Too often, discussions about the social and ethical issues surrounding new technologies are treated as afterthoughts, or worse still, as potential roadblocks to innovation. The ethical discussions are relegated to the end of scientific conferences, outsourced to social scientists, or generally marginalized in the policymaking process.
The goal of this paper by Ron Sandler of Northeastern University is to clearly place social and ethical issues within ongoing debates on the responsible development of nanotechnologies. The paper presents a broad framework to structure the analysis and discussion of ethical issues, which builds on improving our understanding of the social, cultural, and moral context of emerging technologies and assessing the status of these issues as the technologies evolve.
The author takes on some of the common misconceptions that undermine our ability to address social and ethical issues early and effectively, such as the “it’s too early to discuss ethics” excuse and the tendency to frame new technologies in terms of their inevitability (and inevitable good). The paper highlights, through theory and research linked to case studies, a wide variety of possible social and ethical issues linked to emerging nanotechnologies, ranging from environmental justice to human enhancement and the myth of the techno-fix—our tendency to favor technological fixes to problems rather than behavioral changes or other major shifts. Indeed, the framework outlined in this paper can be applied to a wide variety of emerging technologies.
Every emerging technology offers us a new opportunity to engage stakeholders in a social and ethical debate. The nanotech revolution is still beginning and we still have time for an open and public discussion of its consequences, both intended and unintended. Hopefully, this paper will provide a framework for thinking through some of those impacts.
Director, Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies
Momentous change can come in tiny packages. Nanotechnologies have been hailed by many as the next industrial revolution, likely to affect everything from clothing and medical treatments to engineering. Although focused on the very small, nanotechnology—the ability to measure, manipulate and manufacture objects that are 1/100th to 1/100,000th the circumference of a human hair—offers immense promise. Whether used in cancer therapies, pollution-eating compounds or stain-resistant apparel, these atomic marvels are radically and rapidly changing the way we live. The National Science Foundation predicts that the global marketplace for goods and services using nanotechnologies will grow to $1 trillion by 2015 and employ 2 million workers.
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