Societal and Ethical Implications of Nanotechnology


“Let us redefine progress. Just because that we can do a thing, it does not necessarily follow that we must do that thing.”
~A quote from Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country

            Since the dawn of the Bronze Age, mankind has dealt with the dilemma presented by the invention of new technology and its introduction into society.  At many times through the course of history, new technologies have been thrust into the hands of mankind by over-zealous inventors and businessmen without due consideration as to their short or long term effects on society, mankind, or the world around us.  And these new technologies have been the levers that have pushed change upon us and our societies.  They are the root of the movement that has uplifted our civilization to the point it occupies today.

            This is not to say that a technology or its inventor is inherently evil or malevolent, nor are they inherently benevolent.  Technology is a tool; nothing more.  It is the use to which we put the tool that determines the value of the tool.  Two of America’s greatest writers addressed opposing sides of this issue during the dawn of the Industrial Revolution.  In his essay, Paradise (to be) Regained, Henry David Thoreau writes, “that the dappled sunlight falling across the path of the poet provokes joy beyond that which human technology can bring.  The gentle wind cooling the heated brow fills the poetic mind with profit and happiness equal to that which inventions supply9.”  Clearly, a plea for restraint in the use of technology.

            In polar opposition to Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson celebrated the transforming power of technology and its unbridled use to achieve the perfect human-built world.

“Emerson believed that the nation could express virtuous values as it created a human-built world.  The technological transformation of nature gave clear evidence for Emerson of the mastery of mind over matter.  He believed that just as nature manifests the logos, or the word of God, nature transformed by humans expresses the perpetual creativity and imprint of the human mind.  Ultimately the world will be organized through technology to reflect human mind and will5.”

 The reality of our world has always existed somewhere between these two viewpoints.  As nanotechnology begins to become part of our world, we must once again face this age old dilemma.  As we embrace this latest technological leap, we must ask ourselves important questions.  What are the risks?  How will this affect the world at large?  If we make it present and pervasive in our everyday lives, do the benefits outweigh the dangers?  All these questions and many more can be distilled down to one simple question; just because we can do this, does that mean we should?

We’ve Been Here Before

            Nanotechnology has been compared with other watershed technologies that have changed society and the world.  It is mentioned in the same breath with steam power, telephones, television, automobiles, transistors, computers, and the Internet.  It has even been said that nanotechnology is the forerunner and instigator of the next industrial revolution8.  As everyone knows, hindsight and foresight do not always agree.  Whether or not nanotechnology lives up to the hype surrounding it remains to be seen.  But by looking at what nanotechnology promises and comparing it to what has come before, we can arrive at a close approximation of the future effect and value of this latest “new and wondrous technology”.

            Most “technological leaps” of the past can be considered to be centralized around a single invention; the telephone, the television, the transistor.  For example, the invention of the first telephone revolutionized communication for the whole world and lead to secondary inventions, new industry, and many economic changes.  Nanotechnology is a blanket term covering a wide range of research and it not specifically tied to a single invention.  It is more a collection of ideas that revolve around the concept of building useful materials and objects from the bottom-up on a very small scale.  As such, it is difficult to compare for effect on an invention to invention basis.  We must take a more macro view approach.

            Just as we have had the Industrial Age and the Information Age, perhaps now we are on the cusp of the Nano Age.  And in a prime example of the cyclic nature of things, the Nano Age may be a repeat of the previous Industrial Age, but this time writ upon an awesomely different scale than before.  This new Nano-Industrial Age will move forward with the focus being the manufacture of devices of the smallest scale as opposed to the grand constructions that marked the first Industrial Age.

To Nano or Not to Nano


“With great power comes great responsibility.”
~Benjamin Parker

            The advances that may be possible using nanotechnology will come with a price.  That price may end up being paid with social change, ethical upheaval or environmental consequences.  Nanotechnology promises to give us the ability to manipulate atoms to do our bidding.  And as K. Eric Drexler points out in his book, Engines of Creation, this can be a pivotal power.

“Coal and diamonds, sand and computer chips, cancer and healthy tissue: throughout history, variations in the arrangement of atoms have distinguished the cheap from the cherished, the diseased from the healthy. Arranged one way, atoms make up soil, air, and water; arranged another, they make up ripe strawberries. Arranged one way, they make up homes and fresh air; arranged another they make up ash and smoke3.”

The implications of working with matter at the nano level are far reaching.  A single misplaced or unmeant change could render a Utopia into a world covered in “grey goo”.

            We live in a world that is essentially a vast complex system that is composed of un-countable complex, interacting systems operating at many different levels.  This “Web of Life” way of picturing the world shows us a need for a system of ethics that takes a “deep ecology” view of the world.  We need to shift from the old paradigm “based on anthropocentric (human-centered) values to one grounded in ecocentric (earth-centered) values.  This is a worldview that acknowledges the inherent value of nonhuman life.  All living beings are members of ecological communities bound together in a network of interdependencies1.”

            It is with this more encompassing ethical sense that we have to evaluate the new technologies being developed in the nano field.  Under this new ethical scope, the overarching questions remain the same; they are just addressed to include global concerns.  Who or what will be harmed?  Who will benefit?  Will the gains and losses be shared equitably?  How will these technologies affect us as people, as a community, and as a world7?

            Unfortunately, even if we make all of the correct ethical decisions concerning the development and deployment of nanotechnology, there is still the danger of deliberate misuse, just as there has been with any other technology that mankind has developed.  Popular Hollywood movies have capitalized on some of the more catastrophic possibilities that would result from the weaponization of nanotechnology.  Most recently, the movie, G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra, which was released in 2009, featured a weapon warhead that released a nanobot cloud that directly followed Drexler’s original “grey goo” scenario as outlined in chapter eleven of Engines of Creation.  Drexler’s scenario posits that “masses of uncontrolled nano-replicators could spread like blowing pollen, replicate swiftly, and reduce the biosphere to dust in a matter of days3.

            Another long range ethical concern is the possibility of developing true artificial intelligences (AI) through the use of nanotechnology.  How would we address the social place of these AI’s?  What rights would they be accorded?  Or would they be treated only as automatons?  Would they work for or against us?  Once again, we can depend on Hollywood to paint the grimmest picture for us.  With such pop culture movie icons as HAL 9000, W.O.P.A.R., SkyNet, B.O.S.S., M5 and the MCP showing us the dark side of AI, we are given a glimpse of what can possibly happen if AI’s break free of our control and take over.  We must always remember that knowledge can bring power, and power can bring knowledge.  Depending on their natures and their goals, advanced AI systems might accumulate enough knowledge and power to displace us, if we don’t prepare properly.

            If either one of these possible scenarios sound fanciful or farfetched, just remember the leaps technology has made over just the last twenty-five years.  We can take the development and evolution of cell phone technology as a prime example of the speed with which a technology can advance.  In just fifteen years, the cell phone went from the two pound DynaTAC8000X “Brick” with just a half hour of battery life4 to the vast myriad of 6 ounce personal Smartphone’s available today with computing power to match desktop computers and batteries that last upwards of three day on a charge.  While the current state of technology available now is nowhere near the level necessary for these sorts of scenarios to come to pass, if nanotechnology is given a mere 25 years to progress with the same developmental curve as cell phone technology, we could indeed see them come to pass in our lifetimes. 

            There is no time like the present to start developing viable ethical guidelines and controls to prevent or minimize the effects of such disasters and to keep the power from those who would misuse it.  Drexler has thoughts on this as well.

“Despite their potential as engines of destruction, nanotechnology and AI systems will lend themselves to more subtle uses than do nuclear weapons. A bomb can only blast things, but nanomachines and AI systems could be used to infiltrate, seize, change, and govern a territory or a world. Even the most ruthless police have no use for nuclear weapons, but they do have use for bugs, drugs, assassins, and other flexible engines of power. With advanced technology, states will be able to consolidate their power over people3.”

            Fortunately, the bureaucratic monster that resides in all governments is awake and aware of nanotechnology.  The control and regulation of nanomaterials is well under way, at least in the United States.  The EPA has taken the first steps toward imposing some new regulations by classifying nanomaterials that act as bactericides – containing silver or any other ions – as pesticides under the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA)6.  This is a step in the right direction, but there are still issues to be addressed.  Scientists and industry are divided over how to classify the new nano materials being created.  Scientists want to consider them as “new chemicals” – which would place them under the purview of the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), an EPA law that requires companies to report any new chemicals being worked on before they are allowed to enter the marketplace6.  For obvious reasons, the industry side of the equation is fighting this designation.

            In an effort to sidestep the issue, the EPA has instituted a voluntary reporting program for new nanomaterials, the Nanoscale Materials Stewardship Program (NMSP)6.  Under this voluntary program, companies would share all chemical/physical information on their nanomaterial products.  Whether or not this effort will be successful remains to be seen.  While slightly behind the United States, other countries are also attempting to regulate and document nanomaterials.  The “NanoForum EU-Latin America” (NanoForumEULA) aims at fostering lasting research relations between European and Latin American research organizations specialized in nanotechnology.  Its main focus is the study and compilation data on Life-Cycle Assessments (LCA’s) of nanomaterials to determine short and long term environmental effects.

Bring on the Nano – Carefully

“You very rarely see chaos and nanotechnology mentioned together, but it’s nice to know that chaos is not just something that happens on the large scale.”
~Arvind Raman

            In my field of work, I am constantly surrounded by new technology.  I consider myself lucky to be associated with a campus that employs so much cutting edge technology.  I will be the first to admit that I am a hardcore technology geek.  As my wife would surely tell you, my eyes have a tendency to glaze over at the sight of the latest glittery new tech devices.  Some of the possibilities of nanotechnology research definitely fall into this category.  Molecular/quantum computing is very high on my wish list of things I’d like to see in production.  This is not to say that I am a believer in technology for technology’s sake.  In spite of my love for shiny new tech toys, I find that I lean closer to Thoreau’s point of view.  One must balance the love of technology with the love of things human.

            Because of this, I believe that the development of nanotechnology (or any technology, for that matter) should proceed in a controlled, regulated, and carefully selected way.  As Capra has made clear, we are members of a vast web of life that exists and contains our planet1.  We must make sure that any new technology we introduce into that web will not disrupt the system and push it toward an unwanted tipping point, thereby disrupting the self-organized criticality of the system.  Dr. Brian Castellani and Dr. Frederic Hafferty present a definition of tipping points that is curiously apropos when applied to nanotechnology.  Castellani and Hafferty state, “A tipping point is when the cumulative effects of a rather small set of immediate events/changes suddenly result in rather large-scale, global change/consequences2.”

            As we move forward and increase our knowledge and skills pertaining to the development and use of nanotechnology, we must be ever mindful of the effects this technology may have on ourselves, our society and our world.  Without a doubt, nanotechnology will profoundly affect our lives and our world in many ways.  It is up to us to determine the course this technology takes as we move forward.  We must also take measures to guard against its misuse and to protect our environment.

            This task will not be easy.  As Albert Einstein said, “Any intelligent fool can make things bigger, more complex, and more violent.  It takes a touch of genius — and a lot of courage — to move in the opposite direction.”   So let us move in that opposite direction.  Nanotechnology will make things smaller, but we must work to make it simpler, avoid the chaos inherent in the system and prevent it from being misused.


 1 Capra, F. (1997). The Web of Life: A New Scientific Understanding of Living Systems. New York: Anchor.

 2 Castellani, B., & Hafferty, F. W. (2009). Sociology and Complexity Science: A New Field of Inquiry (Understanding Complex Systems) (1 ed.). New York: Springer.

 3 Drexler, K. E. (1990). Engines of Creation – The Coming Era of Nanotechnology. Great Britain: Clays Ltd, St Ives plc.

 4 First cell phone a true ‘brick’ – Wireless- (n.d.). Breaking News, Weather, Business, Health, Entertainment, Sports, Politics, Travel, Science, Technology, Local, US & World News- Retrieved May 9, 2010, from

 5 Hughes, T. P. (2005). Human-Built World: How to Think about Technology and Culture (science * culture) (New Ed ed.). Chicago: University Of Chicago Press.

 6 Jacquot, J. E., & Angeles, L. (n.d.). The Debate over Nanotechnology. TreeHugger. Retrieved May 9, 2010, from

 7 MacDonald, C. (n.d.). Nanotech is Novel; the Ethical Issues Are Not – The Scientist – Magazine of the Life Sciences. The Scientist : home :Monday. Retrieved May 10, 2010, from

 8 Ratner, D., & Ratner, M. (2002). Nanotechnology: A Gentle Introduction to the Next Big Idea (1st ed.).  Upper Saddle River: Prentice Hall PTR.

 9 The Picket Line. Paradise (To Be) Regained by H.D. Thoreau. (n.d.). The Culture Jammers Encyclopedia. Retrieved May 6, 2010, from

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