UNESCO on nanotechnology ethics & politics

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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  1. Andrew W. July 23, 2006 at 9:33 am - Reply

    Maybe Nanodot should apply to the UN as an advisory NGO on nanotech. The UN may end up being the best forum for international debate, cooperation, and the implementation of legal frameworks regarding nanotech. I daresay they would be ideal in this regard as nanotech not only promises fulfillment of Millenium goals, but is also the best hope for worldwide implementation of the UN Charter.

  2. Christine Peterson July 24, 2006 at 1:50 pm - Reply

    Hi Andrew — I think we have done this. Keep those ideas coming! –C

  3. David Billington July 26, 2006 at 9:37 am - Reply


    The microchip got through its early years in the 1960s with the help of military procurement. The invention of the pocket calculator brought commercial viability later. I believe that nano technology is of interest to the U.S. military and undoubtedly to the armed forces of other countries as well. Could defense applications sustain the technology until it becomes economical to serve the civilian market? Is there a crossover potential?

  4. Christine Peterson July 26, 2006 at 4:21 pm - Reply

    To David — Yes, this is definitely a dual-use set of technologies. –CP

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