Technology based on tiny particles could lead to both miracle cures and pervasive crimes. How do we stay human in a nano world?

Dr. Nigel Cameron is President of the Institute on Biotechnology and the Human Future and Director of the Center on Nanotechnology and Society. Both are affiliates of the Chicago-Kent College of Law, where Cameron is Research Professor of Bioethics. He spoke with Beliefnet recently about nanotechnology and its moral implications.

Can you explain what nanotechnology is?

Nanotechnology is a term used for miniaturization in all areas of science. A nanometer is a billionth of a meter, and science--chemistry, engineering--is now pressing down to this level of manipulation. The future is there: it’s where we’ll have the most power to manipulate the natural order, and that’s why it’s so exciting, but it’s also why it raises such big questions.

We will be able to miniaturize everything. For example, those tags you have on groceries in the store, which are radio frequency identifiers, are going to get smaller and almost free—so small you can’t see them. This is great for inventory control in Wal-Mart—every product you ever buy could be tracked forever. But issues of privacy and confidentiality are raised in profound ways.


Could someone put the small thing that’s normally on a CD in Wal-Mart into my sandwich? If I eat it, can I be tracked?

Indeed so, unless you have a mechanism that requires these things to be deactivated at point of sale or in some other way. And of course you could still get criminals using them.

Most of the sunscreen now sold in the U.S. contains nano-sized particles. I have no reason to believe they are not safe, but there are huge debates about how we deal with particles that are so small they can cross the blood-brain barrier. We have very little evidence of their long-term impact and the whole toxicology issue is enormously complicated.

In terms of tracking people, what problematic scenarios can you envision?

Well, you don’t have to be a sci-fi writer or conspiracy theorist to see this as the end of privacy. If you have a government or commercial industries who want to know where everybody is, a surveillance society becomes much more practicable. Already you can put chips in your dog to find it if it strays.

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Interview with Nigel Cameron
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