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Ethical Debates Regarding New Developments in Nanotechnology Often too Speculative and Imaginative

Ethical debates regarding new developments in nanotechnology are often too speculative and imaginative. This can cast technological developments in an unnecessarily bad light when in fact they are far from fully developed. There is also a tendency to play along with the grand visions of the proponents of new technology rather than ask critical questions. We need to question the veracity of the promises made and shift the focus to developments that are already underway - that is the case made by the philosophers Professor Arie Rip of University of Twente and Professor Alfred Nordmann of TU Darmstadt in their comments in the May edition of Nature Nanotechnology.

Nano-implants that make it possible to ‘read your mind’ naturally raise ethical questions and may also conjure up all kinds of doomsday visions, but such a scenario is actually based on a whole series of assumptions. This has led Rip and Nordmann to speak of a ‘new divide’ opening up. The ‘old divide’ came about through rapid progress in nanotechnology while ethical reflection on these developments lagged behind. The old divide has now been bridged by numerous publications and conferences. However, this has led to a new divide: ethical discussions are now so speculative that they miss the real point. ‘Instead of leading to a better understanding of how we should evaluate current developments,’ says Rip, ‘ethical debates are more concerned with morally interesting thought experiments involving human enhancement. Together with Tsjalling Swierstra, my colleague at the UT, I have argued that we need to re-evaluate the relevance of the moral concerns that are currently being aired on the subject of nanotechnology.’

Too many assumptions

Just because nano-brain implants may be technically possible, to then say that we will be able to ‘read minds’ is too large an assumption. For example, little is known about how the brain may react to the implant and about how to locate ‘thoughts’ in the brain. Technological developments are not moving at the same pace as developments in psychology or our knowledge of the human brain. But this does not stop ethicists from running wild with their fantastic scenarios. They make too many assumptions, according to Rip and Nordmann, and that undermines the relevance of their analysis.

Focus on the here and now

However, this does not prevent the two philosophers from asking critical questions about technology, but these are more based on the here and now – technology that is close to being realized. For instance, the technique of ‘deep brain stimulation’ can significantly improve quality of life in sufferers of Parkinson’s disease – that much is already well-known. However, this technique also has side-effects that can even affect the personality of the patient. These are questions that many nano-ethicists do not really give much thought to. Another example is nanotechnology which enables patients to be monitored remotely. This clearly raises plenty of ethical questions, but the debate seems to focus more on futuristic visions.

Professor Arie Rip works for the Department of Science, Technology and Policy Studies in the Faculty of Management and Business. He is also closely involved with the research programmes of the UT’s MESA+ Institute for Nanotechnology.

Professor Alfred Nordmann works for the Institute for Philosophy of TU Darmstadt.

‘Mind the gap revisited’ by Professor Alfred Nordmann and Professor Arie Rip appeared in the May edition of Nature Nanotechnology. Copies are available on request.

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