Our posthuman future: Some consequences of the nanotechnology revolution

Andrzej Kocikowski


While an ordinary member of the North-Atlantic civilization still struggles to get fully accustomed to the most important achievements of the teleinformation revolution, there are already new, different, and much more serious challenges he or she will have to face. These challenges were generated by the biotechnology and nanotechnology revolutions.

Some selected consequences of the biotechnological revolution underwent already a serious scrutiny (e.g., by Francis Fukuyama, 2002). One can, therefore, say that we are aware of particular important threats that were generated by this technology, or could be generated by it in the future. Less well known and less analyzed are the potentially negative consequences of the nanotechnology revolution. This is due mainly to the fact that the subject of nanosciences is presently not known widely enough to allow such analyzes on a large scale. In addition, the nanosciences are still in their initial phase, and because of that it is impossible to present – in a complete and accurate manner – the area of potential benefits and threats they could cause. Therefore, one should applaud the fact that nanotechnology found its way to the list of “official” ETHICOMP topics this year. Without a doubt, it is a key issue for present debates on the future of the humankind; moreover, the connection between nanotechnology and ICTs is close and unarguable. Hence, nanotechnology fits very well the profile of the ETHICOMP conferences.

One of the nanosciences is nanomedicine. It focuses, among others, on the ways in which various nano-objects can be used for checkups, for diagnostics, and – in the case of illness – for therapy. For example, NASA carries out (with various results) a long-term nanomedical program as part of its preparations for the space travel to Mars. Since one of the effects of a long-lasting weightlessness are bone diseases, the NASA scientists attempt to construct nano-objects which could be inserted into the body of an astronaut in order to monitor the processes of unwelcome bone changes, and – most importantly – to cure him/her during the space travel, if necessary.

To the field of nanomedicine belongs also prevention, broadly understood. Specialized nano-objects are used for permanent monitoring of human bodies, and for transmitting the obtained information either to remote data banks or to other nano-objects located in the body of the same individual. Yet another area of interest for nanomedicine is the production of biochemical substances adapted for cooperation with nano-objects used in diagnostics or treatment. For obvious reasons, problems related to the remote control of above-mentioned nano-objects also belong to the field of nanomedicine.

In my paper, I will focus chiefly on an attempt to sketch out the threats for humanity generated in the above-mentioned areas of nanomedicine. After a brief presentation of selected aspects of the accomplishments (current and future) of this science, I will discuss their “dark side.” For example, the dark side of using nano-objects inserted into the human body is the possibility to construct these objects in such a way that it would create “programmed threats,” to use Eugene Spafford’s and his colleagues term. To be more specific (focusing only on one facet of the functions of intra-bodily nano-objects), let me refer to the following:

— While inserting into a human body nano-objects capable of receiving, transporting, and releasing biochemical substances, and of monitoring the body’s vital functions, one can do it with the knowledge and permission of that partticular individual, or without it.

— Nano-objects capable of receiving, transporting, and releasing biochemical substances within a human body can be used not only for the purpose of curing, but also for causing harm, e.g., through delivering toxic substances.

— Nano-objects capable of receiving, transporting, and releasing biochemical substances within a human body can be used for carrying medicines, but of a wrong kind, and intended to harm rather than cure.

Of course, these are not new problems. Unethical, even criminal behavior in the field of medicine is as old as the field itself. Because of this, there are safeguards, some of them very effective. What is new, and what should cause great concern is the fact that these safeguards don’t protect against unethical, or criminal acts commited against humans with the use of nanotechnology. Nano-objects are practically undetectable now, and most likely they will be generally undetectable in the future as well. Hence, nanotechnology, including nanomedicine, can be a great threat for humanity, if used by ill-intended people. The threat is especially great in the case of nano-objects programmed for future activation (similarly to “sleeper” terrorist cells), therefore causing programmed threats.