Home > About Foresight > Public Policy

Human Enhancement and Nanotechnology

A Foresight Nanotech Institute Policy Issues Brief

by Jacob Heller and Christine Peterson

The long-term goal of nanotechnology is to be able to fully manipulate molecular and atomic structures. Since humans are made of the same basic building blocks as the natural world, nanotechnology will probably enable the ability to change human tissues and cells at the molecular level. This will open doors in medicine thought impossible, and it will enable us to extend the length and quality of human life. It will also open the door to "enhancements" of the body — better IQ, appearance, and capabilities. These enhancements will undoubtedly benefit many, but they also bring up important moral, ethical, and legal questions that human society has not yet had to face.

Nanotechnology would likely allow for an enormous array of human enhancements and medical treatments. In the long run, nanotechnology would enable us to analyze and repair any physical ailment in the body. This would mean that nanotechnologies would be able to repair someone who is damaged or diseased back to full health; an aged body and brain could be restored to a youthful state. The ultimate result could be the end of pain, disease, and aging. These innovations would be relatively uncontroversial, since they are simply extensions of modern medicine.

The more controversial enhancements would likely be "unnatural" enhancements to human talent: extreme intelligence and memory capacity, significantly heightened sense of awareness, astonishing athletic capability and strength, and beauty enhancements are just a few examples. These types of enhancements do exist in some forms today, such as steroids, Ritalin and other ADD medications, Prozac, and plastic surgery, and they have already attracted significant amounts of controversy. We can expect that nanotechnology-enabled enhancements will mirror the same controversies, but will be even more contentious.

There is a wide spectrum of positions that are taken in the human enhancement debate. On one end is the argument that autonomy should be the deciding principle: humans should be allowed to benefit themselves to whatever extent they choose. Rational adults are entrusted with decisions about their own health and level of bodily enhancement, since they should control their own bodies. Under this position, children and the mentally handicapped would probably not be entitled to enhancement procedures without the consent of their guardians, since they are not considered fully free-thinking and rational, so they cannot make important decisions about their own bodies. However, even guardians are not given complete control over their wards; society has an interest in protecting its weakest members from abuse. One can imagine "enhancement" scenarios designed, for example, to give a child a bizarre appearance in order to obtain lucrative film roles. Such abuse will need to be prevented, just as exotic plastic surgeries on children are, or should be, prevented today. This closely mirrors the dominant ideology in the United States today over issues concerning Ritalin and plastic surgery.

Some worry that human enhancements may create undesirable pressures to enhance. Would it be possible to compete for a job if everyone else was enhanced mentally, to compete in athletics if everyone else was strength-enhanced, or compete for a spouse if you were not physically enhanced? These are legitimate concerns, but they are probably not strong enough to prevent, or even slow, enhancement technologies.

Others worry that nanotech-enabled enhancements could exacerbate current economic and social disparities. Especially if the technology were expensive and limited, only a specific class of people would be able to become enhanced. This would mean that the rich would become stronger, smarter, and more beautiful — and as a result, richer. The gap would significantly widen between those who could afford enhancements and those who couldn’t, and the threat of creating a permanent un-enhanced underclass would be real. There is the further threat that those that control all the resources, the enhanced class, would feel increasingly disconnected from the underclass, and as a result would not want to engage in politics or economic redistribution, trapping the poor in their position.

Another perspective, mostly from a religious standpoint, believes that we should not "play God", and so we should not attempt to artificially enhance the building blocks of life. However, this view is marginalized, especially since it already is in conflict with modern medicine, which "plays God" in much the same way nanotechnology would.

There are also practical considerations about placing limits on human enhancement. As long as the technology exists, some will want to enhance themselves, and some doctors will be willing to provide enhancements, regardless of their legal status. If enhancements are banned within a given country, people will simply leave the country to become enhanced. If they are banned worldwide, there would likely be an extensive black market. As the U.S. learned from its experiment with alcohol prohibition, it can work better to regulate than to ban behaviors for which there are powerful human drives.

Human enhancement of the magnitude discussed here will likely not come about for decades, and will only introduce itself gradually. This should give plenty of time for discussion, reflection, and debate to occur. These issues should be worked out well in advance of the arrival of enhancement nanotechnologies, so reasoned decisions can be made to regulate properly.