Nanotechnology: alleviate poverty or reduce inequality?

The role of nanotechnology in the developing world is questioned by Prof. Guillermo Foladori of Mexico in his Nanotechnology Law & Business article “Nanotechnology in Latin America at the Crossroads” (free abstract, full PDF requires a fee or subscription).

Prof. Foladori reminds us of nanotech’s potential to alleviate poverty:

In recent years, governments, scientists, and international organizations have cast the capacity of nanotechnology for improving the living conditions of the poor in an optimistic light. An example of this is the view of the Task Force on Science, Technology and Innovation of the U.N. Millennium Development Project. 42 The Canadian Joint Center for Bioethics (“JCB”) also holds the belief that nanotechnology can be used to help achieve five of the eight Millennium Development Goals. 43 The organizers of the conference for the North-South Dialogue on Nanotechnology: Challenges and Opportunities, hosted by the United Nations Industrial Development Organization in Trieste, Italy, put forward similar ideas. 44 This optimistic viewpoint is based on the technical potential of nanotechnology for application to the urgent needs of underprivileged populations and presents a strong argument to harness nanotechnology in developing countries.

He then points out:

Nevertheless, over the past thirty years, the world has seen the rapid development of technology in such fields as microelectronics, information technology, biotechnology, and telecommunications; but this technological advancement has not helped to bridge the poverty gap. The United Nations Development Program found that inequality on a worldwide basis increased over the 1990s…

Earlier in this section, he asks regarding nanotech: “Could this be a chance for developing countries to catch up?”

Two ideas are being conflated here: (1) Can nanotechnology help poor countries? and (2) Can nanotechnology close the gap between rich and poor countries? The answers are very different.

In principle, nanotechnology could do a huge amount to raise living standards in poor countries. (See, for example, this article, Foresight’s Challenges, and Chapter 8 of Unbounding the Future.) It could help bring those countries to today’s rich-country living standards, and beyond, in a sustainable way.

But to ask nanotech to actually close the gap between rich and poor countries — to enable poor countries to catch up to where the rich ones are at the same point in time — would require the rich countries to slow down their advancement while the poor ones catch up. How likely is that? Is it a realistic goal? It seems to me that such a goal is beyond the reach of any technology, no matter how powerful. It is a political goal and would require drastic political changes to carry out. Personally, I think we have a long way to go on (1). —Christine

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