Bookmark and Share

The Ethics of Nanotechnology

Andrew Chen


Examining nanotechnology in the light of ethical decision-making will help us to answer questions such as:

  • Do we need to create and enforce global laws for its development?
  • How do we minimize potential dangers, such as weaponry uses?
  • Is it our duty to share research with other nations?
  • How can we ensure that technology is used for the common good?

March 2002

Imagine a world in which…

  • cars can be assembled molecule-by-molecule
  • garbage can be disassembled and turned into beef steaks, and
  • people can be operated on and healed by cell-sized robots

Miniature mobile robot, as envisioned at the NanoRobotics Lab, Carnegie Mellon University.

We are close to creating machines that will shape things at the molecular level.

Sound like science fiction? Well, with current semiconductor chip manufacturing encroaching upon the nanometer scale and the ability to move individual atoms at the IBM Almaden laboratory, we are fast approaching the technological ability to fabricate productive machines and devices that can manipulate things at the atomic level.7 From this ability we will be able to develop molecular-sized computers and robots, which would give us unprecedented control over matter and the ability to shape the physical world as we see fit. Some may see it as pure fantasy, but others speculate that it is an inevitability that will be the beginning of the next technological revolution.

Car airbags are an example of a current application.

Laboratories, such as the Stanford Nanofabrication Facility (SNF), have already been researching nanofabrication techniques with applications in fiber optics, biotechnology, microelectromechanical systems (MEMS), and wide variety of other research fields relevant to today’s technology.10 MEMS, “tiny mechanical devices such as sensors, valves, gears, mirrors, and actuators embedded in semiconductor chips”,12 are particularly interesting because they are but a mere step away from the molecular machines envisioned by nanotechnology. MEMS are already being used in automobile airbag systems as accelerometers to detect collisions and will become an increasing part of our everyday technology.

K. Eric Drexler coined the word nanotechnology in the 1980s.

In 1986, a researcher from MIT named K. Eric Drexler…

  • already foresaw the advent of molecular machines and published a book, Engines of Creation, in which he outlined the possibilities and consequences of this emerging field, which he called nanotechnology2 (he was inspired by Nobel laureate Richard Feynman’s 1959 lecture, There’s Plenty of Room at the Bottom, about miniaturization down to the atomic scale4)

  • (since then) has written numerous other books on the subject, such as Unbounding the Future, and has founded the Foresight Institute, which is a nonprofit organization dedicated to the responsible development of nanotechnology (it hosts conferences and competitions to raise the awareness of nanotechnology and the ethical issues involved in its development)5

A lot of attention and funds are being channeled into nano research.

Today, nanotechnology research and development is quite wide spread, although not high profile yet. Numerous universities, such as Univ. of Washington and Northwestern Univ., have established centers and institutes to study nanotechnology, and the U.S. government has created an organization, the National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI), to monitor and guide research and development in this field.9 In fact, as noted in an April 2001 Computerworld article, the Bush administration increased funding to nanoscale science research by 16% through its National Science Foundation (NSF) budget increase.11 DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) and the NSF are currently the two largest sources of funding for nanotechnology research and have an enormous influence on the direction of scientific research done in the United States. With so many resources dedicated to its development, nanotechnology will surely have an impact within our lifetime, so it is important to examine its ethical implications while it is still in its infancy.

Andrew Chen graduated from Santa Clara University, California, with a bachelor’s degree in Computer Science in 2002. His interests include mathematics, technology, education, and acoustic guitar. He currently resides in the San Francisco Bay Area and plans to devote his time to alternative education.

The Ethics of Nanotechnology

Other nanotechnology articles on this site:

  • »”Nanotechnology: It’s a Small, Small, Small, Small World” by Ralph C. Merkle, Ph.D.
  • »”Nanotechnology Education” by Mahbub Uddin, Ph.D. and A. Raj Chowdhury, Ph.D.
  • »”Strategies for Building Community Trust in Nanotechnology” by Andrea Biondo (student)

About K. Eric Drexler

Drexler’s bio and links to his works and ideas… he coined the term nanotechnology.

“Sustainability for Nanotechnology”

Aug. 30, 2004 article by Vivki Colven, Rice University, looks at safety for health and the environment as a concern for nanotechnology.

Nanotechnology museum

Learn about the milestones in nanotechnology with this online museum-style presentation.

Scientific American’s coverage of Nanotech

News, articles, and updates about the science of nanotechnology.

“Nanotech is Novel; the Ethical Issues are Not”

Feb. 16, 2004 article in The Scientist examines why we should become competent in dealing with moral concerns related to nanotechnology.

Center for Nanotechnology

If you’re interested in finding out what kind of courses are given at the undergraduate or graduate level, you can start with University of Washington where you will find nanotechnology program information and course descriptions.

Studying nanotechnology

“Students interested in nanotechnology often ask what they should study. This web page provides a partial answer to that question” by Ralph Merkle.

Lesson Plan on Nanotechnology

Nanotechnology lesson plan created to help teachers provide an introduction to nanotechnology in a classroom setting.

NNI K-12 Teacher Resources

The National Nanotechnology Initiative has special teacher resources, including online lesson plans for K-12 student activities.

  1. Bonsor, Kevin. 2002. “How nanotechnology will work.” (accessed March 03, 2002)
  2. Drexler, K. Eric. 1986. Engines of Creation. New York: Anchor Books.
  3. Drexler, K. Eric. 1991. Unbounding the Future. New York: Quill.
  4. Feynman, Richard P. “There’s plenty of room at the bottom.” (accessed March 03, 2002)
  5. Foresight Institute. (accessed March 03, 2002)
  6. Foresight Institute. June 2000. “Molecular nanotechnology guidelines.” (accessed March 03, 2002)
  7. IBM Almaden Laboratory. “STM image gallery.” (accessed March 03, 2002)
  8. Institute for Molecular Manufacturing. “A fine-motion controller for molecular assembly.” (accessed March 03, 2002)
  9. National Nanotechnology Initiative. (accessed March 03, 2002)
  10. Stanford Nanofabrication Facility. (accessed March 03, 2002)
  11. Thibodeau, Patrick. 2001. “Nanotech, IT research given boost in Bush budget.” (accessed March 03, 2002)
  12. “Definitions of general computing terms.”,289915,sid9_tax1673,00.html (accessed March 03, 2002)

author glossary

The following definitions are summarized from For complete definitions, see,289915,sid9_tax1673,00.html.

Micro-electromechanical systems (MEMS): MEMS is a technology that combines computers with tiny mechanical devices such as sensors, valves, gears, mirrors, and actuators embedded in semiconductor chips. MEMS is also sometimes called ’ smart matter’. For example, MEMS are already used as accelerometers in automobile air-bags.

Nanocomputer: A nanocomputer is a computer whose physical dimensions are microscopic. Several types of nanocomputers have been suggested or proposed by researchers and futurists:

  • Electronic nanocomputers would operate in a manner similar to the way present-day microcomputers work. The main difference is one of physical scale. In the electronic sense, the term nanocomputer is relative. By 1970s standards, today’s ordinary microprocessors might be called nanodevices.
  • Chemical and biochemical nanocomputers would store and process information in terms of chemical structures and interactions. Biochemical nanocomputers already exist in nature; they are manifest in all living things. The development of a true chemical nanocomputer will likely proceed along lines similar to genetic engineering. Engineers must figure out how to get individual atoms and molecules to perform controllable calculations and data storage tasks.
  • Mechanical nanocomputers would use tiny moving components called nanogears to encode information. Some researchers consider it unworkable. Nevertheless, some futurists are optimistic about the technology, and have even proposed the evolution of nanorobots that could operate, or be controlled by, mechanical nanocomputers.
  • Quantum nanocomputers would work by storing data in the form of atomic quantum states or spin. The main problem with this technology is instability. Instantaneous electron energy states are difficult to predict and even more difficult to control.

Nanomachine: A nanomachine, also called a nanite, is a mechanical or electromechanical device whose dimensions are measured in nanometers (millionths of a millimeter, or units of 10-9 meter). They are largely in the research-and-development phase, but some primitive devices have been tested. The microscopic size of nanomachines translates into:

  • high operational speed — a result of the natural tendency of all machines and systems to work faster as their size decreases
  • could be programmed to replicate themselves, or to work synergistically to build larger machines or to construct nanochips
  • nanorobots (specialized nanomachines) might be designed not only to diagnose, but to treat, disease conditions, perhaps by seeking out invading bacteria and viruses and destroying them
  • individual units require only a tiny amount of energy to operate
  • durability — nanites might last for centuries before breaking down

Nanometer: A nanometer is a unit of spatial measurement that is 10-9 meter, or one billionth of a meter. It is commonly used in nanotechnology, the building of extremely small machines.


Understanding Science