Nanotechnologies and Society: Ethical and Civilizational Dimension

Nanotechnologies and Society: Ethical and Civilizational Dimension

Report on Round Table “Nanotechnologies and society: ethical and civilizational dimension” held within the framework of the 10th Rhodes Forum. Presented to the Forum's Closing Plenary Meeting by William Morris (USA), Chairman, President & Founder, All American Oil&Gas Inc.

Distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen.

Nanotechnology, or work at the nanoscale, which is generally defined as between 1-100 nanometers, i.e. one billionth of a meter, will alter our relationship with molecules and matter perhaps as profoundly as the digital computer has changed our relationship with bits and information. Our Round Table entitled “Nanotechnologies and Society - Ethical and Civilizational Dimensions” addressed some of the potential positive and negative implications of this technology in an open and candid dialogue. We had at least 75 attendees.

Nanoparticles occur naturally in the form of volcanic dust, some ocean sprays, soot, etc. Our focus in the Round Table was on “engineered nanoparticles”.

Dr. Robert Curl, Nobel Laureate in 1996 in chemistry, who is credited with the first intentional preparation of carbon 60 or buckyball, pointed out that inadvertent nano-engineering has been around for centuries and cited the examples of the Lycurgus Cup, 4th Century AD, and the Damascus Sword, containing Wootz steel dating back to 300 BC in India which upon close examination has been shown to contain carbon nanotubes. Dr. Curl pointed out that the instrumentation for examination and manipulation at the nanoscale only really became available in the last twenty years enabling research, development and engineering in the field. Finally, he pointed out the major areas of potential benefits as energy, water, environment, electronics, materials science and medicine.

Next, Dr. Michael Depledge, Director of the European Center for Environment, Health and Safety, pointed out that nanotechnologies have already led to the commercial development of a wide range of innovative products ranging from fuel additives and paints to new fabrics and sunscreens. Over 1,000 new products are on the market. He added that in a world faced with potential shortages (I like to use the megacept that nanotechnology allows you to do more with less) and the growing threats posed by climate change and environmental pollution, novel nanomaterials offer ways of reducing energy needs, replacing toxic chemicals, lowering greenhouse gas emissions and cleaning up contaminated land, water and air. It also offers major breakthoughs in medicine in drug delivery therapies, immunoassaying, and other areas. But Dr. Depledge added that nanomaterials usually have different physical and chemical properties compared to their bulk forms. Their toxicity to animals, plants and microorganisms cannot be assessed using current hazard and risk assessment procedures. Finally, he discussed how we know very little about the long-term effects of engineered nanomaterials on the environment.

Dr. Alexander Bugaev, Deputy Director, Institute of Radiotechnics and Electronics, pointed out the numerous benefits of nanotechnology in electronics and that in that application he viewed the risks as minimal.

Aleksejs Dimitrovs, a legal advisor to the European parliament, discussed the evolving regulatory environment in the EU for nanomaterials and the use of “the precautionary principle”. Importance of that principle was underscored by Dr. Yakunin and later mentioned again by Dr. Atkov - doors shouldn’t be opened unless we are assured what is really lying behind them and that entry is safe.

Aleksandr Volohhonski, CEO of a port bulk terminal handling fertilizers, destined both to developed and developing markets, gave us some very practical commercial insights. He stated that some aspects of nanotechnology can be transferred to the greater availability of fertilizers, as an example, in developing countries where they are critical.

Co-moderator, Archpriest Dr. Anton Ilin, addressed the potential dangers of so-called “human enhancement” based on nano-engineering, in the context of trans-humanism and the “post-human” era of mankind. It is quite important, he stated, to make sick persons healthy, but should we make healthy persons improved and enhanced? Such technologies, if they negatively affect human dignity, identity and integrity, should be avoided. One of our attendees, Dr. Saltanov, also warned of the possible misuse of nano-engineered materials for new type of weapons or improvement of existing ones.

I would like to summarize by citing some facts and statistics from Mikhail Roco’s book entitled “Nanotechnology Research Directions for Societal Needs in 2020”, copies of which are located on one of the tables in the lobby. Dr. Roco was the former head of the National Science Foundation in Washington and was instrumental in organizing the National Nanotechnology Initiative in the United States. His book is a retrospective on nanotechnology for the last ten years and a prospective for the next 10 years. Some of his conclusions are as follows:

1.      Over the last ten years, the societal importance of nanoscale science, engineering and technology applications have been confirmed, while extreme predictions, both pro and con, have receded;

2.      Nanotechnology has been recognized as a revolutionary field of science and technology, comparable to the introduction of electricity, biotechnology and digital information revolutions.

3.      The worldwide market for products incorporating nanotechnology exceeds US$ 300 billion today;

4.      Total worldwide R & D funding has grown from US$ 1.2 billion in 2000 to over US$ 18 billion today and growing at a rate of over 35%;

5.      Over 60 countries have adopted nanotechnology research programs, making nanotechnology one of the largest and most competitive research fields globally;

6.      A US$ 3 trillion market for nanotechnology applications will exist by 2020 with at least 6 million new jobs created;

7.      Nanotechnology is expected to satisfy essential societal needs and have mass application by 2020;

8.      There exists a need to institutionalize nanotechnology education, research, manufacturing, medical, Environmental, Health & Safety and regulatory regimes.

I want to thank the Rhodes Forum for the kind invitation to co-chair this Round Table based on a somewhat unusual theme for the Dialogue of Civilizations, and I hope to continue the dialogue about this and other emerging and convergent technologies as they affect mankind, international relations, and the environment in the future. I also want to thank my co-chair, Dr. Anton Ilin, and all of my fellow participants.

William C. Morris

Rhodes, Greece 10/7/2012