Nanotechnology--science based on tiny particles--is poised to affect fields as diverse as medicine and international security. Within the next few decades, miniscule machines may deliver cancer-killing drugs to our cells at the same time as terrorists create microweapons invisible to the eye.
With so much potential for both good and evil, nanotechnology has become concern for bioethicists like Nigel Cameron, who said in a Beliefnet interview that nanotech may diminish what it means to be human. It's also a hot topic for transhumanists, people who believe in using technology to overcome human limitations and live dramatically longer, healthier lives.
George Dvorsky is president of the Toronto Transhumanist Association and a champion of using advanced technologies to enhance human capabilities. Beliefnet asked him to respond, via email, to questions raised by Cameron's critique of nanotechnology applications--and of transhumanists.
What advantages or benefits do you see coming from nanotechnology in the future?
Molecular nanotechnology is poised to reshape humanity and redefine the human condition. Nanotech will be used to clean the environment, ease the pressure for natural resources, treat diseases and supplement the human body. It may even usher in a post-scarcity economy and help people in developing countries tackle hunger, child mortality, environmental degradation and diseases such as malaria and HIV/AIDS.
Looking to more futuristic scenarios, molecular nanotechnology may help in the development of new materials (such as diamondoid surfaces), increase human life span to unprecedented levels, augment human capacities, and even assist in the "reanimation" of individuals currently frozen in cryonic stasis.
What problems, crimes, or disadvantages do you foresee?
The problems are quite severe–some of them may be untenable. There is the apocalyptic possibility, for example, for self-replicating "run-away" nanotechnology to destroy the Earth’s ecosystem. This is the so-called grey goo scenario.
Other problems include the development of weapons based on nanotech, like microscopic devices that attack the human nervous system or that generate an entire armada from a single seed.
Molecular nanotechnology may bring unprecedented good, but it may also undermine our species.
How would you answer critics concerned about a surveillance society—constant monitoring and tracking?
I am one of these concerned critics. The growing fear of novel terrorist threats, like the deliberate engineering of a catastrophic pathogen, is pushing society in the direction of ubiquitous surveillance. Also, there are commercial interests in these monitoring technologies; companies are eager to track their customers and the products they purchase. This is a legitimate privacy concern.
There are two ways in which citizens can protect themselves. The first is to strengthen those democratic processes that guarantee civil liberties, due process and institutional accountability. The second prescription is what author David Brin refers to as the "transparent society." We may have no choice but to tolerate an utter lack of privacy, but it will be crucial that we retain our ability to watch the watchers and hold them accountable for their actions.
How can society minimize crimes committed via nanotechnology?
A stronger United Nations and a monitoring/licensing agency with global support and reach would be a good start. Corporations will need to be monitored to ensure that their manufacturing processes and applications are not in violation of environmental and privacy laws. At the same time, legislators will have the daunting task of having to keep up to speed on the development and application of nanotechnology so that they can anticipate and prevent potential abuse.
Will people be able to “upgrade” their brains by using chips and similar things?
"Chips," or what is more commonly referred to as cybernetics, is certainly one possibility. Other biotechnologies that will result in increased intelligence, better memory and improved emotional control include genomics, nanotechnology and neuropharmaceuticals.
There are people alive today who are already reaping the benefits of these technologies. Paraplegics are using neural interface devices to control computers, allowing them to type, move pointers, and play games with their minds. Synthetic neurons have been created that have taken over the processing responsibilities of dead or dying neurons (conditions that are brought about by such diseases as Alzheimer’s); humans will soon be using cybernetic prostheses to assist in cognition.
Cognitive modifications are also a way to alleviate the arbitrariness of the genetic lottery. A strong ethical case can be made that the availability of such enhancements will help us work toward social justice.
There are concerns that “cosmetic neurology” and related things will make us less than human.
This is a concern that has a very simply remedy: common sense. People will collectively stop hammering nails into their hands once they realize it hurts. Aside from the vagueness of what it means to be human, or what constitutes a person who is "more" or "less" than human, the idea behind these technologies is to reduce suffering and to foster meaningful lives.
Neurotechnologies, whether they are cybernetic or pharmaceutical, will offer unprecedented opportunities for individuals to overcome psychological disorders and to improve the quality of their emotional lives. The Dalai Lama once said, "My Tibetan goals are the same as those of Western science: to serve humanity and to make better human beings."
How do you react to fears that nano-enhanced humans will become supercomputing brains with powerful machine-enhanced bodies, lording it over the plebes who can’t afford chips?
The rich and powerful are already lording over the lower classes, particularly those in the developing world. The suggestion that enhancement technologies will suddenly invent this situation is a disturbing fiction.
As science fiction author Bruce Sterling once said, "The future is here, it's just not evenly distributed yet.” The goal for future societies will be to make these new technologies as widely accessible and affordable as possible. We need to better promote the idea of universal healthcare. While initial costs will be prohibitive for most, like any technology the costs will quickly drop and eventually be made available to the wider population.
Will art really be art if the artist’s brain is enhanced by technology? For example, a painter or musician?
Art will be art so long as there are artists who claim that they are making art.
Art and technology are indelibly linked; all artists employ technique in their work and/or use tools to assist with their creations or performances.
Cognitively gifted individuals have created some of our most cherished works of art. Leonardo DaVinci may have been the most brilliant person who has ever lived (among his many talents, he could write two different sentences simultaneously with both hands). Most of the great composers, including Mozart and Beethoven, had perfect pitch and other cognitive endowments.
Enhancement technologies will not only give future artists unprecedented skills, they will also allow everyday people like you and me to engage as deeply into art as any of history’s greatest artists. Augmentation technologies will democratize and better distribute talent.
Some people feel that certain types of suffering or “malfunctioning,” while unpleasant, can make us more human and more empathetic: for example, living with mild memory loss. Will we be less human if everything about us—our minds, our memories, our bodies—is "fixed"?
The notion that suffering is what makes us empathetic is an overly simplistic and outdated notion. Very young children and sociopaths lack this capacity, and no amount of suffering will add to their ability to empathize.
I find nothing noble or proper in the retention of our imperfections, particularly when it comes to diseases and the ravages of aging. Ethicists should be concerned about those actions that are humane and good rather than those actions that infringe on some abstract and inviolable notion of what it means to be human.