Social and Political Concerns Regarding Nanotechnology Developments

Topics Covered

Background

Difficulties in Predicting the Impacts of New Technologies

Negative and Second Order Benefits of New Technologies

Impact of Nanotechnology Could Be Massive

Medical Ethics - Genetic Discrimination and Negative Eugenics

What is the Nano-Divide?

The Information Technology Divide Between Rich and Poor

What a Divided Post-Nano World Might Be Like

What is the ‘Corporate Concentration’ of Patenting Nano-Products?

Destructive and Military Uses of Nanotechnology

Concerns Regarding a Nanotechnology Arms Race

Background

Given the difficulty in foreseeing nanotechnology outcomes and estimating likelihood, it is difficult to extrapolate predictions of specific threats and risks from current trends. And yet, in spite of this, recent discussions of the possible dangers posed by future technologies (such as AI, genetic engineering and MNT) have made it clear that analysis of the major classes of risks of nanotechnology is warranted.

Difficulties in Predicting the Impacts of New Technologies

Perhaps the greatest difficulty in predicting the impacts of new technologies has to do with the fact that, once the technical and commercial feasibility of an innovation is demonstrated, subsequent developments may be as much in the hands of users as in those of the innovators. As a result, new technologies can affect society in ways that were not intended by those who initiated them. Sometimes these unintended consequences are beneficial, such as spin-offs with valuable applications in fields remote from the original innovation. A good example of this concerns the early days of the Internet - the subject is covered in this article.

Negative and Second Order Benefits of New Technologies

Other times, intended benefits may also have unintended or ‘second order’ consequences. Interestingly, while a few far-sighted scientists are focusing on potentially negative second-order impacts off future nanotech applications, virtually no one has been tracking the potentially negative impacts of nanotechnology’s present-day products. This article, therefore, will attempt to distinguish between these two time-frames, as well as introducing the main socio-political concerns. For the purposes of this article, ‘long-term’ refers to a hazard that, due to challenges associated with technological development, is unlikely to manifest itself within a 10-15 year timeframe.

Impact of Nanotechnology Could Be Massive

Clearly, if scientists are successful in developing nanofabrication techniques for manufacturing nanoelectronic devices in huge volumes at very low cost, then the impact on society will be enormous. The potentially disruptive nature of nanotechnology has already been highlighted through its ability to generate major new paradigm shifts in how things are generated, such as a shift from top-down to bottom-up manufacturing techniques. This article further elaborates upon this and similar concerns.

Medical Ethics - Genetic Discrimination and Negative Eugenics

The ethical questions that have been raised in recent years following the advancement of such technologies as gene therapy are similar to in scope and philosophy to nanotechnology. For example, the emergence of highly specific drug therapies, a nano-based technique that features prominently, may result in genetic discrimination. That is, discrimination directed against an individual or family-based solely on an apparent or perceived genetic variation from the ‘normal’ human genotype. The major concern here lies in the end result of going down such a road: that the de-selection of characteristics judged unwanted by societies (referred to as negative eugenics) will be viewed as the right, responsible, moral thing to do, as will cures and enhancements. Similarly, on a longer time-scale, concerns over nanotech applications for enhancing the performance of the human body might also arise. A major question here is whether such enhancements can be forced upon people, either when in a position to make a decision for themselves or, more controversially, against their will.

What is the Nano-Divide?

If Moore’s law holds and the miniaturization of PCs continues unchecked well into the 21st Century, then it seems likely that, in the long-term, society will get to a point where people can carry computers 24 hours a day. As Chaudhari (2001) states: ‘We are evolving to the point where every human being will be connected to any other human or to the vast network of information sources throughout the world by a communication system comprised of wireless and optical fibre communication links.’

The Information Technology Divide Between Rich and Poor

A world in which information is abundant and cheap may well have serious privacy implications for those who can afford to connect. However, little consideration seems to have been given to those who will clearly not be able to afford to participate. Indeed, many nations are already witnessing an IT divide, particularly in reference to Internet usage, that correlates with inequality in the distribution of wealth. This gap is likely to be exacerbated by any impending nanotechnological revolution, forming a so-called ‘nano-divide.’ It is important not to underestimate the potential scale of this: the transition from a pre-nano to post-nano world could be very traumatic and could exacerbate the problem of haves vs. have-nots. Such differences are likely to be striking.

What a Divided Post-Nano World Might Be Like

A quick glance at demographics provides some insight into what such a post-nano world might look like. According to the World Bank, the Western industrial democracies will shrink from 12.7% of today’s population to 8.6% by 2025. At the same time in the developing world the population will double. The kinds of nanotech-inspired wonders alluded to throughout this report may only be feasible for the 8.6% of the 2025 population who live in Western industrial democracies, and the upper layer of society in the developing and non-developing world, not for the rural poor and the underside of all urban populations. In other words, ‘the differences in the quality of life will be even starker than today between these two worlds’.

The National Science Foundation (NSF) supports these sentiments: ‘Those who participate in the nano revolution stand to become very wealthy. Those who do not may find it increasingly difficult to afford the technological wonders that it engenders.’ (Roco and Bainbridge, 2001). One near-term example will be in medical care, as nanotech-based treatments may be initially expensive and hence only accessible to the very rich.

What is the ‘Corporate Concentration’ of Patenting Nano-Products?

In the longer-term, campaign groups such as the ETC Group point to what they describe as the ‘corporate concentration’ of ‘material building blocks and processes that make everything from dams to DNA.’ This concern arises irrespective of the general doctrine in patent law that products of nature cannot be patented because the atomically-engineered elements of today are able to side-step the issue. For example, C Sixty Inc., a Toronto, Canada-based start-up exercise, has filed a series of patents, five of which have been granted, for Buckminsterfullerene. The aim of C Sixty Inc. is to corner the market with respect to this remarkable molecule and its vast potential in drug delivery. A big concern of the ETC Group (2002c) is that patenting offices (such as the US Patent and Trademark Office) understand nanotechnology, so that when approached by industry, examiners understand what are reasonable boundaries to intellectual property rights.

Destructive and Military Uses of Nanotechnology

The potentially catastrophic but long-term danger that the deliberate misuse of nanotechnology for military aggression poses has already been sketched out. Indeed, Howard (2002) concedes that ‘once the basic technology is available, it would not be difficult to adapt it as an instrument of war or terror.’

Concerns Regarding a Nanotechnology Arms Race

Gsponer (2002), on the other hand, draws attention to the existing potential of nanotechnology to affect dangerous and destabilising ‘refinements’ of existing nuclear weapons designs - such fourth generation nuclear weapons are new types of explosives that can be developed in full compliance with the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT). Such developments hint at the worrying possibility of a nanotechnology arms race. Zyvex (2002) sketch out the underlying rationale for such an occurrence.

‘It is clear that offensive weapons made using advanced nanotechnology can only be stopped by defensive systems made using advanced nanotechnology as well. If one side has such weapons and the other doesn’t, the outcome will be swift and very lopsided. This is just a specific instance of the general rule that technological superiority plays an important and often critical role in determining the victor in battle. Clearly, we will need much further research into defensive systems as this technology becomes more mature.’

Note: A complete list of references can be found by referring to the original text.

Primary author: Alexander Huw Arnall.

Source: Greenpeace report, ‘Future Technologies, Today’s Choices Nanotechnology, Artificial Intelligence and Robotics; A technical, political and institutional map of emerging technologies’, July 2003.

For more information on this source please visit Greenpeace.

 

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