Nanotechnology: benefits and risks

Tags: Op-ed
Nanotechnology: benefits and risks
AFP
SMALL WONDER: A University of Tokyo professor displays the world’s lightest and thinnest flexible integrated circuits and touch sensor system for stress-free wearable healthcare sensors in Tokyo on July 24
According to HowStuffWorks, the most immediate challenge in nanotechnology is that we need to learn more about materials and their properties at the nanoscale. Because elements at the nanoscale behave differently than they do in their bulk form, there’s a concern that some nanoparticles could be toxic to health. Some doctors worry that the nanoparticles are so small, that they could easily cross the blood-brain barrier, a membrane that protects the brain from harmful chemicals in the bloodstream. If we plan on using nanoparticles to coat everything from our clothing to our highways, we need to be sure that they won’t poison us.

Nanotechnology has several benefits. Due to this technology, virtually undetectable surveillance devices could dramatically increase spying on governments, corporations and private citizens. Molecular manufacturing, involving molecule-level assembly, could make the same products you see today, but far more precisely and at a very low cost. Furthermore, untraceable weap­ons made with nanotechnology could be smaller than an insect with the intelligence of a supercomputer, leading to a possible nano and bio-technology arms race. However, there are many areas of nanotechnology science that hold potential dangers to society. Bio-engineering and artificial intelligence, for example, have their own set of risks.

Nanopollutants are nanoparticles small enough to enter your lungs or be absorbed by your skin. Nanopollutants can be natural or man-made. Nanoparticles are used in some of the products found on shelves today, like anti-aging cosmetics and sunscreen. The highest risk is to the workers in nanotechnology research and manufacturing processes.

Attention to possible risks to human health and environment along with other public concerns about social and ethical issues is essential for responsible development of new technologies and this includes nanotechnology. In the US, the National Science Foundation (NSF) funded two national centres devoted to studying the societal implications of emerging nanotechnologies, namely the centres for nanotechnology in society (CNS), at the University of California at Santa Barbara (CNS-UCSB) and at Arizona State University (CNS-ASU). These centres are headed by professor Barbara Herr Harthorn (director, NSF centre for nanotechnology in society at University of California), professor Nick Pidgeon (department of psychology, Cardiff University), and professor Terre Satterfield (institute for resources, environment and sustainability, University of British Columbia).

At these centres, risk perception research focuses on social risk phenomena that traditional risk assessment is unable to explain. First, in a recent meta-analysis of all published survey research on public attitudes toward nanotechnology in the US, Canada, Europe and Japan from 2004 to 2009, it was found that public familiarity with nanotechnology continues very low, with on average about 65 per cent of surveyed people having little or no familiarity with “nanotechnology.”

According to Harthorn, when given a little information on nanotechnology, over twice as many people viewed the benefits as likely to outweigh the risks, indicating positive dispositions toward science and technology and their likelihood of bringing ‘good.’ On average, 44 per cent of people surveyed, a very large minority, were unsure enough about nanotech’s benefits or risks that they were unwilling to express a judgment.

This large, unformed judgment base provides a unique opportunity for education and engagement, and for regulatory and industry actions that will enhance trust, a key factor in maintaining public acceptance, although researchers agree this situation cannot be taken for granted and may not endure. What forms education and engagement should take in this unusual situation is a key question that demands empirical research. To address this question, researchers at the two US centres are conducting research using both quantitative surveys with large representative samples and more focused, in-depth studies with smaller groups.

According to Harthorn, in 2007 the centre conducted co­mparative cross-national US-UK deliberative workshops on nanotechnologies for health and energy. The researchers found, consistent with the meta-analysis, that both US and UK participants viewed nanotechnologies as likely to be beneficial, with some more subtle differences regarding issues of distributional justice, and government and corporate responsibility and trustworthiness. More striking was the sharp contrast between consistently positive views of nanotechnologies for energy and the more complex views about health, medical, and enhancement technologies.

According to HowStuffWo­rks, there are some hefty social concerns about nanotechnology too. Nanotechnology may also allow us to create more powerful wea­pons, both lethal and non-le­thal. Some organisations are concerned that we’ll only get around to examining the ethical implications of nanotechnology in weaponry after these devices are built. They urge scientists and politicians to examine carefully all the possibilities of nanotechnology before designing increasingly powerful weapons.

Furthermore, according to HowStuffWorks, if nanotechnology in medicine makes it possible for us to enhance ourselves physically, is that ethical? In theory, medical nanotechnology could make us smarter, stronger and give us other abilities ranging from rapid healing to night vision. Should we pursue such goals? Could we continue to call ourselves human, or would we become trans-human — the next step on man’s evolutionary path?

Whether we’ll actually need to answer all of these questions is a matter of debate. Even so, nanotechnology will definitely continue to impact us as we learn more about the enormous potential of the nanoscale.

(The writer is on the faculty of Indian Institute of Technology, Mandi, India)

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