Here’s an interesting news item from Eurekalert:
A new national survey on public attitudes toward medical applications and physical enhancements that rely on nanotechnology shows that support for the technology increases when the public is informed of the technology’s risks as well as its benefits â€“ at least among those people who have heard of nanotechnology. The survey, which was conducted by researchers at North Carolina State University and Arizona State University (ASU), also found that discussing risks decreased support among those people who had never previously heard of nanotechnology â€“ but not by much.
“The survey suggests that researchers, industries and policymakers should not be afraid to display the risks as well as the benefits of nanotechnology,” says Dr. Michael Cobb, an associate professor of political science at NC State who conducted the survey. “We found that when people know something about nanotechnologies for human enhancement, they are more supportive of it when they are presented with balanced information about its risks and benefits.”
The survey was conducted by Cobb in collaboration with Drs. Clark Miller and Sean Hays of ASU, and was funded by the Center for Nanotechnology in Society at ASU.
However, talking about risks did not boost support among all segments of the population. Those who had never heard of nanotechnology prior to the survey were slightly less supportive when told of its potential risks.
In addition to asking participants how much they supported the use of nanotechnology for human enhancements, they were also asked how beneficial and risky they thought these technologies would be, whether they were worried about not getting access to them, and who should pay for them â€“ health insurance companies or individuals paying out-of-pocket. The potential enhancements addressed in the survey run the gamut from advanced cancer treatments to bionic limbs designed to impart greater physical strength.
If you are someone who writes or speaks on the topic of nanotechnology, this means that you shouldn’t be afraid to discuss the risks. In fact, mentioning the risks should be part of your default spiel. Engines of Creation was not afraid to discuss some of the risks. The Center for Responsible Nanotechnology, when it was more active, had a crucial role in making the risks of nanotechnology more widely known, but the vast majority of contemporary organizations and publications that discuss nanotechnology shy away from the immense risks.
I’ve previously written at length about the dangers of advanced nanotechnology, and frequently recommend the book Military Nanotechnology as a guide to some of these risks. Essential essays or pages include “Molecular Nanotechnology and the World System” by Tom McCarthy, “Nanotechnology and International Security” by Mark Gubrud, “Military, Arms Control, and Security Aspects of Nanotechnology” by Altmann and Gubrud, CRN’s dangers page, and my page enumerating additional dangers.
Next time you’re in the audience at a talk or see a blog post extolling the benefits of nanotechnology (especially molecular nanotechnology), consider making a comment that you’d like to see more thought on the risks. I believe that some of the purveyors of molecular nanotechnology are actively avoiding discussing its grave potential risks.