Nanotechnology Research Paper

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The miniaturization of science and engineering is just one aspect of the many ways that the rapidly expanding field of nanotechnology promises to revolutionize the landscape of science, technology, and society. With potential applications stretching across the wide spectrum of research and development in consumer electronics and cosmetics, drug development and delivery in the pharmaceutical industry, medical technologies and therapeutics, energy production and storage, environmental engineering and remediation, industrial manufacturing, and textile production, nanoscience and nanotechnologies have demonstrated breathtaking potential. Some of its most ardent supporters project the future of this technology even more optimistically. Others disagree, suggesting that hype surrounding speculative nanotechnology is well beyond the plausible potential of the technology and seems more at home in science fiction novels and films. This research paper explores the developing field of nanotechnology and given its vast potential considers whether there are inherent concerns or dangers in the utilization of these technologies. Additional attention is given to ethical considerations and implications of these technologies, as well as to policy questions that are raised with respect to regulating nanotechnology for the public good.

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Few areas of research and development have captured the imagination with the potential for such broad impact and implications as has nanoscience and nanotechnology. Applications for nanotechnology cross such disparate fields of research, development, and production as materials science (with agricultural, industrial/manufacturing, and textile applications), energy production, environmental sciences, information and communication technologies, cosmetics, healthcare (with diagnostics, drug delivery, gene therapy, and potential contributions to regenerative medicine), and the possibility of futuristic applications with nanobots and nanotechnology assemblers. As of late 2014, an inventory by the Woodrow Wilson Center identified over 1,800 consumer products containing nanoscale materials (Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies 2014).

“Nanoscale technology” or “nanotechnology” generally refers to the products of science and engineering that seek to understand and control matter at the nanoscale level. While definitions of the terminology are not universally agreed upon, the U.S. National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI n.d.) defines the “nanoscale” as the “dimensional range of approximately 1–100 nm” (a nanometer is one-billionth of a meter). Comparatively, a sheet of paper is roughly 100,000 nm thick. The ability to manipulate and control materials at the nanoscale level offers a variety of promising and wide-ranging applications. From enhancements to already existent consumer products to advances in industrial manufacturing to regenerative medicine and the possibility of futuristic applications, nanotechnology has the potential to revolutionize far-reaching aspects of human life. Strong proponents of the future of these technologies offer visions that seem to stretch the limits of credulity and posit applications that may seem more at home in science fiction novels and films. Such proposals have led others to charge that this very promise has led to unreasonable research hype and speculations, and thus critics within the research and ethics communities increasingly are calling for more chastened projections of potential research deliverables, as well as what they claim are more “realistic” potential benefits.

As an area of emerging technology, nanotechnology (at least in its formal use of nanoscience) and the corresponding field of nanotechnology ethics (or nanoethics) are relatively recent developments of the 1990s with much of their growth occurring within the early years of the twenty-first century. The purpose of this research paper is to explore the historical background leading to contemporary research, development, and product release of nanotechnologies; clarify key terminology; examine recent, near future, and speculative applications of these technologies; and conclude with a discussion of various ethical considerations raised by nanotechnologies.

Historical Development


“Nanotechnology” was first coined in 1974 by the Japanese researcher Norio Taniguchi “to mean precision machining with tolerances of a micrometer or less” (Voss 1999). While this marked the first known usage of the term, the formal discipline of nanoscience is indebted to the work of Richard Feynman, a physicist who speculated in a 1959 presentation “There’s Plenty of Room at the Bottom.” In his talk, Feynman (1960) explored the possibility of printing the entire 24 volumes of the Encyclopedia Britannica on the head of a pin, thus requiring the equivalent of an electron microscope to read the nanometer-scale transcription. Feynman speculated on the ability to manipulate material at the atomic and molecular level to create what would later be referred to as nanoscale devices or nanomachines utilizing a “bottom-up approach” (O’Mathúna 2009). This “bottom-up approach” of nanoscale assembly is often contrasted with a “top-down approach” that seeks to apply larger-scale manufacturing techniques and principles at increasingly smaller scales (Navarro and Planell 2012; Mitchell et al. 2007). Feynman’s 1959 presentation advanced possibilities that would characterize both approaches.

Eric Drexler’s 1986 volume Engines of Creation was instrumental in introducing nanotechnology into public awareness and the ensuing policy discourse. In his work, Drexler revisited the two approaches to the miniaturization of research by contrasting “bulk technology”– similar to a “topdown approach” – with that of “molecular technology” – similar to a “bottom-up approach” and interchangeable with the term “nanotechnology” (Drexler 1990). In describing these two technologies, Drexler notes that previous technologies that moved “room-sized computers” to silicon chips relied upon the older model of bulk technology, while molecular technology will allow for the possibility of precision devices made of “nanocircuits and nanomachines” (Drexler 1990). Within the nanoscience and nanotechnology research community, Drexler’s promotion of nanobots and self-replicating nanoassemblers has had a polarizing effect resulting in a division between those who focus on the near-term potential of nanotechnology (based upon strides that have already been made and are perceived to be likely outcomes from current research capabilities) and those who take a more futuristic or speculative approach to nanotechnologies. Such speculative approaches often advance the idea of increasing convergence of emerging technologies to promote such possibilities as radical life extension, human enhancement and augmentation, cryonics, and attempts to guide the future of human evolution (O’Mathúna 2009).

One of the oldest known applications of nanotechnology dates back to the fourth-century Roman Lycurgus Cup made of dichroic glass. Housed in the British Museum, this cup contains metal nanoparticles in the glass which alter its color when held up to a light source (O’Mathúna 2009; Khan 2012). Little is known about how the glassmakers came to utilize these nanoparticles. Later applications throughout history included use of nanoparticles on glass windows (Ireland, mid-fifth century), ceramics (Islamic world and later Europe, ninth to seventeenth centuries), and traditional medicines in South Asia. Furthermore, weapons metallurgy of the thirteenth to eighteenth centuries used carbon nanotubes and cementite nanowires in the making of “Damascus” saber blades (Khan 2012).

A major breakthrough in contemporary nanotechnology research occurred in 1985 with the creation of a new form of carbon known as the buckminsterfullerene or more commonly a “buckyball” (also bucky-ball) due to its resemblance to a soccer ball. The buckyball was followed in 1991 with the related development of carbon nanotubes. Due to their unique structure, carbon nanotubes were viewed as a major development for materials science, as they are approximately “60 times stronger than steel and capable of conducting electricity 1,000 times better than copper” (Khan 2012).

Nanotechnology Themes In Fiction

Given the potential of nanotechnology, it is no surprise that it has also captured the attention of science fiction authors. The value of fiction and film to philosophy, ethics, and medicine has been on the rise in the past decade with increased attention given to the contributions of the medical humanities and its role in education. Examples of nanotechnology in science fiction range from cautionary tales such as Michael Crichton’s 2002 novel Prey of an uncontrolled nanotech swarm to classic works such as Isaac Asimov’s Fantastic Voyage with its miniaturized machines (O’Mathúna 2009). Likewise, William Gibson’s The Peripheral (2014) explores two futures in which the technology of 3-D printing gives way to the proliferation of self-replicating nanoassemblers, demonstrating an interesting progression of possible technological evolution.

Perhaps the most direct connection between science fiction and bioethics is that nanotechnology and similar technologies offer “science fiction authors the opportunity to make predictions about what is to come and to issue warnings” (O’Mathúna 2009). Such “speculative ethics” may project and support either dystopian or utopian conceptions of the future. Nordmann (2007) and others counter that such speculative approaches treat imagined futures as if they already exist and thereby displace actual presenting issues. Balancing ethical reflection of existing nanotechnologies with anticipating futuristic applications of nanotechnologies is a delicate task. As with all rapidly evolving arenas of emerging technologies, merely setting aside the speculative dimension of potential applications seems to ignore the length of deliberation necessary to implement appropriate policy and regulatory regimes so as to avoid both conceptual and policy vacuums. Technology assessment and ethical analysis of emerging technologies such as nanotechnologies are perhaps necessarily speculative endeavors. However, an appropriate caution must be raised to prevent the conflation of hypotheticals with presenting technologies in such ethical discourse.

Funding And International Research And Development

The U.S. government took an early lead in funding research and development of nanoscience and nanotechnology, launching what would eventually become the NNI in the late 1990s during the administration of President Bill Clinton. Recognizing the value of a coordinated federal effort for nanotechnology research and development, in 2003 President George W. Bush signed into law the 21st Century Nanotechnology Research and Development Act (NNI n.d.). Initial U.S. government funding of $464 million in 2001 quickly grew to nearly $2 billion in 2010, with 2015 budget allocations for the NNI set at more than $1.5 billion (NNI n.d.). In addition to the federal funding provided by the NNI, both state-level and private funding are substantial supplements to U.S. research initiatives in nanotechnology. Cumulative NNI investment from 2001 to 2015 is estimated at approximately $21 billion.

The European Commission has likewise taken “a leading and coordinating role in nanoscience and nanotechnology development in Europe,” as well as individual governmental support from several EU member states that invest directly in research and development such as the United Kingdom, Germany, France, and others (Malsch and Emond 2014). The European Commission in 2007 had allocated approximately EUR 600 million through its Seventh Framework Programme (FP7) for research in the areas of nanomedicine and nanomaterials (Navarro and Planell 2012). Similarly, significant research initiatives in Australia, Japan, and South Korea as well as in numerous emerging economies such as Brazil, Argentina, Russia, India, and China demonstrate the global involvement of research investment in nanoscience and nanotechnology research, infrastructure, and development.

Defining Terms

As noted earlier, “nanotechnology” refers to the products of science and engineering that seek to understand and control matter at the nanoscale level. The interest of studying and manipulating materials at the nanoscale level is that such materials exhibit novel properties that are distinct from larger scales of the same materials.

While the upper limit of 100 nanometers (nm) is commonly used, some have noted the lack of scientific evidence to justify such a demarcation in that some materials exhibit similar properties at larger scales and, thus, have proposed an alternative dimensional range of 1–1,000 nm (O’Mathúna 2009). The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in a 2014 industry guidance suggests the consideration of those materials with dimensions outside of the nanoscale but which may demonstrate “novel properties and phenomena similar to those seen in materials with dimensions in the nanoscale range” and thus proposes an upper limit of 1 mm (1,000 nm) for regulation (FDA 2014). Others such as the European Commission have proposed more functional definitions that focus on controlling “the structure and behaviour of matter at the level of atoms and molecules” rather than emphasizing specific size ranges (European Commission 2014; Khan 2012). As O’Mathúna (2009) notes, part of the challenge to precisely defining the boundaries of nanotechnology is that within the nanoscale range, “a unique combination of quantum and macroscale effects converge to give nanoparticles their unique and interesting properties,” particularly as they interact with cells and living tissues to “permeat[e] the impermeable.”

The UK’s Royal Society and Royal Academy of Engineering have emphasized the distinction between “nanoscience” and “nanotechnology.” The former is “the study of phenomena and manipulation of materials at atomic, molecular and macromolecular scales, where properties differ significantly from those at a larger scale” (The Royal Society and The Royal Academy of Engineering 2004; ten Have 2007). The latter is “the design, characterization, production and application of structures, devices and systems by controlling shape and size at nanometer scale.” Furthermore, given the range of disciplines and applications covered by nanoscience and nanotechnology research, ten Have (2007) and others suggest that “nanotechnologies” is a more accurate term to designate the field. With their potential impact, nanotechnologies have been deemed by many to be not only enabling technologies but also transformative or disruptive technologies, capable of altering a disciplinary landscape or aspect of technology and society (Jotterand 2008).

Nanotechnologies are available in a variety of applications, of which nanoparticles, carbon nanotubes, and nanobiosensors are some of the most common. As noted earlier, one of the oldest and most widely utilized nanotechnologies is nanoparticles. Some of the most commonly used types of nanoparticles are gold nanoparticles, magnetic nanoparticles, and a semiconductor nanocrystal referred to as a quantum dot (Navarro and Planell 2012). In contrast to their bulk material counterparts (generally those materials larger than 1 mm), nanoparticles exhibit novel properties (e.g., color, reactivity, conductivity, melting point, hardness, etc.) that introduce potential uses beyond those of their bulk counterparts. Nanoparticles are being utilized or researched for use in cosmetics, surface coatings for manufacturing and textiles, diagnostics, environmental remediation, energy production, as well as numerous medical applications.

One of the early developments in contemporary nanotechnology was the creation of carbon nanotubes (CNTs). In addition to their strength and conductivity, CNTs demonstrate an impressive flexibility in the structures that may be formed and thus the diversity of types that may be created. CNTs have shown significant potential for advances in materials science, electronics, energy production and storage, environmental remediation, and medical applications, particularly drug delivery and bone tissue engineering. Despite their promise, the unique structure of CNTs raises concerns about potential toxicity issues, particularly the potential for respiratory contamination (Malsch and Emond 2014; O’Mathúna 2009). Broader adoption of CNT technology will depend upon further research to examine under what conditions, if any, CNTs pose a serious risk to the health of humans and/or other living organisms.

Nanobiosensors are a nanoscale detection tool for biological or chemical materials. One category of nanobiosensors includes MEMS (microelectromechanical sensors), which have been proposed as a kind of smart dust for military and environmental applications, or even medical monitoring. MEMS also may refer to the broader category of nanotechnologies referred to as microelectromechanical systems, which include sensor technologies. Nanobiosensors or MEMS could be set to wirelessly transmit information allowing for the possibility of real-time detection or tracking capabilities. Other types of nanoscale sensors include nanofluidic arrays and protein nanochips for analysis of chemical materials or even DNA.

MEMS and the broader category of nanobots (or nanorobotics) and nanites or nanoassemblers represent futuristic forms of nanotechnologies. Speculative uses envision nanobots injected into the bloodstream as medical diagnostics, releasing drugs on demand, and performing nanoscale surgeries to repair the body. Self-replicating nanoassemblers are posited as the future of materials science for construction and product manufacturing, disrupting contemporary models through the nanoscale equivalent of 3-D printing. At present, these potential applications remain the purview of speculative nanotechnologies, despite their popular adoption in many science fiction works.

Current And Potential Applications

Given that nanotechnologies are so wide ranging in their impact and applications, what follows is merely a sampling of the various developments in recent years with relevant comments to areas of active inquiry.


A number of the early advances due to nanoscience and nanotechnology were actually the result of the development of nanoscale instrumentation. New instruments capable of measurements at the subcellular level have led to expansion in the understanding of fundamental biological processes (Navarro and Planell 2012). Developments in instrumentation include the 1981 invention of the scanning tunneling microscope (STM). STM permitted images of individual atoms 5 nm in size and was the first of several scanning probe microscopes significantly to improve the power of instrumentation to study materials at the nanoscale level, leading to later developments such as the atomic force microscope (O’Mathúna 2009; ten Have 2007).

Medical And Pharmaceutical

Nanodelivery systems that utilize encapsulation or coatings with additives allow for increased absorption of pharmaceutical drugs or nutrients such as vitamins, which permits lower dosages and potentially fewer side effects. Due to their ability to pass through cell membranes, carbon nanotubes in particular have demonstrated promise as drug delivery mechanisms (Navarro and Planell 2012; Malsch and Emond 2014). Carbon nanotubes also are generating research interest as potential scaffold material for tissue engineering (Malsch and Emond 2014).

One of the novel properties of nanoparticles, with various medical applications, involves electromagnetic spectrum reactions that result in the vibration or heating of nanomaterials. One such application would be a type of precision tumor surgery involving gold nanoparticles injected directly into a tumor or delivered as part of a drug dosage to enter cancer cells. Several studies have demonstrated the potential for such delivery mechanisms, and when coupled with low-energy laser pulses, the gold nanoparticles caused the cancer cells to explode while leaving surrounding cells unharmed (Evans 2008).

Beyond individual therapeutic interventions, much optimism surrounds the potential of nanotechnology to advance the field of regenerative medicine. In the goal to repair, replace, or regenerate damaged tissues, William Haseltine and others argue that nanotechnology will play a pivotal role (Navarro and Planell 2012). The inclusion of nanotechnology is often seen as the final phase of regenerative medicine, permitting nanoscale examination and analysis of biological structures as well as bottom-up construction of artificial organs and tissues. Research in this area is often classified as “nanobiotechnology” and defined as a field of inquiry that “applies the nanoscale principles and techniques to understand and transform biosystems (living or non-living) and which uses biological principles and materials to create new devices and systems integrated from the nanoscale” (Navarro and Planell 2012). In this respect, nanobiotechnology shares similarities in the application of engineering methodologies employed in genetic engineering (or, more recently, gene therapy) and synthetic biology.

Agricultural And Environmental

Agricultural and environmental applications hold the promise of promoting global equity both in food production, sanitation, and availability of clean water. Additives and engineered nanomaterial (ENM) coatings have the potential to serve as delivery mechanisms for fertilizers, pesticides, and veterinary medicine. Furthermore, such coatings could be applied on packing materials (e.g., silver nanoparticles for antimicrobial protection) to increase longevity of food storage and reduce spoilage (Malsch and Emond 2014). Other potential applications include nanobiosensors – sometimes referred to as “labon-a-chip” technology – to detect food spoilage for improved process monitoring or the presence of environmental contaminants. The combination of nanobiosensors with other technologies such as RFID (radio-frequency identification technology) to tag materials or other data communication technologies would allow for such technologies to work in nanosensor networks. Such interaction between technologies would permit the nanobiosensors to report the quality of food products throughout the entire distribution process including at the checkout counter or even a refrigerator (Malsch and Emond 2014).

Another prospective application is environmental remediation to remove pollutants. One such example would be the utilization of various nanotechnologies to assist in water purification (Evans 2008) or the removal of air pollutants such as carbon dioxide (Malsch and Emond 2014). Particularly promising for water purification are nanofiltration membranes, nanomagnets, and magnetite nanoparticles (Evans 2008; see also Street et al. 2014; Malsch and Emond 2014). Other environmental applications could include nanobiosensors as air or water monitoring systems to identify contaminants.

Ethical Dimensions

Like nanotechnology, nanoethics (or nanotechnology ethics) is a relatively recent development within the realm of applied ethics. Similar to other bioethical subspecialties (e.g., neuroethics, genetic ethics), scholars debate if nanoethics represents the development of a distinct subfield of bioethical inquiry with unique considerations. Some have argued that it is merely a topical specialization that overlaps in its ethical considerations with several other emerging technologies and developments in biotechnology. Robert McGinn, for instance, has responded with skepticism that current evidence does not suggest that nanotechnology raises qualitatively new ethical issues and thus is best regarded as a “subfield of bioethics” (Khan 2012). Similarly, ten Have (2007) and others have noted that only further developments in nanotechnologies will clarify whether nanoethics emerges as a unique “subdiscipline.”

Hype And Scientific Promise

Particularly within Western countries, the current academic research environment has resulted in criticisms of ethics and research practices. One of these criticisms includes the increasing challenges presented by hype in individual research applications or budgetary proposals for entire fields of inquiry due to the increasingly competitive environment to procure grants and other funding. This activity may take multiple forms, such as exaggerating “a project’s feasibility, likely results or significance” with regard to benefits (McGinn 2010). Such hyping of research may also lead to media distortion in coverage of new technologies. While media distortion is not solely the result of hype within the research community, continued “researcher participation in or endorsement of media coverage of scientific or engineering developments that turns [sic] out to be distorted can dilute public trust and foster public misunderstanding of science and engineering” (McGinn 2010; see also Jotterand 2008; Cameron and Mitchell 2007). Such activities become counterproductive to active public engagement of such complex emerging technologies by impeding ethical considerations in the public deliberation process.

Risk, Unintended Consequences, And The Precautionary Principle

While the potential for nanotechnologies is vast, they pose threats similar to that of other realms of biotechnology and emerging technologies (e.g., gene therapy, genetically modified organisms, synthetic biology, and artificial life). With each of these fields, there is a threat potential for catastrophic consequences such as the mass destruction of nature and/or human life (Mitchell et al. 2007). Given the scale in which nanotechnology functions, disasters involving environmental contamination with an impact upon the water and food supply could be particularly damaging and may prove difficult to resolve. While we should not equate science fiction with plausible outcomes, such scenarios (as, for instance, Neal Stephenson’s novel Diamond Age) regularly project futures in which environmental nanotechnology pollution has become the norm. Risk assessment for effects on environment, health, and safety (EHS) must be carefully considered and guarded against given the challenges for both detecting and removing nanotechnology materials (Khan 2012).

Potential futuristic applications of nanobots and nanoassemblers have given rise to concerns among even the most ardent supporters of nanotechnologies. The potential of an accident with self-replicating nanotechnologies could lead to something that “could easily be too tough, small, and rapidly spreading to stop” (Drexler 1990). Often referred to as the gray goo problem (or grey goo scenario), widespread environmental disasters resulting from an accident with nanotechnology have generally been “downplayed as an unlikely concern” (Mitchell et al. 2007). The potential for environmental contamination remains, however, and subsequent regulations and policies should be examined that promote due diligence on the part of individuals and corporations before releasing such materials publicly.

Such considerations may entail the need for strategies on containment, detection, and inactivation of nanotechnologies (Mitchell et al. 2007). At the very least, efforts must be made to facilitate open dialogue between governmental bodies, the general public, as well as those individuals and corporations pursuing release of nanotechnology. Such parties need to be actively engaged in discussions of “risk analysis, risk management, and acceptable options for risk transfer” (Cameron and Mitchell 2007). Nanotechnology presents particular challenges for constructing accurate threat matrices due to uncertainty regarding potential toxicity and pollution and for the near future will continue to present particular challenges for risk management and insurers. Clear priority must be given in nanoscience to study these aspects of potential risks, alongside traditional emphasis on discovery. Most models of risk analysis and risk management are based on “evolutionary developments” within a given field. In emerging areas such as nanotechnology that mark “revolutionary” or transformative changes in which “potential for damage cannot be assessed,” one must carefully distinguish between those “potential risks related to events attributable to a cause” (i.e., real risks) as opposed to “those whose causality merely cannot be excluded” – so-called phantom risks (Cameron and Mitchell 2007; cf. Jotterand 2008).

Deb Newberry suggests several factors that must be assessed to determine potential harm “to humans, flora, and fauna” (Khan 2012). Those factors include (1) Element Type: the primary compositional elements and their impact or toxicity on living organisms, (2) Object Size: the mass and/or volume of the material that may be present, (3) Total Number of Objects: total amount of the material present, (4) Object Shape: may determine the potential harm to certain organs even if the element type is compatible, (5) Time in System: length of interaction within a living system, (6) Life Cycle and Length of Exposure: life cycle of the material, (7) Method of Entry: how the material enters the life system (e.g., air, fluid, injected, absorbed), and (8) Purity: residual chemicals or artifacts that remain on or in the material that result from the manufacturing process (Khan 2012). Each of these factors may assist in determining the potential harm or benefit that may result from the presence of nanomaterial within a life system provided that the impact of such factors is established in the relevant research.

The importance of thorough knowledge of the effects of nanomaterials on living systems and the relative infancy of this field demonstrates the need for caution. Furthermore, given the novel properties that exist at the nanoscale level, previous knowledge of bulk properties or the properties of microor macroscale materials may offer little guidance with respect to potential toxicity or harm (Malsch and Emond 2014). One example would be gold, which at the macro level (e.g., in jewelry) offers very low toxicity, good stability, low reactivity, and well-established properties. In contrast, the properties of gold nanoparticles are still being established, with variable melting temperature and higher reactivity, and thus may pose risks for human health (Khan 2012; Malsch and Emond 2014; O’Mathúna 2009). Given the size of nanoparticles, a potential health concern is the possibility that if they enter the human bloodstream, their size would enable them to cross the blood–brain barrier. This is not just an idle concern as buckyballs have been shown to cause damage in the brains of some aquatic animals (O’Mathúna 2009).

Unintended consequences are often examined with respect to short-term effects, but long-term consequences also may result that are not properly anticipated or thoroughly considered. One such example of an unintended consequence is that nanoparticles may exit the body of animals or humans as waste and be introduced into the environment indirectly. Environmental contamination could result both from direct release of nanoparticles having an unintended consequence or through indirect means such as being introduced as a waste by-product. Indirect means of contamination have important parallels with certain pharmaceutical drugs in which trace amounts have made their way into water supplies. Environmental public health is an emerging field that is leading the way in studying the effects of these developments and may play an increasingly important role with the release of rising numbers of products involving nanomaterials. Of course, not all consequences are necessarily harmful, and an unintended consequence of a new material may be beneficial.

In the midst of uncertain risk, the precautionary principle is typically invoked. In its common understanding, this principle “demands the proactive introduction of protective measures in the face of possible risks, which science at present (in the absence of knowledge) can neither confirm nor deny” (Cameron and Mitchell 2007). Care must be taken in the invocation of the precautionary principle so as to avoid stifling technological innovation. However, in the case of revolutionary technologies, the precautionary principle offers a conceptual framework to advance cautiously in their research, development, and commercialization until real risks can be distinguished from phantom risks and such real risks are analyzed and appropriately managed.

Role Of Technology Assessment

Beyond the more narrow areas of risk assessment and analyses to assess effectiveness and economic impact, emerging technologies such as nanotechnologies should also account for the broader context of technology assessment. Accordingly, ten Have (2007) has noted that technology assessment should include a “broader conception” that takes into consideration “the social and ethical consequences of technologies.” This broader conception may include an examination of “the value judgments at play in recommendations and determine if and how those recommendations were not simply scientific but also normative” (ten Have 2007). Such considerations go beyond the technology itself in its technical dimensions to examine values that are underlying or inherent within the technologies or to assess whether the technologies are “justified in the light of moral values” (ten Have 2007).

In the case of nanotechnologies, some bioethicists have raised concerns similar to those of genetic engineering and synthetic biology, in that the attempt to control or manipulate nature at the atomic or molecular level instrumentalizes nature, emptying nature of any intrinsic value or ontological reality. Through this instrumentalization, nature becomes mere artifice. Those aspects of nanotechnology that exhibit a drive for mastery and control of nature and/or human nature, and particularly those that seek convergence with other emerging technologies as part of a transhumanist or posthumanist paradigm, may be open to such critiques. Nanotechnologies themselves need not be guilty of such critiques, particularly those that emerge from a top-down approach. Yet, given the engineering model that is applied to areas such as synthetic biology, nanotechnologies that emerge from a bottom-up approach may be vulnerable to such concerns.

Donald Evans (2008) suggests the relevance of two articles from UNESCO’s Universal Declaration on Bioethics and Human Rights for assessing nanotechnologies, particularly their impact on future generations and protection of the environment in human interactions. Article 16 of the Declaration states, “The impact of life sciences on future generations, including on their genetic constitution, should be given due regard” (UNESCO 2006). Article 17 goes on to note, “Due regard is to be given to the interconnection between human beings and other forms of life, to the importance of appropriate access and utilization of biological and genetic resources, to respect for traditional knowledge and to the role of human beings in the protection of the environment, the biosphere and biodiversity” (UNESCO 2006). Both articles point to the importance of broader considerations in the assessment of emerging technologies such as nanotechnologies.

Informed Consent And Privacy

While the issues of informed consent are not unique to nanotechnology, they do raise important considerations for how such technologies will be introduced for human use. Given the potential for environmental contamination and other public health risks, such consent discussions often include the importance of engaging the general public at least through education but also through public commenting and deliberation. Informed consent presents particular challenges when so little is understood on toxicity, particularly for early experimental use in humans or the widespread commercial use of nanoparticles, the long-term effects of which are not well understood. One need only look to the introduction of titanium dioxide and zinc oxide nanoparticles in sunscreen as an example of when nanotechnologies are introduced into a consumer product without adequate public education or without fully exploring potential risks.

Additional considerations for diagnostic nanotechnologies such as biosensors involve the issue of privacy and control of information that may result. Again, while not unique to nanotechnologies, the potential for the ubiquity of such sensors (e.g., smart dust or medical monitoring) raises important considerations regarding data privacy, data protection, and other issues such as a potential “right to know” or “right to not know” (Jotterand 2008). When combined with DNA detection and analysis, these diagnostics introduce all of the privacy considerations relevant to genetic testing and screening.

Nanotechnologies, Converging Technologies, Regenerative Medicine, And Human Enhancement

Nanotechnologies and convergence frequently appear together in discussions of emerging technologies. In 2002, the National Science Foundation and U.S. Department of Commerce commissioned the report Converging Technologies for Improving Human Performance that introduced the acronym NBIC (nanotechnology, biotechnology, information technology, and cognitive science). The report argued that these previously disparate technologies were increasingly converging and would coalesce to improve health, overcome disability, and even permit human enhancement and posthuman technologies. Other convergence proposals include GRIN (genetic, robotic, information, and nano processes) and some variation of the preceding fields in conjunction with neuroscience and/or artificial intelligence research.

The convergence of such emerging technologies may open exponential leaps forward in regenerative medicine but more modestly will exacerbate already existing medical challenges regarding the distinction between therapies and enhancements. One particular issue is the challenge to clearly distinguish when nanotechnology is therapeutic and when it would be an enhancement. The traditional role of medicine has been to use biomedical technologies and interventions to repair or restore, rather than to enhance or make one “better than well.” The goals of regenerative medicine open the possibility for remarkable medical interventions, but such interventions will likely have inherent capacity for dual use, permitting both therapeutic and enhancement use. Speculative proposals for nanotechnology use extend these medical interventions to include radical life extension research and cryonics. Beyond the speculative proposals for nanotechnology, O’Mathúna (2009; ten Have 2007) and others have raised the concern that nanomedicine will contribute to the increasing challenges already presented by trends toward medicalization.

The role of nanotechnologies along with other converging technologies raises important considerations into the ontological status of living organisms and living systems, including human beings. Possibilities of convergence between nanotechnologies and neuroscience or nanotechnologies and genetics raise important considerations of human identity, the limits of human nature, and ultimately what constitutes the status of being human or, in other words, human nature itself (Jotterand 2008). Considerations such as discussion of the common good, human flourishing, and human futures should be brought to bear in an analysis of converging technologies and human enhancement. While perhaps speculative in nature, the possibility of such futuristic technological outcomes should be included as part of a broader analysis of technology assessment when applied to nanotechnologies. These speculative analyses may be distinct from analyses of presenting technologies but should not be ignored in a more complete analysis of nanotechnologies as such.

Nanotechnologies And The Global Context

 Finally, within the global context, questions must be raised with respect to just development and use of nanotechnologies, particularly within existing global inequities. Considerations should be given to how such advances in nanotechnologies will help resolve or exacerbate long-standing inequities. The prospect of nanotechnologies to revolutionize the availability of clean water and to expand the shelf life and availability of food and the decreasing expense of improved manufacturing may yield significant gains for developing economies with reciprocal potential to improve the median standard of living in such contexts. Yet, these technologies also appear more likely to benefit economically developed countries with respect to intellectual property development and rights from increased patents and further expand such disparities. Additional benefits from nanotechnologies, however, might be seen through significant cost reductions in the creation and availability of devices and delivery mechanisms for medical therapeutics and advances in industrial manufacturing. The rapid adoption of mobile communication technologies drastically improving access to global data and communication networks serves as an example of closing a disparity, which global development of nanotechnologies may well follow. Global justice considerations also have been a key component of nanoethics with a common proposal that research funding should privilege those areas of nanotechnology research and development that will have the most significant impact for developing countries. Unfortunately, realization of such funding priorities has been modest at best.

Relevant regulatory regimes are also implicated. Setting appropriate regulatory regimes and policy guidelines within individual countries presents particular challenges given the typically slow regulatory and legislative processes and the rapid pace of technology development. Furthermore, the international context for developing such guidelines or regulatory protocols presents even more vexing challenges. Self-regulation presents substantive challenges with respect to the nature of the public risks that may be involved. While guidelines for adequate models of risk management and responsibility of risk have slowly emerged, they are not universally agreed upon. Important parallels for such models may be found with the research, development, and commercialization of genetically modified organisms (particularly genetically modified produce). Effort for global governance of nanotechnologies has met with minimal results, though international committees and organizations such as UNESCO, the International Bioethics Committee, and the World Commission on the Ethics of Scientific Knowledge and Technology continue to play important roles in monitoring developments in nanotechnology research for potential benefits and harms, as well as playing significant roles in facilitating public education and discourse (ten Have 2007).


Nanotechnologies have demonstrated the potential to transform the landscape of industrial manufacturing, energy production, environmental sciences, information and communication technologies, and medical research. As one of several emerging technologies, nanotechnologies must be carefully examined for their potential benefits, while closely monitoring the temptations of research hype. Careful consideration must also be given to immediate concerns for potential risks as well as examinations of the broader impact of such technologies for considerations of human nature and human futures both in their individual and global dimensions. Proper technology assessment of these technologies must explore not only important considerations of risk assessment for safety and efficiency with respect to individual applications but should raise broader considerations so as to anticipate and address conceptual vacuums that may exist within a rapidly evolving field of research and development.

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