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									Microscopic Ethics

  By: Matthew Sparks
                                       Microscopic Ethics

       Nowadays, most anyone can pick up their cell phone and access phone calls, text

messages, and even the internet. Also, laptops and notebooks are designed to be smaller and

more efficient. Technology over the years has increasingly become smaller and faster, and does

not seem to be slowing down. The processing power of laptops and cell phones seems to

increase doubly every few months, while the size of the devices and the processors themselves

are continually decreasing in size. With this trend of increased processing and decreasing size,

technology has begun to go through extreme new advances, especially in the medical fields.

Machines such as lasers, surgical tools, and x-ray machines have drastically gotten smaller along

with the rest of technology. The medical fields are also taking a turn for smaller and more

powerful technologies. One of the major contenders within this field is the use of

nanotechnology, primarily in the use of nanobots or nanotransistors to be used in our everyday

medical and surgical practices. Though the use of these mediums in medicine could very well

help improve human life, rid humans of some diseases, or even help the longevity of life, there

are many other deleterious effects that could come from the technology; such as certain

technologies “falling into the wrong hands”, the idea of “playing God” with human genetics and

biology, and the increases in power (both mental and physical) that could be attained.

       Nanotechnology today is considered by many as just tiny machines used in technology.

It has also been stereotyped in many science fiction movies and television shows, such as in Star

Trek where a machine can replicate food and drink using any molecular materials present. Also,

many movies and television shows have shown cyborgs, or human beings that have been

“upgraded” by nanomachines to be able to have increased strength, intelligence, mechanical

organs, or immune systems. The idea of nanotechnology was first brought forth in 1959 by
Richard P. Feynman, who stated that we could manipulate things as small as atoms and

molecules; we just do not have the ability to do so yet (Lenhert, 2002). While many of these

ideas for the uses of nanotechnology are far off into the future, the basic concept of the machines

are very like the conceptualizations many people and scientists have for the technology.

Therefore, the most recognized definition, by Robert A. Freitas Jr. in his book Nanomedicine

Volume I: Basic Capabilities (1999),

   “(1) The comprehensive monitoring, control, construction, repair, defense, and improvement

   of all human biological systems, working from the molecular level, using engineered

   nanodevices and nanostructures;

   (2) The science and technology of diagnosing, treating, and preventing disease and traumatic

   injury, of relieving pain, and of preserving and improving human health, using molecular

   tools and molecular knowledge of the human body;

   (3) The employment of molecular machine systems to address medical problems, using

   molecular knowledge to maintain and improve human health at the molecular scale.”

This definition shows that many of the ideas proposed by the shows and movies watched

everywhere today, could actually be a construct of the future. This technology is to work on a

purely molecular level, almost like the big machines we have in the world today, only operating

on things so small that it is almost impossible for someone to realistically do today. This

includes many surgical operations, repairs of organs and tissue, or even solving genetic issues in

some people. The scale on which these machines work is in one “nano”, which is one billionth

of a meter (Davidson, 2005). This would allow thousands, if not millions, of these nanobots to

be inserted into someone’s bloodstream or body as easily as with a regular syringe. Once inside
the body, the nanobots would have their instructions as to where to go and what to do, whether it

is destroying a virus or bacteria, repairing tissue, or any other medicinal issue the patient may

have. Outside of the body, the nanobots can also be used as very small “builders”, actually

constructing materials out of atoms or molecules, and/or rearranging these atoms or molecules

into a desired product. So far, humans have recognized the ideas of nanotechnology as very

viable, and have already started to implement these ideas into working models.

       For the medical community, nanotechnology could be a major breakthrough for the field.

These machines could help eradicate the need for such heavy and bulky machines to treat various

illnesses, as well as possibly eliminate or help diagnose other illnesses much more quickly.

Within drugs and pharmaceuticals, nanorobots could be used to deliver drugs more quickly and

efficiently, while targeting the areas that need to be targeted. In one such scenario, a nanorobot

that would act as a white blood cell could be introduced into the bloodstream, effectively killing

off bacteria and viruses. Since these “white blood cells” are machines and have no genetic code,

the bacteria or virus could not develop any kind of immunity to it, causing the nanobots to be

able to eradicate a sickness efficiently. The diagnostic capabilities of medicine would also be

greatly enhanced with the use of nanobots. These robots could be introduced into the body and

take measurements, or even pictures with nanocameras. This data would then be transmitted

back to software with the ability to compile the information to help doctors be better informed

about what is going on with the patient, from the inside. These, in turn, could work with other

nanobots, finding out what is exactly wrong with a patient and actively starting a healing

process. On another hand, they could gather enough information to let the doctors know what

nanobot “drug” to administer to treat the affliction. Many practical solutions to invasive surgery

are also found with the use of nanobots. Already, the medical fields have found ways to
decrease the chances of permanent damage and scarring in surgeries with the use of lasers. But

if nanobots were implemented, they could repair the damaged tissue or organ from within the

body. After being injected into or near the site, the nanobots would find the afflicted area and be

able to heal or repair it without a surgeon ever actually having to touch the patient. This would

dramatically decrease the danger in any medical procedure, either invasive or not. Another

popular idea related to nanotechnology and medicine is gene therapy. Using nanobots, one could

effectively go inside of living cells and exchange or destroy genes with abnormal or deleterious

properties. This could reduce many genetic diseases and even obliterate many fatal

abnormalities. Another idea, one straight from science fiction, would be the ability to augment

one’s own genes to genetically enhance the human body. This could make someone stronger,

faster, smarter, or have any other ability enhanced by the nanotechnology. This transition from

human, to an individual with increased abilities due to genetic enhancements is called

transhumanism. Transhumans therefore, could have incredible healing abilities, along with

living much more lengthy lives than any average human today.

       With all of the great sounding advancements that could come from nanotechnology, there

are still some serious drawbacks that could occur from their use. Since this is still a newer

technology and science, there has yet to be much work involving these drawbacks, which could

lead to dire consequences. “So far, there has no extensive knowledge whether or not nanobots

could be toxic to the human body. Some doctors worry that the nanoparticles are so small, that

they could easily cross the blood-brain barrier, a membrane that protects the brain from harmful

chemicals in the bloodstream (Bronsor, & Strickland, 2007).” The nanoparticles that make up

the nanorobots are so incredibly small, the membranes that make up most of the human body

may be passed through; which could lead to problems if one type of nanobot does not need to
enter certain sites of the body. Along with toxic effects, many have discussed the idea of having

self-replicating nanobots. While these nanobots could enter the body and multiply to have as

many needed to control or cure a certain disease, they could also malfunction and begin to

replicate without stop. Essentially, this would make the nanobots out to be a type of virus,

spreading rapidly and “infecting” a person or organism until that organism could no longer

function correctly. This could also lead to a catastrophe called the “gray goo scenario”, in which

self-replicating nanobots grow out of control and effectively destroy or even “devour” a

landscape, or even a person (Davidson, 2005). The malfunctioning nanobots would replicate out

of control until they were somehow shut down, and in the meantime, would be able to destroy

almost anything, depending on their actions and the number of them replicated. Also, gene

therapy, while sounding like a great new cure for many genetic disorders, could also turn in the

wrong direction. While being able to treat and cure diseases, gene therapy used as an aid to

“better” one’s body brings up many other issues as well. Parents could actually “design” their

children in a matter of meaning, giving them their genetic abilities before they are even born.

This could cause many problems in the life of the child, which the child had no decision in

making. Using the nanobots to make one a transhuman could also have extremely bad

foundations, such as, governments beginning to engineer their own types of “super-soldiers”, as

well as bio-terroristic weaponry. The soldiers could be enhanced to withstand much more

punishment in the battlefield, making wars far worse with no one ever backing down. The bio-

weapons that could also be produced could be a fatal development on a huge scale. A weapon

filled with toxic nanoparticles could be released into an area and end up killing an entire

population, all wildlife and plants, or even both.
        As of now, there is still much debate over which areas of nanotechnology are ethical or

not. The use of nanomachines in medicine has not been tested very much as of yet. This leads to

almost too little information to be able to tell patients about the benefits and risks of their use.

Since the toxic effects are not yet known, and the long term effects have yet to be measured,

doctors are unable to effectively tell patients whether or not treatment with nanobots would be

safe or not. Also, the use of the nanobots in diagnostic medicine brings up many issues. For

instance, how much and exactly what information could certain nanobots collect and transmit to

the doctors? And would this information be collected and stored or only sent when needed? The

length of time these nanobots could stay in the patient’s body is also a concern. As far as

surgical use, or organ replacement or treatment, the issue of monetary cost arises. These types of

noninvasive procedures would be very costly, so would only the well-off people in society be

able to afford them, also causing them, in effect, to become superior to those less fortunate? The

idea of gene therapy also rises, in genetic altering of the human body and functions. This is

sometimes looked at as “playing God” (Berger, 2008). Many say we should not play with

genetics, and that should only be left to God to handle. However, with prospects of eliminating

genetic diseases and having more healthy children, it’s hard to say whether or not gene therapy

could be beneficial. Parents being able to alter their children’s DNA is another closely related

issue. Parents that do alter their child’s DNA are also choosing that the DNA of their

grandchildren is essentially altered. So if their children would want to have a child with no

genetic altered abilities, the genes they would pass on would have already been altered, which

would not have been their choice in the first place. The idea of self-replicating nanobots, in any

scenario, is one that has also had much attention. This idea though, has not had much

enthusiasm, making it seem to not be very useful. Although the idea of self-replication can show
benefits, many see this as a more destructive technological advancement than anything. On the

other hand, it would be much more cost effective to have the self-replicating machines, so that

only one or two would have to be produced to initially replicate many thousand more for use.

       One area in particular that seems to have a very heated debate is the idea of

transhumanism. Ideally, it seems that using this technology to biomechanically or biogenetically

enhance one’s own body is a great step toward evolution. As many have seen in present day

science fiction, super human strength or speed, or rapid healing seem to be like great ideas for

any human and could possibly make the world a better and safer place. However, the possibility

of this technology going the wrong way is a very insistent problem. Governments creating nano-

weapons and super-soldiers could have massive consequences to the world and life as we know

it. Transhumanism could also lead to humans having much longer life spans, which in turn

seems like a good idea, but eventually will lead to mass overpopulation. There is also the idea

that if transhumanism spread correctly, that the world would end up in a world of peace. This

does not seem very feasible either; people with more power than others will more than likely try

to suppress the people that cannot turn to transhumanism, either because of personal views or

monetary standing. This too brings up the thought of humans having what many would call

“God-like” powers. It is argued that humans are made the way they are, perfect in the eyes of

God and need not be changed in any way. However, the prospects of eliminating disease seem

like a great idea, many think that altering the human body biomechanically is not ethical in any

way. Though the obvious benefits of various implants one could attain, they would be changing

themselves into something that is not necessarily human, and this seems entirely unethical to

very many people.
       As a result of the arguments pertaining to the ethics of nanotechnology, research has

currently slowed. While still being funded by many government associations, many people

believe that much more research is needed before any more actual field implementation could

begin (Davidson, 2005). So far, there is a big push from many scientists into the technology in

and behind nanotechnology, and still more possible applications are being thought of and tested

day to day. However, with all the negative results that have come from these ideas, it may still

be awhile before any actual applications of the technology are in full use in any field, especially

the medical field.

Berger, M. (2008, January 9). Ethical aspects of nanotechnology in medicine. Retrieved from

Bonsor, K., & Strickland, J. (2007). Nanotechnology challenges, risks and ethics. How Nanotechnology

        Works, Retrieved from

Davidson, Keay. (2005). Big troubles may lurk in super-tiny tech / nanotechnology experts say legal,

        ethical issues loom. Chronicle Science Writer, Retrieved from


Freitas Jr., R. A. (1999). Nanomedicine, volume i: basic capabilities. Retrieved from

Keating, E. L. (1999). A brief history of nanotechnology. Unpublished raw data, College of Liberal Arts,

        University of Texas at Austin, Austin, TX. Retrieved from


Lenhert, S. (2002). A brief history of nanotechnology. Retrieved from

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