The emerging field of nanotechnology has the potential to bring about changes as big as the European Industrial revolution in the late 18th and early 19th century. A hundred and fifty years ago, the mechanization of industry, the introduction of steam power and improved transportation systems brought huge technological, socioeconomic and cultural changes. Today, nanotechnology is forecast to underpin “the next industrial revolution”, leading to far-reaching changes in social, economic and ecological relations. Indeed, the Australian National Nanotechnology Strategy Taskforce states that nanotechnology “has the potential to fundamentally alter the way people live”. And like the industrial revolution, which took almost 50 years to come to fruition, the impact of nanotechnology is likely to be gradual and almost evolutionary until we find ourselves in the midst of what analysts are predicting will be a “technological tsunami”.
Transformative Power of Nanotechnolgy
Proponents and critics alike agree that the real transformative power of nanotechnology lies in its capacity to act as a platform technology, enabling break throughs in a wide number of different fields – communications and information technology, cognitive science, biotechnology, agriculture, medicine, manufacturing, energy production, military and environmental remediation to name a few. The ETC Group suggests that: “With applications spanning all industry sectors, technological convergence at the nanoscale is poised to become the strategic platform for global control of manufacturing, food, agriculture and health in the immediate years ahead”.
The APEC Centre for Technology Foresight observes that major breakthroughs associated with nanoscale convergent technologies will inevitably be associated with large-scale social upheaval. “If nanotechnology is going to revolutionise manufacturing, health care, energy supply, communications and probably defence, then it will transform labour and the workplace, the medical system, the transportation and power infrastructures and the military. None of these latter will be changed without significant social disruption”.
What Would A Nano World Look Like?
The implications of the analysis of such a powerful new technology remain sharply divided.
Nano optimists see nanotechnology delivering environmentally benign material abundance for all by providing universal clean water supplies; atomically engineered food and crops resulting in greater agricultural productivity with less labour requirements; nutritionally enhanced interactive ‘smart’ foods; cheap and powerful energy generation; clean and highly efficient manufacturing; radically improved formulation of drugs, diagnostics and organ replacement; much greater information storage and communication capacities; interactive ‘smart’ appliances; and increased human performance through convergent technologies.
Nano sceptics suggest that nanotechnology will simply exacerbate problems stemming from existing socio-economic inequity and the unequal distribution of power by creating greater inequities between rich and poor through a nano-divide; entrenching corporate concentration and enabling its control of even the very building blocks of the natural world; distorting international power relations through its military applications and trade impacts; providing the tools for ubiquitous surveillance, with significant implications for civil liberty; introducing new and poorly understood risks to the health of humans and the environment; breaking down the barriers between life and non-life, and redefining even what it means to be human.
Nanotechnology will exacerbate existing social inequities and create new ones The consequences of huge global inequities in wealth, power and quality of environment are already starkly evident – poverty, disease and social unrest grip a large proportion of the world’s population. Given the current development trajectory of nanotechnology, it appears likely to exacerbate already existing social inequities and create new ones.
A nano-divide appears inevitable. This divide will develop firstly between the nano-poor (most of the world’s poorest countries) and the nano-enabled countries. Wealthy countries which are investing in nanotech early – and patenting as quickly as possible – are likely to cement and expand their control of essential manufacturing, industry, agriculture and trade. Poorer countries may find that their products, services and labour are displaced by nano-manufactured goods. A nano-divide is also likely to emerge within each country, as the gap between those who control the new nanotechnologies and those whose products, services or labour are displaced by them, and those whose can afford nano enhanced medicines, materials and goods and those that cannot, becomes ever larger. There may also be growing differences between the physical, mental and “performance” abilities of people if plans to “enhance” humans using nanotechnology are realised.
Influence on the Poor
Despite the claims by nanotech proponents that nanotechnology will enable us to eliminate the life-threatening illnesses and hunger of the poor, the huge costs associated with nanotech research demand a focus on profitable applications that will deliver a financial return. Inevitably this will result in medicines, ‘smart’ foods, new cosmetics and ‘smart’ appliances for the rich, rather than an effort to reduce the huge inequities in global food distribution and trade that underpin many of the life-threatening illnesses of the poor. Perhaps the most compelling illustration of the fact that nanotechnology’s development is being driven by commercial and military interests rather than an altruistic motivation to redress existing social and economic inequity is provided by existing investment and commercialisation trends.
Nanotechnology research is dominated by the military and the first non-military nanoproducts to be released commercially are targeted squarely at wealthy consumers in the Global North. In 2006, the US government, which is the world’s biggest funder of nano research, allocated a third of its US$1.3billion nanotechnology research budget to the US defence program, which was a greater share than that received by the entire National Science Foundation. In stark contrast, research into the environmental and health impacts of nanotechnology received less than 4% of the budget. The first non-military nanoproducts to be released commercially include: anti-ageing cosmetics; odour-eating socks; superior display screens for computers, televisions and mobile phones; premium coatings for luxury cars; and self-cleaning windows and bathrooms. In 2004, the United Kingdom’s Royal Society noted that of the engineered nanomaterials in commercial production, the majority were used in the cosmetics industry.
As nanotechnology converges with biotechnology and information technology, patents on atomically modified organisms and materials will increase, as will corporate control of the building blocks of the natural world. As the ETC Group observes: “Despite rosy predictions that nanotech will provide a technical fix for hunger, disease and environmental security in the South, the extraordinary pace of nanotech patenting suggests that developing nations will participate via royalty payments… In a world dominated by proprietary science, it is the patent owners and those who can pay license fees who will determine access and price.”
Rapid Technological Change and the Poor
Very little attention has been paid to studies of the likely disruptive impacts, and massive job losses, associated with the expansion of the near-term nanotechnology industry and its displacement of existing industries. The experience of the European Industrial revolution tells us that with rapid technological change come winners, losers and massive social upheaval. Now, as during the previous industrial revolution, it will be the world’s poorest people who are least able to adapt quickly in the face of technological change.
Global Market Disruption
In the short-medium term, novel nanomaterials could replace markets for existing commodities, disrupt trade and eliminate jobs in nearly every industry. Industry analysts Lux Research Inc. have warned that nanotechnology will result in large-scale disruption to commodity markets and to all supply and value chains: “Just as the British industrial revolution knocked hand spinners and hand weavers out of business, nanotechnology will disrupt a slew of multi billion dollar companies and industries”.
Technological change and the social disruption it brings has been with us for millennia. What will be different this time is that we are confronting the potentially near simultaneous demise of a number of key commodity markets where raw resources (eg cotton, rubber, copper, platinum) may be replaced by nanomaterials, with subsequent structural change to many industry sectors.
The displacement of existing commodities by new nanomaterials would have profound impacts for economies everywhere. However it would have the most devastating impact on people in the Global South whose countries are dependent on trade in raw resources - 95 out of 141 developing countries depend on commodities for at least 50% of their export earnings.
Cotton is an example of an important commodity that could be displaced by the introduction of novel nanomaterials. There are currently an estimated 350 million people in the world directly involved in the production of cotton. Countries in the Global South such as Burkina Faso, Benin, Uzbekistan, Mali, Tajikistan, Cote D’Ivoire, Kazakhstan rely on cotton as a major source of revenue.
Nanotech Alternatives For Farming
The quest to rebuild life from the atom up, and to replace ‘inefficient’ primary production with synthetic nanotech alternatives, will also have disastrous economic implications for nations that rely on export of food products. Vandana Shiva has argued that synthesising nanotechnology alternatives to food and other natural products will: “accelerate existing trends of patent monopolies over life – making a few corporations ‘life-lords’. Most importantly, nanotechnologies and the molecular vision of life will undermine more holistic systems for food and health.”
Elite Nano-enhanced Humans
To an unprecedented degree, the convergence of nanotechnology, biotechnology, robotics and cognitive science offers the potential to dramatically redefine what it is to be human. The quest for biological perfectionism is certainly not new. But the extent of the vision of those who see nanotechnology as our best chance yet to improve human mental, physical and military ‘performance’ is likely to be shocking for many people in the general community.
Improving Human Performance
The 2002 report “Converging Technologies for Improving Human Performance: Nanotechnology, biotechnology, information technology and cognitive science” records the proceedings of a high level workshop sponsored by the United States National Science Foundation and the Department of Commerce. The workshop participants envisioned breakthroughs in NBIC-related areas in the next 10 to 20 years that they believed could dramatically enhance the performance of humans. Their vision included the following:
• “Fast, broadband interfaces directly between the human brain and machines will transform work in factories, control automobiles, ensure military superiority, and enable new sports, art forms and modes of interaction between people;
• Comfortable, wearable sensors and computers will enhance every person’s awareness of his or her health condition, environment, chemical pollutants, potential hazards, and information of interest about local businesses, natural resources, and the like;
• Robots and software agents will be far more useful for human beings, because they will operate on principles compatible with human goals, awareness, and personality;
• The human body will be more durable, healthier, more energetic, easier to repair, and more resistant to many kinds of stress, biological threats, and aging processes;
• A combination of technologies and treatments will compensate for many physical and mental disabilities and will eradicate altogether some handicaps that have plagued the lives of millions of people;
• The ability to control the genetics of humans, animals, and agricultural plants will greatly benefit human welfare; widespread consensus about ethical, legal, and moral issues will be built in the process;
• Factories of tomorrow will be organized around converging technologies and increased human-machine capabilities as “intelligent environments” that achieve the maximum benefits of both mass production and custom design.”
This vision of the future raises profound ethical dilemmas. It is reminiscent of the quest for perfection in the early 20th century by the worldwide eugenics movement and the totalitarian Nazi state of Germany. The ultimate goal of nano-enabled human enhancement is the reconstruction of humans from the atom up. This goal is based on a belief that we can use genetic manipulation and convergent nanoscale technologies to not only increase our mental and physical productivity, but to enable us to integrate with the machines of industry. The claim that a “widespread consensus about ethical, legal, and moral issues will be built in the process” is farcical. Who will decide which of these applications are ethically acceptable or socially desirable? What limits and safeguards will be put on the use of nanobiotechnology, and the engineering of manufactured technological products within biological materials?
The quest to use NBIC technologies to enhance human performance has drawn strong criticism from disabilities and human rights advocates concerned that it will create new inequities and further marginalise existing disadvantaged groups15. What efforts will be made to ensure that convergent technology-enabled ‘enhancement’ of a small number of people in the Global North will not be at the expense of providing basic medicines to the majority of the world’s people who still lack access to basic medicines? Will efforts to enhance humans result in further marginalisation of existing marginalised groups, for example disabled people? At what point will the quest to enhance human performance and extend human life produce an elite minority of wealthy, long-living enhanced people, leaving an unenhanced majority underclass?
Molecular manufacturing – if it proves possible – could have an unprecedented disruptive impact on labour markets and global trade. Fierce debates continue to rage within the nanotechnology industry about whether or not sophisticated molecular manufacturing is possible and achievable. Wishing to avoid a public backlash against “weird science”, most in the industry prefer not to speculate about atomically precise manufacturing from decentralised desktop nanofactories. However, given the number of nano-analysts and nano-scientists who predict that molecular manufacturing will be achievable in the next 20-50 years, it is important to give some thought to its potentially devastating implications for human society.
Effect On Agriculture, Trade, Manufacturing, Culture And Social Relations
The massive disruptions and disconnects in agriculture, trade, manufacturing, culture and social relations that would accompany such developments are extremely difficult to conceive or comprehend. Using desktop molecular factories would reduce the need for labour in the manufacturing sector to virtually zero. It would also dramatically reduce the need to transport, warehouse or sell goods and would have flow on effects for labour in many associated industries. Michael Vassar, in a recent Center for Responsible Nanotechnology (CRN) article, estimated that 60-80% of all work would become unnecessary in the USA within the decade of widespread availability of desktop molecular manufacturing.
What sort of society would we have where 70% of the population did not work? How would this vast group of people feed themselves and meet their basic needs? Would a large part of the population be denied a way of earning a living, becoming dependent on the charity of molecular manufacture? Beyond these basic questions of survival, what would a life dependent on charity without work or the means to purchase non-essential goods mean for people’s sense of identity, purpose, self-fulfilment and happiness? Given the scale of potential impacts of molecular manufacturing, it would be reassuring to know that our governments were at least assessing the possibility that it could be developed, rather than dismissing it as impossible.