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Staff Paper

Understanding the Ethical Implications of Nanotechnology: Highlights of a Limited Inquiry By the President's Council on Bioethics

by Sam Crowe, Ph.D.


The President’s Council on Bioethics undertook a limited inquiry into the ethical implications of nanotechnology in recent months. To help the Council better understand the topic, four experts on nanotechnology were invited to give presentations. Two of the experts, Dr. Andrew Maynard1 and Dr. Mauro Ferrari,2 presented during the June 2007 meeting. They spoke about the current and potential benefits and harms of nanotechnology. In September 2007, the Council met with Dr. Richard Superfine3 and Dr. Henk ten Have.4 Dr. Superfine was asked to explain nanoscience, specifically the unique properties materials display at the nanoscale. Dr. ten Have helped the Council frame some of the ethical issues raised by this technology by describing and explaining the initiatives of several European countries and the United Nations Educational, Social, and Cultural Organization.

This memorandum recounts the highlights of these sessions in two parts. First, it explains how nanotechnology was defined and why this definition is important to an ethical inquiry of the subject. Second, it describes three questions that arose during the discussions that might one day serve as useful focal points for an in-depth investigation of nanotechnology. The memorandum ends with a brief account of the Council’s impression of the topic.

Defining Nanotechnology

Two of the experts who presented to the Council spent considerable time explaining what nanotechnology is. As is often the case in this burgeoning field, though, they emphasized two distinct notions of the technology: one described nanotechnology as the art or the process of making very small materials; the other claimed it is the very small artificial materials themselves. While different, each of these definitions captures an important aspect of what constitutes any technology, whether it is biotechnology, nuclear technology, information technology, or nanotechnology. In each of these cases, the technology is both the process of creating a product and the product that is made; one notion of the technology always implies the other. As such, even though the two speakers emphasized different things, their accounts are insightful, and together offer a solid foundation for a more comprehensive definition.

Dr. Maynard was one of the speakers who defined nanotechnology for the Council. He defined it as: “the art and the science of building stuff that does stuff on a nanometer scale.”5 Although vague, this definition provides an important parameter: it limits the object of inquiry to what is accomplished with and learned about materials at the scale of the nanometer, which is one-billionth of a meter in size. Basically, the nanoscale consists of extremely small units of matter.

The definition also states that nanotechnology incorporates both the science and the art of creating small things. As a science, nanotechnology incorporates the systematic knowledge of how to arrange nanoscale particles in a way to create new wholes. That body of knowledge is then applied in the actual creation of these new nanomaterials, which is what makes nanotechnology an art. The emphasis here is on the technological process of controlling and shaping very small matter. The definition does not focus on the actual objects that are created using the technological process, except insofar as the definition states that the objects being created do “stuff.” This notation is a reminder that what is created or manipulated is created or manipulated in the service of some end or purpose, such as creating cheaper or more durable products for consumers or developing better means of delivering life-saving drugs.

While Dr. Maynard’s definition primarily focuses on nanotechnology as the process of creating nanoscale products, he also spoke of the products themselves as nanotechnologies during his presentation. Dr. Ferrari was the speaker, though, who provided the Council with a definition of nanotechnology as a product. His definition consists of three main parts. First, to be a nanotechnology the object must be artificial. Second, the artificial object must be or must have a crucial component that is of nanoscale dimensions. Third, the artificial object must display a new property, one that the device would not have at the microscale. The property can be physical, chemical, biological, or some combination of the three, and it will be at least slightly different from the behavior of individual atoms and very different from the behavior of bulk materials.

Zinc oxide particles offer a clear example of a material displaying a new property at the nanoscale. Zinc oxide is an inorganic particle that reflects both visible light and ultraviolet light when it is pigment grade size (i.e., three hundred to four hundred nanometers). It was used for many years in sunscreens, but when applied, it leaves the wearer’s skin looking as if it were painted white. Recently, researchers altered the structure of zinc oxide particles by shrinking them down to twenty nanometers. At this scale, the particles display an interesting characteristic: while remaining opaque to ultraviolet light, they are transparent to visible light. Thus when applied to human skin, these smaller particles reflect harmful ultraviolet light while allowing visible light to pass through the particle layer, leaving the skin of the wearer looking as if no zinc oxide had been applied. This unique property of the smaller zinc oxide particles is now being exploited and used in many new sunscreens.

All nanotechnologically derived materials share these three basic characteristics of being artificially created, being really small, and displaying a unique property, but the similarities between the nanotechnologies stop there. Both Dr. Maynard and Dr. Ferrari claimed that many nanotechnologies are, in fact, different from one another. For instance, the nanotechnologies used in sunscreens and in cancer treatments are made of different substances, have different uses, and affect the human body in different ways. The same can be said for the nanotechnologies found in paints, clothing, and sporting goods. These differences between and among nanotechnologies are critical to the assessment of the ethical implications of a nanotechnology. One kind of nanotechnology might pose grave dangers to human life or the natural environment while another might be benign.

Thus, categorizing nanotechnologies is extremely important. Three ways are available. First, nanotechnologies could be divided up based on the particles from which they are made. For example, all products made from carbon would be in one group, while those made of zinc oxide would be in another. Second, they could be organized based on how they are made. The two broadest categories would be: construction from the bottom up and construction from the top down, or, the nanotechnologies that are created by manipulating more fundamental units and those created by whittling larger materials into smaller pieces. And third, they could be classified based on the ends that they are created to serve. A few types of ends are: nanotechnologies used to protect skin, those used to strengthen materials, those designed to treat disease, and those created to increase computing power. This final approach is the most ethically relevant. By focusing on the ends of nanotechnology, this approach organizes the field based on the different ways nanotechnologies might be used, and thus in the ways they might affect human beings and the natural environment.

Regardless of how they are categorized, Dr. Maynard and Dr. Ferrari argued that nanotechnologies are not themselves inherently good or bad. They based this assessment on an analogy to commonplace tools, such as hammers or wrenches. Just as a tool is a morally neutral object that can be used in either morally defensible or morally problematic ways, so too can nanotechnologies be applied to good or bad ends.

But is the analogy strong enough to prove that nanotechnology is, in itself, morally neutral? After all, nanotechnology is not, purely and simply, a defined tool. It is both a product and a process, and as such, it is more complex. Even if the products themselves are morally neutral objects like commonplace tools—a claim that is worth further consideration—the process of creating them might not be. An ethical analysis of nanotechnology should reflect on the moral significance of the process of creating very small artifacts as well as on the artifacts themselves.

During such an inquiry, some might claim that there are ethical issues at the core of every technology, including nanotechnology. They might argue that even as technologies give us the power to make life easier, they also can be harmful, not only because they sometimes can be used in inappropriate ways, but because they can tie us to our victories over nature and to our successes of invention by creating new dependencies without which we think we cannot live.6

This point notwithstanding, the combined parameters set by Dr. Maynard and Dr. Ferrari for a definition of nanotechnology serve as a good basis for a more detailed consideration of what it is. Much rests on how one clarifies the definition, though. Any refinement of it will shape the ethical inquiries that follow.

Potential Themes for an In-Depth Ethical Inquiry

An in-depth ethical inquiry of nanotechnology could address three somewhat distinct questions. First, how do—and how will—nanotechnologies affect human health and the natural environment? Second, how is nanotechnology in general similar to and different from other types of technology? And third, as nanotechnologies develop, do they endanger human dignity, and if so, how?

Human Health and the Environment

All of the experts who presented to the Council concurred on one observation or conclusion: the nanotechnologies available today affect human health and the natural environment in ways that are not fully understood. An inquiry investigating this impact would concentrate primarily on the issue of safety, and would rely heavily on an analysis of benefit and risk. The key to this type of inquiry is to have sufficient and trustworthy data on the impact of a nanotechnology. Such facts, however, are not currently available in most instances. Each of the four experts said, in his own way, that even though considerable research has already been conducted on how some nanotechnologies affect human health and the environment, the data on the actual dangers of nanomaterials are incomplete. Dr. Maynard added that the data are only partially available due to reasons that might strike some as both surprising and troubling. First, methodologies for measuring human and environmental exposure to nanoparticles are not yet available. Second, little agreement exists within the scientific community on how to evaluate the hazards of using a particular nanomaterial. These “deficiencies” are disquieting when one considers some of the current projects to develop nanotechnologies that enjoy the freedom of neither being carefully monitored nor regulated.

Nanoparticles are currently being used in cosmetics, sporting goods, electronics, clothing, and paint. These particles might be on our skin, in the air we breathe, or in the water we drink. Although we enjoy their benefits, we know very little about how the particles affect us. During his presentation to the Council, Dr. Maynard described a study that was conducted to determine how nanoscale particles are absorbed by animals, in this case rats. Unlike larger particles, which collect in the lungs of animals when inhaled, the nanoscale particles used in the experiment deposited in the nasal passages of the rats and then migrated up their olfactory nerve. Because of their size, the nanoparticles were able to bypass the blood-brain barrier and enter directly into the brain, which they would not be able to do if they were larger. How these particles will affect living creatures over the long-term warrants further exploration. Will they degrade and work their way out of the body? Will their unique configuration cause them to remain relatively intact for long periods of time? The effects of exposure to nanoparticles on the human body and the consequences of releasing them in the natural environment still are not fully understood, and as such should be of grave concern.

Just as harms might occur accidentally with the use of nanotechnology for benign ends, they also might be brought about intentionally. One of the greatest dangers to human health and the natural environment might result from the use of nanoparticles in acts of terrorism. During his presentation to the Council, Dr. Ferrari mentioned one potential medical application that might be misused by terrorists, and if so, would be very harmful to human life. He said that some work has been done on creating nanoparticles that would allow diabetics to ingest insulin in a pill form, and thus replace the need for injection. By carrying an agent that would unlock the body’s natural barriers to some foreign substances, the particles would be able to enter the body in a way that they would not naturally be able to do. Although these particles would be designed for the morally defensible use of helping diabetics, they also could be used to transmit biological pathogens in unusual ways. For example, at least in theory, a pathogen such as Ebola-Zaire, which is transmitted by contact with infected blood or other bodily secretions, might be encased in nanoparticles and spread through a building’s air supply. Occupants would need only to breathe in the particles to become infected. To make matters worse, nanotechnology can be manufactured on such a small scale and from such benign and commonplace materials that detecting the process could be extremely difficult. Using nanotechnology as a means to commit terrorism might become one of the most deadly security threats in the relatively near future.

Nanotechnology as a New Kind of Technology

If nanotechnology is the same as all other kinds of technology, then exploring it from the angle of how it relates to other technologies would not produce many insights. But Dr. ten Have gave the Council reason to believe that there is one difference that goes to the essence of what nanotechnology is. This difference is based primarily on nanotechnology’s “invisibility,” which refers to its operating at such a small scale that human beings cannot detect it using their native powers. This kind of invisibility is significant because it makes nanotechnological developments unnoticeable to most people. As a result, many might never know whether or not they are touching, ingesting, or breathing in potentially deadly particles. An arguably deeper issue, however, is this: with nanotechnology, it might become possible to alter the fundamental building blocks of matter.

The power to alter the fundamental building blocks of matter could be immense because, as one Council member put it, at the nanoscale there does not seem to be any “dirt,”7 meaning that at the nanoscale much less inhibits technology from manipulating the properties of the material world. Some scientists agree with this Council member’s insight, and are actively trying to build materials from the bottom up using molecular manufacturing techniques. At least in theory, atomic scale parts could be ordered in whatever ways the physical laws governing matter would allow, potentially making possible the creation of new physical forms (i.e., things that do not exist either in nature or as products of familiar arts). For those who support the possibility of molecular manufacturing and such intervention, the grand project of nanotechnology seems to be, as another Council member said, “the complete control of the physical structure of matter.”8 Quite a few scientists have argued that this kind of construction never will be possible, though.

If this latter group is correct, nanotechnology might not be much different from other kinds of technology, and the ethical implications of it might be roughly the same as other, similar technologies. But if this group is incorrect and nanotechnology is something fundamentally different, an inquiry of this sort might be a great public service. It could explore not only whether or not the ability to control the fundamental units of matter is morally acceptable but also what it means to hope for such control and how such a mindset might affect our understanding of ourselves and the natural world.

Human Dignity

In its previous work and reports, the Council has appealed to the concept of human dignity both to illuminate what is at stake when using certain biotechnologies and to justify particular ways of responding to their presence and influence on individual and collective life. During the sessions on nanotechnology, some Council members began exploring how nanotechnologies might affect human dignity, but in the process they encountered a revealing difficulty. The nanotechnologies that potentially might harm human dignity (i.e., nanotechnologies that would radically affect fundamental aspects human life and might alter human nature) currently do not exist. With the scientists and engineers responsible for creating them arguing over whether or not they will ever exist, it seems premature to assess the impact of these specific nanotechnologies.

Nevertheless, the Council discussions revealed why thinking about human dignity in the context of nanotechnology might be both crucial and challenging at some point in the future. During his presentation, Dr. Maynard listed the potential consumer benefits of nanotechnology. In this context he referred to nanotechnology as the “I Wish” technology because it is a technology that enables the improvement of nearly any product that one might wish to work better. He used sunscreen, stain repellent clothing, and iPods as examples of products one might like to improve using nanotechnology, and later explained some of the potential risks to human health and the environment that nanotechnological improvements to consumer products might bring. Some Council members thought more expansively and began wondering aloud about the possibilities of such a powerful technology. One member argued that the “I Wish” formula raises a different kind of question from that of risk of harm, particularly regarding the more radical interventions that nanotechnology might make possible, such as cognitive enhancement.9

If a nanotechnology could cognitively enhance human beings, the implications probably would not be fully understood by only considering how the nanotechnology might affect human health. During his presentation, Dr. Superfine mentioned the possibility of implanting a computer chip with two hundred gigabytes of memory into a human being and designing a way for the brain to access that memory so that a person has at his or her disposal a library of information. Assessing the moral significance of this nanotechnology by exploring its impact on health only would capture the risk of personal injury that the nanotechnology would impose. If the implant did not cause any harm, or if the cognitive enhancement somehow even improved the recipient’s health, an assessment of the nanotechnology based on its impact on health only would lend support for using this nanotechnology without addressing the deeper question: what does it mean to enhance the human mind in such a way? Would someone with such an implant be more or less distractible, more or less compassionate? How does such access to information fit into the larger picture of human excellence and human happiness? A more extensive analysis of what is at stake would require an exploration of what the particular capacities of the human mind are, what it would mean to use them well, and how this nanotechnology might alter this ability to use them well. An exploration of this kind would be an exploration of a nanotechnology’s impact on human dignity.

* * *

The context in which nanotechnological advances are taking place complicates the process of ethical inquiry and assessment. With the inevitable competition for scarce resources, the pressure on researchers to exaggerate or to spin developments must be immense.10 As such, we, as a political community, should be wary, not only of the claims researchers make but also of the dreams and hopes to which the inevitable progress of nanotechnology gives rise. This caution hopefully will help us avoid the twin pitfalls of over-predicting and under-predicting, and the misguided ethical analyses that might arise from them.

The Council’s Impression of the Topic

During the Council sessions, it became apparent that many well-informed scientists and engineers disagree on the future of nanotechnology, especially with respect to its potential to alter human life. On the one hand, some claim that future nanotechnologies will continue to enhance currently existing technologies and consumer products, but will not radically alter human beings or how we experience the world. The technologies and products will be better versions of what we currently have, and any potential moral problems that might arise will be versions of problems we currently face. On the other hand, some experts claim that nanotechnology will make it possible to control the basic units of matter in such a way that not only inanimate objects but also living beings, themselves, might be radically changed. The experts are so divided over this issue that, at least for now, it is imprudent to claim that nanotechnology will develop in a specific direction. Without a clearer sense of how it will develop, a moral assessment of nanotechnology as a unique kind of technology is premature. As mentioned in the previous section, such an analysis depends heavily on whether or not nanotechnology will give us the power to control the fundamental building blocks of matter.

While the future development of nanotechnology is uncertain and therefore so are the ethical implications of potential nanotechnologies, those that are currently in use raise troubling ethical issues of their own. Each of the four speakers who presented to the Council, echoing the disquiet expressed in much of the nanotechnology literature, voiced legitimate concerns about some of the nanotechnologies currently used in industry or in consumer products. The speakers worried about how nanoparticles are affecting human health and the natural environment, and called for further assessment of the impact of such particles.

To date, the Council has addressed some health and safety issues that have arisen because of technological progress, but most of the Council’s work has focused on how technologies might alter the contours of human life and aspirations in fundamental ways. For example, when the Council discusses mood-brightening agents in its report Beyond Therapy: Biotechnology and the Pursuit of Happiness, it considers whether or not the use of such agents is safe, but the brunt of the discussion focuses on the larger question of the importance of mood, particularly unpleasant moods, in shaping human life. The report asks what sorrow can teach and what discontent might provoke. And it argues that human flourishing requires that a person’s feelings reflect what that person experiences: sad events should make a person sorrowful; terrible events should make a person feel horror; and wonderful events should make a person happy. But to be happy all of the time, regardless of what one experiences, would diminish a person’s capacity for authentic feeling.

This kind of exploration is sorely needed when a technology has the potential to affect human beings as mood-brightening agents might. This kind of exploration is what the Council does best. But in order to begin such an investigation, the technology under question must have a more clearly discernible impact on human life in this way: in the shorthand expression sometimes used by the Council, it must affect human dignity. Nanotechnologies that are currently available do not affect human beings in such a way. They might make people sick, and they might harm the natural environment, which are certainly serious problems worthy of analysis, but their current manifestations do not risk altering the very nature of being human.

Because so much uncertainty surrounds the future development of nanotechnology and because currently available nanotechnologies do not present dangers beyond those of a health and safety variety, the Council has decided to conclude its limited inquiry into the ethics of nanotechnology, while acknowledging that new, more concrete advances might justify its reengaging the topic.

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FOOTNOTES

1. Dr. Maynard is the Chief Science Advisor for the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.

2. Dr. Ferrari is: Professor, Brown Foundation Institute of Molecular Medicine; Chairman, Department of Biomedical Engineering at the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston; Professor of Experimental Therapeutics, University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center; Professor of Bioengineering, Rice University; Professor of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, University of Texas Medical Branch; and President, Alliance for NanoHealth.

3. Dr. Superfine is the Bowman and Gordon Gray Professor of the Department of Physics and Astronomy and the Director of the Center for Computer Integrated Systems for Microscopy and Manipulation at the University of North Carolina .

4. Dr. ten Have is the Director of the Division of Ethics of Science and Technology of UNESCO and Professor of Medical Ethics at the Faculty of Medical Sciences of the Catholic University of Nijmegen.

5. See the June 29, 2007, Council session transcript entitled "Nanotechnology: Benefits and Risks." Dr. Maynard gave credit to the Nobel Laureate and chemist Dr. Richard Smalley for coining this definition.

6. See Dr. Leon Kass' essay entitled "The Problem of Technology and Liberal Democracy" in Life, Liberty , and the Defense of Dignity for a more detailed analysis of this question.

7. See Dr. William Hurlbut's comments in the June 29, 2007, Council session transcript entitled "Nanotechnology: Benefits and Risks."

8. See Dr. Peter Lawler's comments in the September 7, 2007, Council session transcript entitled "Nanotechnology and Ethics: European and Global Perspectives."

9. See Dr. Gilbert Meilaender's comments in the June 29, 2007, Council session transcript entitled "Nanotechnology: Benefits and Risks."

10. See the exchange between Dr. Rebecca Dresser and Dr. Ferrari in the June 29, 2007, Council session transcript entitled "Nanotechnology, Medicine, and Ethics;" the exchange between Dr. Dresser and Dr. ten Have in the September 7, 2007, session transcript "Nanotechnology and Ethics: European and Global Perspectives;" and the exchange between Dr. Robert George and Dr. Ferrari the same June session.

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