Conference to tackle ethics of nanotechnology and human enhancement

A conference organized by faculty at California Polytechnic State University, Dartmouth College, the University of Delaware, and Western Michigan University will tackle what they claim is “the single most important issue in science & society in this century.” The Human Enhancement & Nanotechnology Conference will be held March 28-29, 2009 at the Western Michigan University, Fetzer Center. The conference is free to attend and includes continental breakfasts, lunches, and a good supply of coffee and snacks but early registration is highly recommended because seats are limited.

The Human Enhancement & Nanotechnology Conference focuses on the ethical, social, and related issues that arise in the application of nanotechnology to human enhancement. While nanotechnology is not the only technology that can be applied to human enhancement, it is and will be a core one; without it many current and future enhancements would not be possible. These technological possibilities will derive from many sources, especially nanoelectronics and nanomaterials.

As an example of an ethical issue, bionic limbs (e.g., for greater strength or vision) and neural chips implanted into one’s head (e.g., for on-demand access to the Internet and software applications) may give the individual significant advantages in many areas, from sports to jobs to academia. But these technologies may hold health risks——similar to steroid or Ritalin use for enhancement purposes, as distinct from therapy—as well as raise ethical concerns related to fairness, access, and general societal disruption. Therefore, it is no surprise that, on both sides of the debate, the ethics of human enhancement is believed to be the single most important issue in science & society in this century.

The abstracts and bios of all fourteen speakers are on the conference web site. Among those fourteen, Foresight Senior Associate Tihamer Toth-Fejel (General Dynamics) will be speaking on “Nanotechnology and Productive Nanosystems for the U.S. Military: Progress and Implications”

A survey of recent and ongoing nanoscale research at government defense contractors shows continual improvements that will lead to high-performance equipment for warfighters. Continued progress in nanoscale structures, devices, machines, and systems will lead to Productive Systems, and this direction is most notable in DARPA’s Tip-Based Nanofabrication program. Defense-oriented research in nanotechnology, while currently aimed at clothing and other external gear, will eventually end up inside the bodies of warfighters, with a wide variety of implications. The ethical evaluation of these implications depends on non-provable assumptions about reality, and the most important relevant issues have been discussed by philosophers for millennia: the nature of the human person and the ethics of war.

Whether or not you will be able to attend the conference, Nanodot readers are invited to comment on whether you believe that the ethics of human enhancement is “the single most important issue in science & society in this century.”

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