The Ethics of Nanotechnology
Imagine a world in which cars can be assembled molecule-by-molecule, garbage can be disassembled and turned into beef steaks, and people can be operated on and healed by cell-sized robots. Sound like science fiction? Well, with current semiconductor chip manufacturing encroaching upon the nanometer scale and the ability to move individual atoms at the IBM Almaden laboratory, we are fast approaching the technological ability to fabricate productive machines and devices that can manipulate things at the atomic level. From this ability we will be able to develop molecular-sized computers and robots, which would give us unprecedented control over matter and the ability to shape the physical world as we see fit. Some may see it as pure fantasy, but others speculate that it is an inevitability that will be the beginning of the next technological revolution.
Laboratories, such as the Stanford Nanofabrication Facility (SNF), have already been researching nanofabrication techniques with applications in fiber optics, biotechnology, microelectromechanical systems (MEMS), and wide variety of other research fields relevant to today's technology. MEMS, "tiny mechanical devices such as sensors, valves, gears, mirrors, and actuators embedded in semiconductor chips", are particularly interesting because they are but a mere step away from the molecular machines envisioned by nanotechnology. MEMS are already being used in automobile airbag systems as accelerometers to detect collisions and will become an increasing part of our everyday technology.
In 1986, a researcher from MIT named K. Eric Drexler already foresaw the advent of molecular machines and published a book, Engines of Creation, in which he outlined the possibilities and consequences of this emerging field, which he called nanotechnology. He was inspired by Nobel laureate Richard Feynman's 1959 lecture, There's Plenty of Room at the Bottom, about miniaturization down to the atomic scale. Since then, Drexler has written numerous other books on the subject, such as Unbounding the Future, and has founded the Foresight Institute, which is a nonprofit organization dedicated to the responsible development of nanotechnology. It hosts conferences and competitions to raise the awareness of nanotechnology and the ethical issues involved in its development.
Today, nanotechnology research and development is quite wide spread, although not high profile yet. Numerous universities, such as Univ. of Washington and Northwestern Univ., have established centers and institutes to study nanotechnology, and the U.S. government has created an organization, the National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI), to monitor and guide research and development in this field. In fact, as noted in an April 2001 Computerworld article, the Bush administration increased funding to nanoscale science research by 16% through its National Science Foundation (NSF) budget increase. DARPA...