Nanotechnology: Ethical and Social Implications

By on June 29th, 2017 in Book Reviews, Ethics, Magazine Articles, Societal Impact

By Ahmed S. Khan. CRC Press (Taylor & Francis), 2012.

Reviewed by Karl D. Stephan


Anyone who doesn’t know by now what the prefix nano- means, just hasn’t been paying attention. Especially for those involved in the technical end of engineering and science, nanotechnology – dealing with objects ranging in size from about 1 to 100 billionths of a meter (nanometers, or 10−9meters) – has been the buzzword par excellence for the last decade or so. Although enough time has passed to take some of the shine off the golden nanotech future that the field’s early promoters promised, institutional forces such as the U.S. government’s National Nanotechnology Initiative continue to bring nano-things to our attention.

Nature – or God, depending on your point of view – knew about nanotechnology long before humans could either learn about or manipulate matter with nano-scale dimensions. DNA is the best example of a naturally occurring nano-scale molecule that performs incredibly intricate functions, and scientists discover more natural nano-wonders every year.

Some researchers point to Michael Faraday’s experiments with colloidal gold in 1847 as the first time anyone realized that the properties of a bulk material – shiny yellowness, in the case of gold – could change radically if it was divided into minute particles. Colloidal gold – nanoparticles of gold, essentially – shows various beautiful shades of red in water suspension or when added to certain types of glassware, as some 17th-century Italian glassmakers knew how to do. Others say that the founding prophet of nanotechnology was Richard P. Feynman, the Nobelist who gave a famous 1959 speech entitled “There’s Plenty of Room at the Bottom,” in which he called for research efforts to exploit the information-storage and other valuable properties of nano-scale structures. It was in that same year that Texas Instruments researcher Jack Kilby applied for a patent on the integrated circuit, which now in the form of computer chips routinely employs transistor gates only a few nanometers long. There are probably more transistors in the world than any other type of man-made object, so it is no longer accurate to say that nanotechnology artifacts are rare or exotic. Every computer chip has thousands to billions of them.

The same kinds of technology that enable us to put billions of transistors on a single chip have led to the ability to make increasingly complex nanostructures for a wide variety of other uses, ranging from electronics to chemistry and medicine. From a political point of view, the U.S. Nanotechnology Initiative is unusual in that every year, a certain portion (usually between one and two percent) of the funds expended on the field have been set aside explicitly for studies and other work pertaining to the ethical and social aspects of nanotechnology. According to the website, in fiscal year 2013 about$34 million will be devoted to such high-minded activities. While that amount of money doesn’t buy you a lot of integrated-circuit fabrication equipment, for example, it will go a long way if you spend it on philosophers, historians, and policy experts whose biggest expenses tend to be plane tickets. The result has been a veritable flood of papers, seminars, and books on the social and ethical aspects of nanotechnology, of which the book under review here is one.

Nanotechnology: Social and Ethical Implications is a compendium of papers edited by Ahmed S. Khan, an educator and researcher at DeVry University in Addison, IL, U.S.A. DeVry University, whose presence now is mainly but not exclusively online, is a descendant of the former DeVry Technical Institute, an organization whose origins date back to the training of radio technicians in the 1930s. Dr. Khan has assembled a book intended to be used as a teaching resource, primarily in undergraduate courses dealing with the ethical and social aspects of nanotechnology.

Choosing selections for a book of this kind is like making out an invitation list to a dinner party. You should pick guests not only for their individual wit and charm, but for how they will interact with the other guests. The ideal dinner party has a few stars who lead the conversations, as well as ordinary Joes and Janes who can be counted on to be polite and not break any furniture. Dr. Khan’s dinner party has a wide variety of guests: one or two standouts, several workmanlike contributions with useful information, and more than a few oddballs. The theme of nanotechnology is adhered to intermittently, at best. So first, the standouts.

Perhaps the most useful chapter from an instructor’s perspective is the one by Deb Newberry, who heads something called the Nanoscience Program at Dakota County Technical College in Rosemount, Minnesota. Rosemount is not exactly a hotbed of nanotechnology research, but Ms. Newberry has assembled a concise, clear, and well-footnoted introduction to the field of nanotechnology products and the ecology of their effects. Unfortunately, it is only twenty pages long, including references and additional resources.

Dr. Khan’s own introductory chapter also belongs in the category of standout. He gives good definitions of the field, provides many well-illustrated examples, and includes about thirty pages of scenarios and case studies involving nanotechnology and social or ethical issues. Case studies are one of the book’s strengths overall, because several authors include them and their topics vary widely. Rather unusual for a book of this type (the hardcover is priced at about$76 on Amazon) is a 16-page section of color plates illustrating everything from the deep iridescent blue of a butterfly’s wings (color courtesy of nano-scale reflecting structures) to a scene in the nanotech lab of Bilkent University in Ankara, Turkey, that looks just like every other photograph of a clean room you have ever seen.

Those are the standouts. Next I might as well go straight on to the oddballs. Chief among these is a chapter penned by a team of three instructors at the National University of San Diego, California, a forty-year-old nonprofit institution catering to non-traditional students. Their chapter puts me in mind of what you might hear from a hyperactive child after taking him to Six Flags – except Salinas, Smith, and Viswanathan, the authors of this chapter, are raving about nanotechnology, not roller coasters. It is a kind of free-association ramble: for example, in one page we go from what “nano” means, to the Wright Brothers, to the speed of light, to the speed of sound, to the formula for the speed of sound in terms of the modulus of elasticity and density of air. A few pages later we come upon a couple of charts by Ray Kurzweil, whose famed “Singularity” notion is a transhumanist prophecy that nanotechnology (along with a few other things) will lead to computers taking over the universe and the end of humanity as we know it. Then we read about the San Bruno, California, gas pipeline explosion, rendered in the form of a paragraph apparently taken verbatim from a news feed without even such a basic detail as the date of the explosion (Wikipedia tells me it happened on Sept. 9, 2010). What has that got to do with nanotechnology? In the words of the authors, “A consideration remains whether potential nanotechnology for leakage detection could have been used for more recent inspections, which could have prevented the failure of the pipeline.” That’s all.

As a sample of academic writing, this mess of a chapter is something I would hate to expose undergraduates to, because it would set such a bad example. It is rife with unsupported assertions, non sequiturs, irrelevant details, and other violations of good academic practice. On the other hand, it is entertaining to read, in a kind of National Enquirer way, and I must admit that in the throes of their wilder speculations, the authors hit at least one prophetic nail right on the head. In describing the future uses of 3-D printing, which involves small but not necessarily nano-scale structures, they speculate that an unethical person might use such technology to fabricate a working pistol, complete with bullets. Less than a month before writing this review, but a couple of years after the book was probably written, I posted in my engineering-ethics blog an item describing how one Cody Wilson, a law student at the University of Texas at Austin, recently constructed and fired a plastic pistol made largely with the use of a 3-D printer. Mr. Wilson gained not only international media attention for his stunt, but a letter from the U.S. government warning him not to do it again. So whatever the authors of this chapter lack in terms of standard academic style, they partly make up for in terms of imagination, prognosticatory foresight, and flash.

The Joe-and-Jane guests to this party include a philosopher, who looks at the question of nano-ethics from every side and concludes finally that there’s nothing that special about nanotechnology to deserve all the ethics-professionals’ attention except for the large amount of money thrown at the problem; a chapter comparing Socrates and Confucius as moral teachers; a rather defensive screed by an evangelical Christian commenting on the distinctiveness of Christian ethics while saying virtually nothing about nanotechnology; some imaginary futurist scenarios involving nanotechnology and the triumph of different political viewpoints; and a review of studies about the public perception of nanotechnology. The book is rounded out with a grab-bag of other chapters, whose subjects include such things as the nanotechnology facilities of the above-mentioned Bilkent University in Turkey, the nanotechnology virtues and vices of titanium dioxide and carbon, and nanotechnology in K-12 and higher education.

Is Nanotechnology: Social and Ethical Implications worth the price? It depends on what you want to do with it. It would be worthwhile to put it on the reserve-book list of a course on either the technical or the social and ethical aspects of nanotechnology. Individual chapters could be excerpted for various special purposes in teaching, or conceivably as references for research in a graduate course. But the book falls a long way short of being the definitive word on the social and ethical implications of nanotechnology. Despite all the funds expended on these topics, such a definitive book remains to be written, and perhaps cannot be written until the word “nanotechnology” ceases to excite the attention of anyone except historians. And thanks to the U.S. government, that will not happen for a while yet.


Karl D. Stephan