The ability to produce drastic change is the reason that nanotechnology is often referred to as a "disruptive" technology. What kind of challenges would such change offer? For one thing, just about all the possibilities for how nanotechnology can help us improve our lives raise some interesting ethical questions.
If nanotechnology helps us to live longer or produce manufactured goods from inexpensive raw materials, what is the moral imperative about making such benefits available to all?
Is there sufficient understanding or regulation of nanotech-based materials to avoid harming people or our environment?
How could molecular manufacturing have an impact on our global economy? Molecular manufacturing could spawn another dramatic shift akin to the industrial revolution that would completely change the way we do business and put billions of people out of work. Whole industries may become obsolete. At the same time, such advances could make it easy and cheap to produce powerful weapons.
What would the molecular replicator, once developed, do to our society as we know it today? If people could simply produce many items they need themselves, what would motivate people to work hard for the things they want in life?
What would happen if nano medicine made it possible for us to halt aging by making repairs at the cellular level? If everybody could live hundreds of years, what would happen to our economy and society? Would only an elite few get such treatment and what consequences would that have? If nobody ever died, would people have to stop having children to avoid overpopulation?
What should be the priorities of nano research? If third world countries could be helped by improvements in energy production or water quality, should those more basic needs come before the need of a middle-class person to replicate his own iPhone or only have to charge his laptop once a month? Will the attraction of consumers able to spend money on a product or service outweigh the needs of poor countries or starving children?
Organizations Working on the Ethical Issues of Nanotechnology
Greater minds than mine are hard at work trying to address all the ethical challenges of nanotechnology. Here is a sampling of those groups and their mission statements:
The Nanoethics Group is a non-partisan organization that studies the ethical and societal implications of nanotechnology. They also engage the public as well as collaborate with nanotech ventures and research institutes on related issues and initiatives.
The Center for Responsible Nanotechnology (CRN) is a non-profit research and advocacy think tank concerned with the major societal and environmental implications of advanced nanotechnology.
Latin American Nanotechnology and Society Network (ReLANS) intends to create a forum for discussion and exchange of information that follows the process of nanotechnology development in Latin America. To that end, ReLANS will establish links and collaboration agreements with academic institutions, governments and society, intending to examine and evaluate the political, economic, social, legal, ethical and environmental implications of nanotechnologies that are domestically developed, and/or in collaboration with foreign centers and institutions, and imported goods that contain nanocomponents.
Focus nanotechnology Africa Inc.(FONAI) was formed in 2006 as a 501c3 not-for-profit educational and scientific organization especially in the US, Africa and the Caribbean to combat brain drain and all forms of poverty including science and technological poverty.
And various research groups such as the Whitesides Research Group at Harvard University An important problem is to use first-world science to benefit the welfare of people in developing economies. The Whitesides group is using its competencies in materials science, engineering and biology to attack this type of global problem, with a focus on health diagnostics and local energy production.
Examples of research that could help improve water quality is the research at Rice University to remove arsenic from well water