The Ethics and Politics of Nanotechnology

UNESCO has become the latest organisation to tale a look at “the ethics and politics of nanotechnology” although as all too often these reports fail to deliver, you can download the report here.

This one is perfecly competent, although it does take a long time to get around to anything vaguely relevant to the title, spending almost half the report doing the standard definition of and introduction to nanotechnologies. Hopefully this reflect the rather different distribution that UNESCO reports have from the usual nanotech circuit.

Two recent discussions surrounding nanotechnology have received a lot of attention when it comes to ethical or social implications and risks: the so-called ‘greygoo’ scenario, and the concerns about ‘post-humanism’. The grey-goo scenario is based on the fear that nanotechnological devices will either be programmed to self-replicate, or that they will ‘evolve’ into devices capable of self-replicating, and that should they proceed to do so, they may destroy the natural world. Currently there are no nanotechnological objects capable of self-replication (unless one includes objects
such as DNA and viruses under the definition of nanotechnology, which muddies the discussion further).
Yet philosophers, ethicists and many scientistsfrequently speak as if such objects exist now, or will
in the very near future. Often such claims depend on some form of ‘technological determinism’ in which
advocates or opponents presume that technology develops autonomously, and is beyond human, social,
or governmental control. In the absence of experimental science, the debate is quickly polarized: one
must be either for or against nanotechnology.

While offering no solutions, it is a well thought out document, but rather ducks the issue when it concludes that “Nanotechnology is at a crossroads. The emergence of consensus concerning the direction, safety, desirability and funding of nanotechnology will depend on how it is defined, and on who will be included as a result.”


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