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Small frontiers carry big possibilities 

Nanotechnology with an ethical spin finds a home in San Luis Obispo

Marie Curie said that scientific progress must be pursued "for itself, for the beauty of science."

click to enlarge THINKING SMALL :  Patrick Lin, the research director for The Nanoethics Group, is working to establish a center for ethics and developing technologies at Cal Poly. - PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
  • Photo by Steve E. Miller
  • THINKING SMALL : Patrick Lin, the research director for The Nanoethics Group, is working to establish a center for ethics and developing technologies at Cal Poly.

# More than 20 years later, physicist Robert Oppenheimer said that "physicists have known sin, and this is a knowledge they cannot lose."

Because science, in the hands of man, can be all of these things sin, beauty, destruction, life it falls upon policymakers and watchdog citizens to govern and direct it in a way that best addresses the world's needs.

There's a newly developing technology on the horizon, one that has the potential to deliver banners on the moon, clean water for the world's developing countries, miniscule surveillance devices that will allow governments to monitor their citizens' every move, nanobots that can travel through the human blood stream to repair cells, and autonomous robots that function as soldiers for the world's militaries. Thanks to nanotechnology a science that entails manipulating materials on a miniscule scale it's not a question of whether we can make them, but should we.

Enter The Nanoethics Group, a network of scientists, technologists, ethicists, and academics. Founded in 2003, the group's purpose is to study the ethical and societal implications of nanotechnology in a nonpartisan way.

"Before things are created or unleashed, let's think through some of the possible benefits and the possible negative impact it might have on individuals, the environment, society at large," Patrick Lin, the group's cofounder and research director, explained of the organization's purpose.

Last year, Lin began to organize an interdisciplinary center for the study of developing technologies at Cal Poly. The effort has been met with support from unexpected sources, including university President Warren Baker. More importantly, the existence of this center could centralize debate and discussion about nanotechnology in our own backyard, giving locals unprecedented access to information and experts, and a greater role shaping this revolutionary developing technology.

With core researchers at Western Michigan University and Dartmouth College and connections with academics across the world The Nanoethics Group could have established its center at any university of the organizers' choosing. That Cal Poly was the ultimate choice owes to the school's reputation.

"Not only does Cal Poly have strong science and engineering programs which a lot of universities have but they also have a strong agriculture program, which ties to nanotechnology because nanotechnology is going to play a role in food processing and food packaging," Lin explained. "Also, Cal Poly is strong in aerospace, which is unique. For example, UC Davis is strong in science, engineering, and agriculture, but not so much in aerospace. Cal Poly's not that far from Vandenberg, one of the major air force bases. And nanotechnology, again, can play a role there."

Lin is functioning as a visiting assistant professor, gauging the interest of faculty members, and attempting to build relationships among the various departments that could contribute to the center. He may also be responsible for course development, though the effort can't even exist as a formal center until Cal Poly approves an application. Like nanotechnology itself, the center's potential impact will be measured in years to come.

The current undertaking at Cal Poly comes at the tail end of another long-term effort by The Nanoethics Group: organizing and publishing an anthology of essays, titled Nanoethics: The Ethical and Social Implications of Nanotechnology. The group began work on the anthology nearly two years ago by identifying experts who could address diverse topics and potential applications of nanotechnology a six-month process. After a small, complimentary bidding war among publishers, The Nanoethics Group selected Wiley-Interscience to publish its 26-essay book, which discusses everything from what nanotechnology is to how information about nanotechnology can be best disseminated to the public.

"We give a good, broad treatment of a full range of issues, which we haven't seen so far in nanoethics," Lin said. "Typically, they focus on near-term stuff like environmental health and safety, which are very important, but we like to take a higher level view, a more complete view. We want to peek over the horizon and see what's coming up, such as issues of privacy, human enhancement, and in the even longer term issues of space travel."

The book, which was published earlier this summer, is primarily targeted toward university students studying nanotechnology, though Lin stresses the importance of attracting an audience of everyday people whose lives will one day be greatly impacted by nanotechnology and policymakers, who have the power to prevent nanotechnology from becoming a money-driven industry that fails to tap into the technology's noble potential.

Whether or not nanotechnology is legitimately its own scientific field is the subject of some debate. But the anthology's first essay, "Nanoscience and Nanoethics: Defining the Disciplines" by Nanoethics Group members Lin and Fritz Allhoff defines nanotechnology as "a new category of technology that involves the precise manipulation of materials at the molecular level or a scale of roughly 1 to 100 nanometers with a nanometer equaling one-billionth of a meter in ways that exploit novel properties that emerge at that scale."

Confused? Lin attempts to put it in perspective:

"If you take one penny, when pennies were all made of copper, it has approximately the same amount of copper atoms as there are drops of water in the world's oceans," he said.

At this miniscule scale, even ordinary materials can possess extraordinary properties, and though scientists are still exploring these properties, it's clear that nanotechnology has gained access to a world of possibilities that were previously not thought to exist.

Nanotechnology or at least the scientists riding a revolutionary wave of discovery has promised to meet global energy needs with clean solutions, provide abundant clean water globally, increase human health and longevity, heal and preserve the environment, make information technology like computers available to everyone, and enable the development of space.

For the long term, scientists are seriously discussing the potential of human immortality, and with nanorobots delivering oxygen to body tissues and destroying dangerous cells like cancer why shouldn't they be? With nano-enabled neural implants and brain simulations, humans have the potential to make themselves smarter.

A professor at UC Berkeley has developed "smart dust" mote-sized surveillance sensors that can be blown into enemy territory to reveal the locations of buildings and soldiers.

The CEO of Digital Applications for the U.S. Visit Program recommended tagging immigrants with microchips to monitor their whereabouts.

The face of nanotechnology, however small, differs greatly depending upon the hands shaping its development. While some scientists are using the technology's potential to aid Third World countries maybe by providing clean drinking water to the world's 1.1 billion people who lack access to the necessity as an argument for limitless nanotechnological progress, other scientists acknowledge that there's little chance such lofty promises to the Third World will hold up. As is generally the case with new advancements, medical and technological, resources are allocated to those who can pay for them.

Currently, about 50 percent of nanotechnology-related research and development is being financed by large corporations, making nanotechnology a market-driven industry, according to the National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI). The government and small businesses account for the other $2 billion invested annually in research and development. Bill Clinton, when he was still president in 2000, launched the NNI, and the nation's investment in nanotechnology has risen each year since: from $464 million in 2001 to $1.5 billion in 2008. These numbers sound high until you consider that the NNI predicts that, in the United States, nanotechnology will represent a trillion-dollar annual market employing two million people within the next 10 to 15 years. Assuming that the organizations investing in nanotechnology today will reap the ensuing harvest, large corporations will profit from their new nanotechnological products.

"The general dilemma we face today is that there's such tremendous pressure to get a product or technology out on the market that the long-term testing we hope would have been conducted doesn't happen anymore," Lin said. "Businesses as well as consumers don't want to wait that long."

The other major beneficiary the government will likely use nanotechnology for new military development. Several of the anthology's essays address this issue, though none more thoroughly than Daniel Moore's "Nanotechnology and the Military" which reveals that the U.S. Army established a research center called the Institute for Soldier Technologies in 2002. Given that the Department of Defense accounts for an estimated 30 percent of the nation's budget, nanotechnology will most likely change the face of warfare, making it easier and less costly. Moore speculates that nanotechnology could put an end to large-scale conflicts, creating a future in which technologically advanced nations perform police action on less developed countries.

Most of these applications are speculative. Scientists can't claim that new developments will exist, only that they may. Neither can they predict when breakthroughs will occur. The anthology addresses technologies that might exist five to 10 years down the road, in others 15 to 20. When you factor in Moore's Law, which states that computer processing speed doubles every 18 months, developing technologies become even less predictable. Something that was impossible just last year or the year before is tomorrow's breakthrough. Gordon Moore made this prediction in 1965, and it's remained true today.

Unfortunately, Moore's Law doesn't offer any perspective about what nanotechnology will bring only that it will come quickly. If humans do access the secrets of immortality, do we have the right to pursue it? Would it place a destructive strain on the environment? If we colonize space to escape our problems on Earth, do we run the risk of repeating the same errors of colonization made in centuries past? If humans are cognitively enhanced, are they still human? Is it fair to those who can't afford enhancements? This is where nanoethics leaps boldly into the breach, acknowledging that we can't know the future, but we can consider various possibilities and prepare ourselves for whatever may come.

"One example that isn't so much related to hi-tech, is that last year on the news there was a segment at a retirement home where there was a sharp spike in STDs," Lin said. "I was thinking 'Why would there be?' Turns out they were taking Viagra, but that generation, the older generation, is typically not educated on STDs and safe sex and all that. I give that as an illustration of unintended effects of technology. It seems to me that would be an unintended effect that you could have predicted. If you got a bunch of smart people sitting down in a room and working with whoever makes Viagra, it wouldn't have taken rocket scientists to figure it out."

Lin is quick to point out that ethics is incapable of keeping pace with technology. It's been nearly 10 years since the human genome was decoded, and the House of Representative passed a resolution banning insurance companies from discriminating on the basis of genetic predispositions just last year.

"Even if things like autonomous killing robots don't happen for another five, 10, 20 years, it's not too early to talk about ethics now, especially with how slow ethics and policy discussion happen," Lin said. "It's not too early to start talking about some of these issues, as far-fetched as some of them might sound now. We're keeping an eye on far-term issues, things that today might seem like science fiction, and these things are not outside the realm of possibility. The science behind them seems solid and seems reasonable. We humans could surprise ourselves again with technological breakthroughs."

The biggest surprise, for many Americans, may be the fact that the United States isn't poised to lead the world in nanotechnological research and development. One of the anthology's essays, "Can Nanoscience Be a Catalyst for Scientific Reform?" addresses the concern that without a workforce with the intellectual capacity and preparation for new technologies, developments will occur elsewhere. Scientists argue that textbooks aren't teaching what they need to, that they're superficial and fail to address just how small the scale for nanoscience is.

In science and mathematics, U.S. students are ranked near the bottom in international studies. Perhaps the biggest challenge is simply altering the way everyone students, teachers, and everyday citizens think and talk about science.

According to Lin, one of the primary goals of an ethics and developing technologies center is to connect various areas of study, allowing history, anthropology, and literature to shed an unexpected light on technology.

"As society gets more sophisticated, and especially as technology gets more sophisticated, we see a lot of overlap here," Lin said. "So engineers need an understanding of history. For example, history of technology. To know where you're going, you kind of have to be aware of where you've been, and history as just one discipline is a good example of why scientists, engineers, and technologists need to have a broad background in these other areas, such as philosophy, ethics, sociology, history, anthropology."

An argument that there's a real and significant connection between English majors and nanotechnology may seem like a stretch, but the public perception of science is often affected by portrayals of science in literature and film.

Even science fiction can have a profound affect on the way people respond to new technologies. George Orwell's 1984 will alter the way people respond to nanotechnological surveillance devices. And it's no coincidence that concerns about new technologies running amok especially those that act autonomously are often referred to as "Frankenstein's monster." When Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein, she tapped into a very human fear of scientific hubris, a fear that retains its resonance nearly 190 years after the tale was first published. The public's fear that scientists will commit a gross violation of nature, unleashing destruction on humankind in the process, is, perhaps, a fair concern. After all, scientists were complicit in the unleashing of nuclear power in the form of an atomic bomb in Hiroshima more than 60 years ago.

Ultimately, perhaps the greatest fear is that scientists will make a decision that will bear great repercussions for the entire world, and the affected public will have had no say. It's precisely this scenario that The Nanoethics Group seeks to avoid. But in order to ensure that the public is adequately informed about nanotechnology, steps must be made to repair the relationship between the public and the scientific community.

In "Why the Future Doesn't Need Us," Billy Joy states that humans, especially Americans, are so accustomed to living in a society of almost routine scientific breakthroughs that we become passive about new technologies. We fail to ask ourselves what the implications of these technologies may be or whether they're safe. We assume that someone scientists or policymakers will be asking those questions on our behalf.

Surveys continue to reveal that the public has very little subjective understanding of nanotechnology, yet the public's money is being used to fund nearly 50 percent of new research and development. Many scientists are reluctant to communicate new developments to people who might not understand the information and ideas behind the science, even when their research is publicly funded. The public becomes a nuisance, a mass that relates to future technological developments through books like Prey and films like Jurassic Park.

According to Lin, these communication barriers must be overcome simply to ensure public safety. Already there are sunblocks and cosmetic products on the market produced by well-established companies that contain nanoparticles, a point of alarm to consumer and environmental groups that feel the long-term effects of such microscopic ingredients hasn't been adequately researched by any large-scale studies. Lin is among several scientists expressing concern over rubbing nanoparticles into your skin or the impact these nanoparticles may have on the environment.

There are some scientists who attend conferences and lectures that are open to the public with the intention of sharing their enthusiasm with people who aren't as intimately familiar with nanotechnology. If people are interested, there are resources like the anthology and, in future years, perhaps a center at Cal Poly. This interest may be the difference between a world of enhanced and thoughtful humanity and one governed by Frankenstein's monsters, a world in which we harness science for our greater good or exploit its secrets for financial and individual gain.

Got ethics?

For more information about The Nanoethics Group, visit The group's anthology, Nanoethics: The Ethical and Social Implications of Nanotechnology, is available at the website for $39.95.

Arts Editor Ashley Schwellenbach can be reached at


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