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Posted: Sep 02, 2009

Nanotechnology's role in the ethics debate on human enhancement

(Nanowerk Spotlight) Nanotechnology applications will play, a major role in technical and biological human enhancement. There is plenty of material here on the Nanowerk site if you want to dig into this issue, for instance "Nanotechnology, transhumanism and the bionic man" or in our coverage of the debate about converging technologies.
Earlier this week, the Human Enhancement Ethics Group released a new, NSF-funded report that addresses questions and issues surrounding human enhancement, an area that will become more prominent as advances in nanotechnology, nanomedicine, bionics, synthetic biology and related fields move from the lab to real-world applications.
Entitled "Ethics of Human Enhancement: 25 Questions & Answers", the 50-page report groups its questions into eight major sections:
  • Definition & Distinctions
  • Contexts & Scenarios
  • Freedom & Autonomy
  • Fairness & Equity
  • Societal Disruptions
  • Human Dignity & The Good Life
  • Rights & Obligations
  • Law
Humans have always tried to improve themselves through "natural methods" such as physical exercise, diet, meditation, education and training (and later on cosmetic surgery and Lasik eye corrections). However, as the report's authors point out, with ongoing work to unravel the mysteries of our minds and bodies, coupled with the art and science of emerging technologies, we are near the start of the Human Enhancement Revolution. Technology will be a big game changer. While previously technological progress has improved the tools we work with, from the printing press to the steam engine to computers, in the future, technology will change ourselves, our bodies and, possibly, even our minds.
"Now we are not limited to 'natural' methods to enhance ourselves or to merely wield tools such as a hammer or binoculars or a calculator. We are beginning to incorporate technology within our very bodies, which may hold moral significance that we need to consider. These technologies promise great benefits for humanity – such as increased productivity and creativity, longer lives, more serenity, stronger bodies and minds, and more – though there is a question whether these things translate into happier lives, which many see as the point of it all."
The report is littered with references to nanotechnologies, be it bionanotechnology to give us cybernetic body parts, nanomedical devices that patrol the body for cancerous outbreaks, or implanted nanochip to enhance brain functions. An interesting topic raised is the question if, analogous to the 'digital divide" – those who do not have adequate access to information and communications technology (ICT) are disadvantaged relative to those who do. While this divide reflects, by and large, the existing divide between haves and have-nots, ICT exaggerates that divide – there is a risk of an 'enhancement divide': the gap between those who can access and benefit from nanotechnology and those without.
"Not long ago, the less-advantaged within developed societies could listen to the radio, go to the free public library, and read inexpensive newspapers. As information and communication increasingly moved to the Internet, their access to both information and communication decreased relative to that by the more-advantaged. It is feared by some that nanotechnology will also sharpen and widen divisions both within societies and between nations: a nanodivide will be created. Whether or not this happens depends partly on how nanotechnology develops. If its applications are primarily in enhancing existing materials, cosmetics, electronics and med i-cine and if these are relatively inexpensive, then there may be no increase in inequalities. However, if they are expensive and particularly useful and desirable, then they probably will."
This in itself does not show that there is a problem, of course. There is a problem only if the created inequalities are unfair and therefore morally wrong.
A thought-provoking question is raised at the conclusion of the report: Will we need to rethink ethics itself?
"To a large extent, our ethics depends on the kinds of creatures that we are. Philosophers traditionally have based ethical theories on assumptions about human nature. With enhancements we may become relevantly different creatures and therefore need to re-think our basic ethical positions. For example, will we be as sympathetic toward other humans that differ substantially from us in their nature? We may need to do ethics differently. Converging technologies – for example, nanotechnology, neurotechnology, genetics and information technology – will almost certainly enable some dramatic enhancements, at least in the medium term.
The emergence of these potentially powerful technologies raises the question of what our technological future will be like. Will the quality of our lives improve with increased technology or not? We at least collectively can affect our futures by choosing which technologies to have and which not to have and by choosing how technologies that we pursue will be used. The question really is: How well will we choose? The emergence of a wide variety of new technologies should give us a sense of urgency in thinking about how we approach these technologies and enhancements ethically. Which kinds should we develop and keep? And, how should we utilize those that we do keep? It is not satisfactory to do ethics as usual. Better ethical thinking in terms of being better informed and better ethical action in terms of being more proactive are required."
This report is certainly worth your time and you can download it without charge at www.humanenhance.com/NSF_report.pdf. The Human Enhancement Ethics Group is a sub-group of the Ethics + Emerging Technologies Group, located online at www.emergingethics.com.
By Michael Berger. Copyright Nanowerk LLC

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