Foresight Nanotech Institute Logo
Image of nano

U.S. nanotechnology funds study ethics of human enhancement

Patrick Lin over at the Nanoethics Group let us know that the principals of that group have received a US$250,000 grant from the NSF to study the ethics of using nanotechnology to do human enhancement, through their academic affiliations at Dartmouth and Western Michigan U.

The questions to be investigated by the nanoethics research team include, but are not limited to: What exactly constitutes enhancement? Is there a right to be enhanced? Is it justifiable to enhance people in order for them to undertake certain tasks, e.g., in the military? Is there an obligation to enhance our children? Should there be limits on the types of enhancement allowed or the degree to which someone can be enhanced? Does it make an ethical difference if some enhancing device is implanted into the body rather than worn on the outside? Does the notion of human dignity suffer with such enhancements?

These are fun questions to debate, and I look forward to doing so with Patrick and his team. But I find myself becoming a bit uneasy about a meta-ethical issue: while we in the U.S. (and Europe) spend our time and money discussing these admittedly fascinating topics, are people in other countries spending their time and money on technical R&D instead, and what are the ethical implications of their winning the race to advanced nanotechnologies? It seems to me that whoever develops a particular technology first can exert a huge influence over how it’s used, regardless of how our debates turn out.

Maybe I can persuade the study team to look at these “who gets to decide” issues, if they aren’t planning to do so already. —Christine [UPDATE: I see that the way to get comments is to discuss ethics! Or maybe it's human enhancement you enjoy discussing... --C]

12 Responses to “U.S. nanotechnology funds study ethics of human enhancement”

  1. Patrick Lin Says:

    Hi Chris -

    Yeah, that’s a good question and one that I continue to struggle with. If I may develop it further, the thought is that:

    We (in the US) are in such a fortunate position in the world that we can afford to be reflective about matters of ethics and philosophy. We have that luxury. But many other countries do not – they are embroiled in a daily fight for survival (more so than we are). But if and when the means become available to them, chances are good that they will exploit nanotechnology any which way they can, including the base reasons of national glory or military superiority.

    Do we really want nanotechnology (and the world) to be dominated by other countries whom we may not like? Even if we can take the higher moral ground and lay aside our national prejudices, it doesn’t change the fact that the other country will probably not – and not care (we think, here in the US). Imagine then how the planet and beyond might look, if that foreign country were to be the ones who control nanotechnology: the keys to…well, control.

    So if not only for this reason, the US must have the lead in nanotechnology – we don’t want to live on Planet Kim Jong-il. For the same reason, even if we thought our future was bleak and destined to be a scene from “Blade Runner”, it could be worse if the wrong nations were to be the ones who shaped or influenced it the most.

    Therefore, we must “own” nanotechnology and when we do, we can take a rest and become reflective again. By deferring that moment of moral questioning from now to then, we would then be in a time and a place when we can do something about our angst. In the case of human enhancement, we might frown upon gratuitous features such as an implanted (animal or fish) tail on a human being, if that’s what we decide ethics says. We can paternally (and not maternally, since it’s mostly dads who beat their kids) feed nanotechnology and its benefits to other countries. We can try then to build that utopia we had only read about. Even if we can’t do any of this, such a possible world seems much nicer that the one where, say, a non-democratic country had its way with the planet, to the extent that our utopia is more utopian and our values more valuable (to us at least)…

    ….or so the thought goes. (Note: you can also substitute “nanotechnology” in the above with “outer space” and other objects of international races.)

    Well, yes, I’ve thought at times that way, but I can’t say I have a drop-dead reply to any of this, other than that this is a very pragmatic – and understandable, if not also forgivable – take on the role of ethics and morality in society and especially in a democracy. And being pragmatic all the time might not always be the best strategy or course of action…or the *right* thing to do. Also, I’m not sure if (nano)ethicists think that science will slow down because of ethics (as opposed to, say, banning human cloning on moral grounds – that seems to be a rare case), but we can probably count on science barreling along, full speed ahead; so our only hope is that ethics can catch up stat.

    Anyway, I’d be interested in what people think about this. Feel free to also email me at patrick@nanoethics.org

    Thx! – Pat

  2. ERabani Says:

    I agree w/Christine’s comment on first-mover advantage, but would point out the necessity of doing both; if the winner is clueless about what the issues even are, or a despotic actor who won’t bother with ethics, we all lose. Spending 1% or less makes lots of sense considering it takes alot less to feed a few ethicists than several capital intensive laboratories.

    To the list of considerations, I would add, “Is there a right to compete at a level consistent with natural endowments for the means of survival and well-being which outweighs the rights of others to engage in a technological arms-race?” And the related question, “Should non-enhanced humans be forced to compete with enhanced humans or human-technological hybrids?”

    Sports-doping is a clear present-day example. One solution is to bifurcate sports into natural-human and synthetically-enhanced metaleagues with the clear understanding that playing in the natural-human metaleague but secretly enhancing defrauds the spectator and dishonors sport itself…which eliminate the pressure to cheat which arises from the awareness that “everyone’s doping and it’s the only way to win.”

    With advanced MNT we’re talking about much more than sports. Even if it becomes the case that every single thing that humans do can be done better by technology, we have to ask whether we as humans wish to continue to value doing things well as humans (and continue to endeavour to be our best selves) or instead value quantitative single-mode results over qualitative existence.

  3. Eric Tulloch Says:

    Regarding your easiness, I concur to a certain extent. Considering that this ethics research will likely result in a report that may or may not gain serious consideration by the powers that funded it in the first place, the application of $250,000 toward this endeavor is a bit difficult to stomach. Now, assuming a best-case scenario, the study will result in groundbreaking discoveries, and the NSF will immediately coordinate with various government organizations to establish a department within an eventual nanotechnology ethics governing body. Ideally, this department would have the authority to enforce ethical standards in human enhancement, or could delegate that authority. Like you said, if we lose the nanotechnology race, that authority to enforce anything is nullified.

    As for the question, “Is there a right to be enhanced?” I’m already a bit nervous about the prospect of the ACLU stepping in and touting a a 1st Amendment right. Assuming that debate is resolved in favor of a right to enhance, I’m a bit more concerned about application of the 2nd Amendment…there’s no shortage of science fiction writings on that topic.

  4. Christine Peterson Says:

    Hi Pat — Rather than look at the situation as one where we can be either ethical or pragmatic, perhaps another approach is to include implementation issues and scenarios in the ethics debate. We can try to come up with positions which are both ethical and pragmatic. Worth a shot! Looking forward to it. –Christine

  5. Christine Peterson Says:

    Hi ERabani — Great questions.

    “Is there a right to compete at a level consistent with natural endowments for the means of survival and well-being which outweighs the rights of others to engage in a technological arms-race?” Perhaps we can look at a right to protection from coercion and see where that takes us. We’ll need to define “compete”.

    “Should non-enhanced humans be forced to compete with enhanced humans or human-technological hybrids?” Well, they already are, in the sense that people without computers, say, have to compete with those with them. The scenario is just that, for example, the computers will be inside instead of outside the body. Which leads us back to the first point regarding coercion and the definition of compete.

    I think humans will continue to value unenhanced human work, just as we value handmade goods and home-grown garden foods and original artworks today. One can picture that value growing. –Christine

  6. Christine Peterson Says:

    Hi Eric — It’s hard for me to see how there could be a right to be enhanced using tax dollars. But there are lots of things that tax dollars go for that I don’t see!

    If someone chooses to enhance themselves into being a weapon of mass destruction, maybe that status takes precedence over their human status? Just as it would if I were to swallow a ticking bomb today, presumably…

    This topic is lots of fun to discuss, as I mentioned in the original post! Thanks for writing.

    –Christine

  7. Eric Tulloch Says:

    (I actually meant “uneasiness” or “unease”…don’t know where “easiness” came from…)
    To expound on my first thought (after sleeping on it…):

    Academics are going to discuss ethics (of all sorts, of course) regardless of whether an organization is funding them to do so. Granted, the money may facilitate a better-edited and more tightly focused report. Maybe they could use the money to hire a well-known author (Orson Scott Card or L. E. Modesitt, Jr. to cite two examples) to write a publicly-accessible/comprehensible version of the report.
    I do know that the latter has incorporated various aspects and issues of nanotechnology in many of his novels.

  8. Christine Peterson Says:

    Hi Eric — About sf: in my recent talk for the Center for Nanotechnology in Society at ASU, I recommended that those attempting to look at the long-term future of nanotechnology read some hard sf incorporating nanotech scenarios. It’s useful. –Christine

  9. ERabani Says:

    Christine wrote:

    >>>>>>>>>>>>
    Perhaps we can look at a right to protection from coercion and see where that takes us. We’ll need to define “compete”.
    //////////////////////

    This is sort of the point, or rather the implicit contention: some competitions can become coercive, such as competitions over means of survival under conditions of scarcity, military competitions, some status competitions, at least where competitiors are totally invested in them. To the extent that a victor can despotize the object of comptetition, to the extent other competitors lack alternatives, they are coerced. MNT could produce abundance, but it could also concentrate it if enough competitors are willing to get nasty and there’s nothing preestablished to stop them.

    >>>>>>>>>>>>
    “Should non-enhanced humans be forced to compete with enhanced humans or human-technological hybrids?” Well, they already are, in the sense that people without computers, say, have to compete with those with them. The scenario is just that, for example, the computers will be inside instead of outside the body. Which leads us back to the first point regarding coercion and the definition of compete.
    ///////////////////////

    Yes and no. No matter how good the computer, there are still limitations on the interface with a human, and what a human–even the very smartest–could possibly deal with. Deeply integrated neural interfacing with Nth generation AI is a qualitatively different thing.

    A related but distinct point is that at some point “hybrids” become technology with decreasingly significant human appendages. So it’s not clear that even the victors win in any real sense.

  10. Anders Says:

    In this particular thread the fear is that the results of this study will slow down the development of some areas of MNT. But ethics could also be seen as a form of guidance. A correct and good guidance might lead you faster to the goal than one without this guidance. Also I see a lot of “us” and “them” in here, where “us” seems to be USA and Europe, and them beeing the rest of the world. I don’t want to sound anti-american, because I’m not, but this is very typical for america. This is one world people – only one planet here, and we have to take that into consideration, and maybe we should put some efford into getting those countries who doesn’t apply ethics to their research, to do so. As well as we fear that some of those bad countries out there will gain the control of MNT before we do, some people fear: what will USA – or rather what will your government and your millitary, do with this kind of power… Think about it.

  11. Christine Peterson Says:

    Hi Anders — We do think about this. The question is, which entity (existing or new) is the least risky in terms of being a responsible holder of such power? Tough question, but input from all is welcome! –Christine

  12. Mark Thompson Says:

    The discussions on this topic have been interesting. However, I noticed that everyone sees the issue in terms of nation states. What about classes within a country, including America? If one believes that there is such a thing as an elite which exerts a greater influence on the political process, this elite could use the new developments in technology to further their interests, sometimes to the benefit of the ordinary man and sometimes to his detriment.

    What are the views on this?

Leave a Reply