such a destructive force to humanity (e.g. exterminating the entire race).  People will inevitably object to the infringement on their right to privacy and pursuit of intellectual property, but this is a necessary step if we are to avoid the dangers NT poses. Additionally, scientists will have to comply with strict ethical codes to ensure compliance with relinquishment rules.

While humanity’s dream of immortality will likely continue forever, certain limits to the means creating this end must be imposed due to the inherent danger.

Mehta, Michael D. "On Nano-Panopticism: A Sociological Perspective."

            This article deals with privacy issues associated with surveillance, and how surveillance will be changed with the development of NT.

 It has been scientifically documented that observation of a subject will change the regular behaviour of that subject. For example, prisoners who are held in prison cells that are in open view of a prison guard behave better than those prisoners who are afforded more privacy. Therefore, if this concept is applied to society as a whole, one can see the ramifications increased surveillance might have on public behaviour. Increased surveillance with the use of NT may have many damaging effects that may express themselves through a decrease in public trust, less involvement in public life, and may result ultimately in an Orwellian state.

Mehta offers several suggestions on how to deal with the dangers related to nano-panopticism. They are: develop an independent agency to monitor and regulate progress in NT; introduce tough laws to ensure that privacy is protected; a review of a corporation’s code of conducts to ensure nano-panopticism does not become a problem; public consultation of the appropriate uses of NT; and finally, increase the awareness of scientists so that they are better able to understand the impact new technologies have on society.

Mnyusiwalla, A. Abdallah S. Daar, & Peter A. Singer "'Mind the gap’: science and ethics in nanotechnology." (From Nanotechnology, February 13, 2003).

            As NT quickly develops, the ethical evaluation of such a development has yet to begin. Research into NT’s impact on ethical, environmental, economic, legal, and social implications (NE³LS) must try to keep pace with the technological progress that has been made. Otherwise, the technological progress will slow down.

            K. Eric Drexler, author of Engines of Creation, and currently working for the Foresight Institute, has begun to develop guidelines for the use of NT, particularly concerning self-replication, but also issues such as wealth distribution and environmental protection.

            While there is a call for increased research into the effects of NT on society, the environment, etc, and furthermore, that the funds for such research are available, very little research has been done. For example, The National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI) spent less than half of its budget on studying the impacts NT will have on society. In addition, the National Science Foundation (NSF) did not fund any research into the societal implications of NT due to lack of research grant proposals.

The ethical issues associated with NT fall into a variety of categories including:

1). Equity: NT does not stand to help developed countries only, but also (and perhaps mainly) developing countries. For example, third world countries suffer most from things that can be improved upon from advancements made in NT. For instance, providing cleaner water, developing cheaper energy, and also the enormous health benefits to be reaped from NT are all aspects of NT that could have a dramatic impact on third world countries.

2). Privacy and security: While NT could dramatically improve surveillance systems and would undoubtedly have numerous military applications, some are left wondering how personal privacy would be affected. Questions concerning the regulation of this new technology are arising without many answers being offered.

3). Environment: The effects of NT materials on the environment are unknown. The EPA has increased funding to study the effects of NT on the environment.

4). Human or machine? How far are humans willing to go with replacement of human parts with replacement robot parts?

Earlier lessons from genomics and biotechnology (recommendations):

  • A percentage of the research and development funds should go to study the societal impacts of NT. In the Human Genome Project, 3-5% of the total budget was dedicated to studying the societal impacts.

  • Large-scale interdisciplinary research platforms should be avoided.

  • The capacity for research should be increased. This would include research grants, career awards, increased funding, etc.

  • There should be a cross-section of groups working on the implications of NT in order to have a variety of views expressed.

  • A global opinion-leaders network for social and ethical implications ought to be established so that third world countries may be involved.

  • Public engagement is crucial if NT is to have the impact it potentially holds. The public needs to have accurate information concerning the social and ethical implications of NT. Science museums could include exhibits on NT; as well, schools could discuss the issue in depth.

Moor, James & John Weckert "Nanoethics: Assessing the Nanoscale from an Ethical Point of View."

            Weckert and Moor argue that nanoethics cannot develop fully or effectively until the technology develops further and its consequences become known. Weckert and Moor do acknowledge the potentially enormous impact NT will have on society, but are hesitant to develop strategies to deal with problems that do not yet exist. They recommend continued monitoring of NT.

Pagán, Sylvia "DNA nanoballs boost gene therapy."  (In New Scientist, May, 2002).

            NT is now beginning to enhance older technologies used to treat patients with cystic fibrosis. Nanoparticles made up of a single DNA molecule are much smaller, and therefore much better able to reach the nucleus of a cell, than were previous methods involving modified viruses. NT shows promising signs of contributing to the advancement of the cure for cystic fibrosis.

Phoenix, Chris & Mike Treder "Applying the Precautionary Principle to Nanotechnology." (From The Center for Responsible Nanotechnology, January, 2003).

There are two forms of the precautionary principle: (1) the strict form; and (2) the active form.

Strict form: “…requires inaction when action might pose a risk.”

Active form: “…calls for choosing less risky alternatives when they are available, and for taking responsibility for potential risks.”

            One shortcoming of the strict form of the Precautionary Principle is that most actions carry some sort of risk. If we follow the strict form, much of the scientific research currently underway would have to be halted. Second, sometimes inaction can be more harmful than action. Sometimes the benefits to be gained by scientific research outweigh the minimal risks involved.

            The Center for Responsible Nanotechnology (CRN) believes that a total ban on development of NT would not be practical; enforcement of such a ban would be nearly impossible. Not only is such a ban not practical, it may not be desired. There are many benefits that could be brought about by NT, including increased health, less environmental damage, cheap and efficient production of goods, etc. These factors must be considered when determining the fate of NT.

The CRN believes that the strict form of the Precautionary Principle is inadequate for dealing with NT. This is so because inaction carries with it certain risks:

1.      No other solution may be found for certain pressing problems.

2.      Inaction on the part of responsible people could simply lead to the development and use of MNT by less responsible people.

3.      Lack of understanding of the technology will leave the world ill-equipped to deal with irresponsible use. 

The CRN does, however, believe that the active form of the Precautionary                                                  

Principle is adequate in dealing with research into NT. Because the active form seeks to develop the least risky solution to existing problems, this is more desirable than the strict form.

            The final recommendation of the CRN is to create “…one–and only one–molecular nanotechnology program, [which would permit] the widespread but restricted use of the resulting manufacturing capability.

Phoenix, Chris & Mike Treder Safe Utilization of Advanced Nanotechnology. (From The Center for Responsible Nanotechnology, January, 2003).

            There are many risks associated with NT. For instance, Drexler’s “gray goo” problem–where self-replicating nanoassemblers multiply out of control; NT falling into the hands of rogue states; and decreased privacy due to the sizing-down of surveillance equipment, to name a few. Given these risks, it would appear that some regulation of NT is in order. If NT is regulated too strictly this could lead to the development of a black market where irresponsible users could do a great deal of damage. Phoenix and Treder propose a two-dimensional approach to the restriction of NT which will reduce risks associated with NT, yet allow the technology to further develop.

            First, products that use NT do not necessarily pose any extraordinary risks, they are simply products that have been enhanced in some way by the use of NT; they will not be able to self-replicate whatsoever. However, the factories used to produce NT products could quite easily be very dangerous. NT factories, if controlled by the wrong people, could hold great danger for humankind with the potential to develop destructive weapons much greater than are available today. Phoenix and Treder stress that “…research leading to advanced nanotechnology will have to be carefully monitored and controlled. However, the same is not true of product research and development.”

            If NT factories are to be safe, certain precautions must be taken. First, assemblers need not ever leave the factory, they can easily be fastened to the factory to avoid them escaping into the environment and getting out of control. Second, factories can be programmed to produce only specified products that are known to be safe. Third, one could go so far as to build in a tracking device to ensure that NT products were being used safely and for their intended purpose. Furthermore, nanofactories could be made tamper-proof so that they could shut down if attempt at alteration was made. Finally, a nanofactory could be connected to a central controller which would then determine if the desired product was safe. If the central controller determined the product to be unsafe, the controller could disable the factory. Additional advantages of this scenario would be that the controller could automatically provide updates to the nanofactories and also relay the location of the factory.

Rotman, David "Measuring the Risks of Nanotechnology." (In Technology Review, April, 2003).

Vicki Colvin, Director of The Center for Biological and Environmental Nanotechnology at Rice University, states that the possible dangers associated with NT are largely unknown at this point. Despite the fact that nanomaterials have been put to use in products such as sunscreen, the potential risks of these materials is unknown. It is believed that some nanoparticles can be transmitted from the blood stream to brain material. Colvin believes that the benefits of NT–especially its medical applications–far outweigh any risks that have been hypothesized.

Groups such as Greenpeace have begun to investigate NT for any risks it may pose.

"Handle Nano-Technology with Care," (In African Business. March, 2003). [not available on-line]

            The action group on Erosion, Technology and Concentration (ETC) is worried that developments in NT are going unnoticed both by the public and government regulatory agencies. This is of great concern given that NT will have such a profound impact on society. One problem with regulating NT is that it has such a wide variety of applications and is therefore difficult to control under one regulatory agency. Furthermore, because many of the products that have incorporated NT merely use the same compounds that were previously used but on a lower scale, many people do not recognize any associated risks whatsoever. ETC is calling for a worldwide evaluation of the potential impacts of NT, and until such a process has begun, production of nanomaterials ought to cease.


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