UNESCO on nanotechnology ethics & politics

UNESCO’s Division of Ethics of Science and Technology has taken a shot at writing about The Ethics and Politics of Nanotechnology.

Nanotechnology Now has a brief critique. David Berube has a longer one.

To do a thorough critique here of these kinds of documents would take too long—I’d be blogging all day, every day. Instead this post will limit itself to three [update: four] observations:

1. The document states: “Perhaps the simplest and broadest definition is that nanotechnology is research conducted at the nanoscale…Such a definition is clearly too broad, however.” I would say instead that it is simply wrong; a technology (or set of technologies) is not limited to “research”. To restrict technology to research is too narrow, not too broad. This point may seem trivial, but I get nervous when a report is not careful with terminology. Words matter.

2. In a discussion on page 10, the report states “At this point in time, however, there are no convincing experimental or engineering demonstrations of even very simple molecular control…” These folks need to start reading Nanodot or the other news sources tracking this topic, or they could attend a Foresight Conference on molecular nanotech research.

3. In a section titled “Distractions”, the report includes both grey goo and human enhancement. We would agree that both of these have distracted attention from more fundamental issues, both near-term and long-term.

[Update: 4. The report correctly cited the observation that nanotech could help address the UN’s Millennium Development Goals, which have some overlap with Foresight’s Nanotech Challenges. However, it comments “there are a number of areas that could benefit the poorest nations far more than any commercial development would—areas such as energy storage and conversion, water treatment, and health and disease diagnosis and treatment…How can scientists in universities and corporations be given incentives (above and beyond mere commercial viability) to pursue these goals?” The primary problem is not a lack of incentives for scientists; many are already attacking these problems. What is mainly needed is help in making the technologies reach “mere” commercial viability. Without commercial viability, products cannot be made in volume and delivered to those who need them. Governments and foundations can assist here by offering large contracts to be awarded to whichever companies can meet specific technical/cost goals for products needed by the poor. This would enable companies to spend more to develop these products, and to fund more research as needed.]

I could go on, but other duties call. Maybe others would be willing to read the report and critique it in the comments to this post. —Christine

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