The Advantages of Nanotechnology
As fantastical technologies begin to crawl closer and closer from the horizon, it has become critical for society to examine their implications. Traditionally, discussions of new technology have been bifurcated along two camps: the skeptics who veer between moderate caution to outright alarm over the potentially damaging effects technology can have upon us as a whole, and the optimists who celebrate technology as the enabler of individual potential and improvement to the human condition. The former, are at worst, depicted as conservatives standing in the way of progress, while the latter have been denounced as secular types with little regard for morality and spirituality.
Transhumanist philosopher Raymond Kurzweil (166-69) opines that accelerating technological progress is not only a good thing, but the inevitable extension of a human history that has seen exponential change. Kurzweil opines that the convergence of massive technological advances will result in The Singularity, an epoch in which society will experience tremendous positive changes brought about by merging human creativity with technological nigh-omnipotence. Don Closson (2002) argues a more caution viewpoint: while it is difficult to deny the societal and individual benefits which technology can confer upon mankind as a whole, it is critical that such technologies be also scrutinized for their political, cultural and spiritual consequences. Bio-enhancement poses threats to politics and civil rights; technological standardization and increasing cultural technicism could hollow out cultural life and humanity. However, both camps posit an extreme perspective that abnegates the potential for both critical engagement to enable the socially responsible use of technology. While Kurzweil is right to be optimistic and Closson’s fears are valid, this does not necessarily mean that both perspectives are irreconcilable.
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Such is the case with the realm of nanotechnology, The term ‘nanotechnology’ is an umbrella term, indicating not one specific technology, but rather, a broad array of technologies that have one thing in common: a reduced scale in which engineers and scientists design tools and objects at nigh-invisible levels. The prefix ‘nano’ comes from the Greek word ‘nanos,’ meaning dwarf. The enabling principle of this “scientific revolution” are advanced engineering principles from various fields such as chemistry, applied physics and materials science, which allows matter to be manipulated at the molecular and atomic level. (O’Rourke 38)
This is not a hypothetical discipline from the realm of science fiction, but one that is becoming increasingly ubiquitous to consumer products, a fact that has been rendered opaque by consumer marketing that has chosen not to apply the ‘nano’ label, partly due to a lack of business consensus on what constitutes ‘nano’ but mostly due to the nightmarish stigma associated with nanotechnology. (Consumer Union of United States, Inc 41-42) In any case, the use of nanotechnology in everyday living has the potential to open enormous opportunities to a new and profound way of living.
Sustainability consultant and environmental journalist Alex Steffen (2007) suggests that the increasing emergence of nanotechnology is “likely to be as disruptive as the … Industrial Revolution.” Governments and businesses which begin to recognize its potential must therefore be kept in check by a society that can responsibly distinguish its implications in various aspects of human civilization. As foresight consultant Jamais Cascio (2005) observes, “not all nanotechnologies are alike,” not just in terms of their applications, but in terms of their implications as well. The risks of potentially volatile technologies are usually derived from the macro-effects (i.e. nuclear radiation, bacteriological and viral experimentation). Nanotechnologies are unique in that their risks are tied to their microscopic level of operation. Regardless, the transformative value of nanotechnology would be radical.
The greatest potential of nanotechnology lies in the field of medicine. Nanomedicinal technology holds great promise in increasing the efficacy of drug delivery. By engineering drugs down to a nano scale, one can accomplish designs that can improve the bioavailability of the drug within the patient. In effect, the drug in question can be designed with cellular precision so that it its distribution within the patient’s anatomy is at its most effective. Also, the nano scale of nanomedicinal technology lends itself well to imaging within the field of oncology. For example, research into fluorescent quantum dots is being directed towards their use in tandem with magnetic resonance imaging in order to identify the spread of tumors. (Lavan, McGuire & Langer, 2003; Allen & Cullis, 2004; Shi, et al; 2008) Furthermore, nanotechnology designs aim for a high ratio of surface area to volume, effectively translating to the possibility of attaching multiple functional components onto the surface of a single nano particle. As such, engineers in the field of nanomedicine aspire towards the possibility of designing nano particles that fulfill multiple therapeutic functions. (Nie, et al; 2007)
At present, little is being done to review the safety of nanotechnology in existing consumer products, nor is very much being done to protect against potential hazards. Although there is significant concern that at the nano-scale, normally benign substances have not been fully evaluated for potential hazards, companies have generally been dismissive about safety standards. Much in the way of regulation is applied as an after-the-fact corrective, as in the case of a washing machine manufactured by Samsung which deposits silver ions into washed clothing. While this property has not yet been cause for incidence, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has subsequently classified the machine as a pesticide. Furthermore, few companies are taking measures to monitor worker exposure to nanomaterials used in manufacturing, despite concerns regarding the toxicology of nanoparticles. (Consumer Union of United States, Inc 42-45) No matter how benevolent a design, toxicity remains a concern. Garber notes that by operating on the molecular scale, any possible design oversights could interfere with the human body’s biochemical processes. Furthermore, designers must confront the need to design nano particles that can remain safely within the human body without any harm or side effect, as well as being capable of dissipating safely into the environment without any adverse effects.
Science fiction has done little to combat the risky image of nanotechnology. Theorists such as Eric Drexler, and popular novelists such as Michael Crichton have popularized the image of the ‘grey goo’ threat, which supposes that self-replicating nanomachines gone wrong have the potential to consumer resources and devastate regions in the drive for unchecked replication. Still, some argue that designing a grey goo nanomachine is unlikely due to the inherent impracticality of the design:
“So-called grey goo could only be the product of a deliberate and difficult engineering process, not an accident […] Far more serious is the possibility that a large-scale and convenient manufacturing capacity could be used to make incredibly powerful non-replicating weapons in unprecedented quantity. This could lead to an unstable arms race and a devastating war.”(Phoenix & Drexler 869-872)
The Centre for Responsible Nanotechnology maintains that nanotechnology has catastrophic implications for those who would use it for criminal and terrorist intent. The very features which make nanotechnology so useful to medical diagnosis and clinical therapy are the ones that lend themselves to ‘improving’ chemical and biological weapons. Nanotechnological weapons are easier to conceal and security regulations would be difficult to implement without a geographically broad installation of detection technologies if not intrusive search protocols that could violate standards of privacy of human rights. (CRN 2008)
Despite these risks, it would be unwise to regulate nanotechnology out of existence entirely. The best strategy to respond to safety concerns in emerging technologies, is the use of responsible engagement in order to enable the development of effective social policy. As Jamais Cascio (2006) observes, many of the risks scenarios presented by nanotechnology are not entirely novel. Rather, they are familiar ones occurring on an exponentially accelerated level:
“It’s not that we don’t know how to deal with [these risks]. What nano-scale engineering, […] does is to make those risks happen much more swiftly, more cheaply, more easily, and in greater abundance. The core lesson we need to learn has less to do with how to respond to individual threats than with how to grapple with an environment in which the threats arise [sic] orders of magnitude more quickly than ever before.” (Cascio 2006)
Opposing and outlawing emerging technologies because of the potential consequences, whether those resulting from sheer accident or intended design leaves them entirely in the hands of groups and individuals who are less likely to apply them critically. The proper role which society must take towards nanotechnology then is to ensure that it is intelligently regulated and approached with critical engagement. Like geo-engineering, nuclear energy and GMOs, nanotechnology must be embraced by responsible governments and institutions in order to set the standard for those without a well developed technological ethos.
Speaking in more concrete and geo-political terms, should the developed North oppose nanotechnology, it would have little say in its emergence in other countries. Without a unilateral consensus on the use of nanotechnology, the future will hold the same level of uncertainty that has mired technologies of the past, creating a far riskier nanotech scenario than even science fiction can imagine.
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Kurzweil, Raymond. “Future Technology Will Benignly Alter Human Existence.” In Haugen, David & Musser, Susan (ed.) Opposing Viewpoints: Technology and Society. Detroit: Greenhaven Press, 2007, pp. 166-181.
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Lavan, D.A; McGuire, T; Langer, R. (2003, October) “Small scale systems for in vivo delivery.” Nature Biotechnology 21 (10): 1184-91.
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Phoenix, Chris & Drexler, Eric. “Safe Exponential Manufacturing,” Nanotechnology, volume 15, issue 8, 2004, pp. 869-872.
Center for Responsible Nanotechnology. “Nanotechnology: Dangers of Molecular Manufacturing.” Center for Responsible Nanotechnology, 8 February 2008. Retrieve December 8, 2008 from: http://www.crnano.org/dangers.htm
Cascio, Jamais. “Nano-Health, Nano-War.” Open the Future, 11 December 2006. Retrieved on December 8, 2008 from: http://www.openthefuture.com/2006/12/nanohealth_nanowar.html