The Ethics of Nanotechnology

It's time for some serious social science. The EU Commission has released guidelines for ethical nanotechnology. Much of it is pretty sensible advice as to openness and encouraging the use of nanotechology for socially beneficial goals, but there are some sections that deserve critical review.

First, 4.1.11, that research bodies should standardized terminology. Nomenclature is more than word games, it shapes the ways in which think about the world. Calling for standard terminology would be an early step in the closure of nanotechnology. Do we want standardization to allow clearer collaboration, or are the many definitions of nanotechnology necessary for a diverse and expanding research community?

In the prohibition section, there is a call for not violating fundamental ethical principles, with new viruses given as an example. We should strongly consider the implications of military nanotechnology, particularly for targeted assassinations and robotic soldiers. Their call for non-therapeutic human enhancement is more problematic. I believe that we are going to see a blurring of the lines between medical (health is a social construct), commercially necessary (can you afford not to be as smart as your nano-enhanced colleagues) and recreational body modification. We are already cyborgs, why are nano-cyborgisms so dangerous that even research into enhancement technology is prohibited?

An aside on the topic of drugs. Commonly available mechanosynthesis would be a massive boon to drug users. Right now, synthesis of illicit drugs is controlled by monitoring their precursors. Mechanosynthesis uses the same elemental building blocks for all its products, so it essentially putting a drug lab in every home. How can we prevent personal fabricators, both macro and nano, from undermining laws that right now we consider necessary for society?


  1. Most of this document is eminently reasonable. However, the prohibitions section contains language that would stifle research if improperly interpreted.

    on 4.1.15 :
    The "new viruses with pathogenic potentials" language is vague: Is a point mutation from an existing virus a new virus ? What about recombination of existing viral strains ? What about modifying and researching a viral protein without assembling the full virus ? Or, what about creating therapeutic bacteriophages, or a virus that infects and kills a known human parasite ?

    on 4.1.16:
    They prohibit only "addictive or illicit enhancements" of the human body. Again, this language is overly vague to the point where it threatens research. Not all addictive compounds are harmful ( e.g. a coffee addiction might even prolong your life ), and many medically beneficial or necessary compounds are addictive. Furthermore, the term illicit is poorly defined. Do they refer only to enhancement of say, athletic performance in competitive sporting events, or could this be generalized to enhancements in academic performance ? It is interesting that this language does not preclude non-addictive recreational use that is not, strictly speaking an enhancement. This would permit research into technologies which could lead to novel forms of recreational neuroscience.

  2. on 4.1.15:
    Judging from my previous work on biological warfare, this would extend the prohibition to even theoretical research relating to creating new pathogens. Self-replicating nanotech is the ultimate bad scenario. The EU follows the precautionary principle, which assumes something is unsafe until it proven safe. Getting a bacteriophage through human testing would be a herculean task.

    I have a feeling they're taking a broad view of addicting and illicit. This is a conservative document in its outlooks.

  3. If this reaches into biotech I will be .. upset. For instance, if I discover a wild bacteriophage that helps me cure a deadly bacterial infection, I should be able to use it to treat people who are dying. If I then mutate that virus to accelerate its evolution under artificial selection to make it a better medicine, then I should be able to use that. The approval process for drugs and medical devices is sufficiently rigorous to reveal any pitfalls.

  4. "extend the prohibition to even theoretical research relating to creating new pathogens" ...

    So if I were to write a paper entitled something like "A Mathematical and Computational model of pathogen emergence from subviral replicating elements" or "Toward a unified theory of pathogen Design and Re-hybridization" or "Recombinant Techniques for Migrating Wildtype Viruses to Arbitrary Mammalian Hosts", I would be going against these.. ah... guidelines ?

  5. Anonymous17.9.09

    I feel that a standardization of terms would actually be a benefit to nano-tech research. Consider the educational implications. If a standard terminology was in place similar to that used by IUPAC for naming organic compounds, it could allow for students at an undergraduate level to easily be indoctrinated into this field of study.

  6. agrees with Anonymous. Again, I would prefer marginally fewer restrictions on research, but given the social harm caused by previous new technologies I can hardly blame them for being cautious.

  7. Regarding your aside on the topic of drugs, and scheduling precursors, current DEA statistics seem to show that this is not effective by itself, merely moving production to other precursors, or moving it entirely to countries with less stringent or more easily corruptible controls.
    Any effort to reduce the supply of a substance to market without reducing the demand merely increases the price. Being as the major social arguments for prohibition are their role in street crime as addicts steal to afford their next fix; their role in large scale organized crime and international corruption due to the massive profits involved; and health issues, many of which arise from impurities, it may be the case that there is no need to prevent personal fabricators from undermining laws, as the main victims will be organized crime and so-called 'narco states'.
    Admittedly, there are serious problems that can directly arise from some substance use, however the ability to synthesize on the personal scale would also go towards managing this, as it would be just as easy to (for example) synthesize a drug such as troparil, a cocaine analog with increased half life and reduced cardiotoxicity, as it would be to manufacture cocaine itself.
    Drug users are already using drugs. Non-users are still managing to abstain despite wide availability. Other than the elimination of an estimated $300bn of black market trade worldwide and some $44bn in law enforcement costs for the US alone, what major changes are you anticipating from microscale drug manufacture by the end user?

  8. I think we were playing Devil's advocate : inventing a fictitious regulatory scenario in which nanotechnology makes it impossible to control drug production.

    random nanotech articles of today :