Nanotechnology controversies -- Guest Editorial
Woodhouse, E. J.
Technology and Society Magazine, IEEE
Vol. 23, Num. 4
This article reviews the other articles in IEEE's 2004 Winter issue devoted to nanotechnology. Woodhouse writes: "One of the most basic issues concerns whether nanotechnology is adequately conceptualized as an ordinary realm of innovation, or whether there is something extra-ordinary about nanotechnology that deserves special handling. If the emerging capacities lead primarily to particles in sunscreens, better targeted pharmaceuticals, and stain-resistant fabrics, most people are not going to be very worried, believing that normal regulatory and liability mechanisms can take care of problems in ways no worse than law and government normally operate. If, however, the technology comes to involve bottom-up molecular self-assembly (see below), then a wholly different approach may be warranted to deal with the radically greater range and magnitude of potential problems. necessary for MNT, and, because of the risks, should be prohibited." Although the mainstream community is not now pursuing MNT, it remains a development goal that ought not to be downplayed, argue some of the contributors to this issue. Other questions surrounding nanotechnology are "Who sets the research agenda?" "Is enough being done to address health risks?" "Are regulations in place to protect the public?" "What will the impact of a nanotech arms race be?"
Woodhouse sums up as follows: "One of the primary lessons of technological innovation from the 20th century is that advance prediction is unreliable, and that there is no substitute for learning by doing about both the upside and the downside of complex new technologies . Yet such learning requires considerable time, and the present pace of innovation may not allow sufficient time or attention for appropriate monitoring and gradual learning from experience. What it would take to bring this issue forcefully to the attention of nanoscientists, government officials, scholars, business executives, and the attentive public lurks just beneath the surface of many of the articles in this issue....Readers may join me inbeing led to reflect on how far supposedly democratic, supposedly knowledge-based societies still have to go in arranging social institutions capable of shaping a technological civilization deserving of the term."