Essay: Working Toward Consensus on Nanotechnology

In March 2008, small groups of volunteer citizens gathered for two weekends to consider guidelines for the development of nanoscience and nanotechnology and the ways these are merging with biotechnology, information technology, and cognitive science. The four together often are referred to as nano-bio-info-cogno (NBIC) science and technology, which may provide powerful ways to enhance human behavior and experience.

The activity was sponsored by the National Science Foundation (NSF) to ensure that NBIC developments take into account a broad spectrum of perspectives before they are actually implemented. Concerned citizens will be able to provide decision makers in government, business, and society with the informed, deliberative opinions of ordinary people who have taken the time to study these issues with some care.

In March 2008, 14 participants, divided rather equally between women and men, Democrats and Republicans, ranging in ages from their 20s to their 60s, and across most economic classes, gathered on two weekends to discuss these issues. This is an edited version of their report:

Enhancement: Remediation for Quality of Life

Enhancement is defined as the improvement of human and cognitive abilities beyond existing norms. Enhancement research and potential nanotech developments are based in expanded knowledge of how the human sensorium and brain work, and are leading researchers to explore ways to modify these processes.

Although some may argue human cognitive enhancement is comparable to earlier inventions such as modern electricity and computers, in fact nanotech is vastly different in that the potential scales of biological, informational, and cognitive applications are unlike anything seen before. Our recommendation is that nanotech be utilized to help humans gain equality in regard to quality of life. Therefore, funding priority should be given to issues of remediation.

Ideally, this type of technology should be available to those who need it the most no matter their income level. We strongly recommend that legislative action ensure that private insurers cover these needs and, failing that, government should step in to subsidize costs. Everyone, regardless of socioeconomic or cultural status, deserves equal access to remediate before we begin to practice enhancement.

Education: Considering the “Dark Side”

Nanotech is a broad field encompassing a diverse array of scientific and technological developments. We need to make sure the general public becomes educated on the nature of these technologies, from a thorough, accurate, and easily accessible source.

Strong feelings of unease stem from the possible effects of nanotech on humanity, society, and the ecosystem. For example, currently in clinical trials are brain-machine interface (BMI) chips, which, when implanted in the deep tissue of the brain, would allow a person to communicate with a computer via their brain signals.

Nanotech is still in its infancy. Promising developments range from bionic eyes to nanoparticles that detect chemical and hormonal changes early, thus eliminating disease before symptoms emerge. For many, the possibility of the elimination of disease and the ability to attain a greater quality of life is a bright prospect, yet there are many possible adverse outcomes.

The dark side of nanotech was a ubiquitous concern in our group discussions. For many the maintenance of privacy and personal identity are problematic. Nanotech could make possible nanochips that would allow us to communicate directly with computers or even link to the Internet. As citizens, we need to consider who should have access to our information, and for what uses.

To ensure the effective dissemination of information, with the goal of creating greater public awareness we support the following:

  1. Continued citizens’ forums, funded annually by the National Science Foundation or other appropriate federal agency, to re-evaluate nanotech issues and update policy recommendations based on changes in emerging research and public opinion.
  2. Creation of a federally managed online clearinghouse that consolidates all current resources and information on nanotech. These resources should be advertised in a variety of popular media.
  3. Development of nanotech science exhibits explaining the technology, its relevance, its implications for the near and distant future, and nanotech products such as sunscreen, beauty products, food products.
  4. Grants from the federal government to fund curriculum development for and then implementation in public schools.
  5. Convening an international nanotech summit involving government agencies, non-governmental agencies, industry leaders, and citizens. The goal of the summit would be to engage in international dialogue on the development of nanotech, to promote the exchange of ideas, and ultimately to draft an international treaty of nanotech, which would establish appropriate regulations. The treaty should, at the least, restrict the use of nanotech in ways that might contaminate the human race or the environment, as well as in certain military applications. In addition, we should avoid empowering extremist groups by giving them access to nanotech, and should prohibit the exploitation of under privileged groups in relation to the testing and implementation of technology.

With regard to all these proposals, we endorse the open exchange of ideas among all nations and peoples.

Regulation: Create U.S. and Global Safeguards

These new advancing technologies will reach into areas that are not overseen by current regulatory bodies, namely the FDA and the EPA, so we recommend a new regulatory body be established to both extend regulatory oversight over nanotech and its human enhancement applications, and to alleviate the burden on current regulatory agencies.

This new Human Enhancement Regulatory Agency (HERA) would not only be responsible for the extensive testing of related products and processes, but also would be a United States’ point of contact with the rest of the world for discussion of the related issues.

It is imperative that the global community reaches consensus on how nanotech enhancement will be governed. Because human-enhancing technologies are inseparable from their hosts who are free to travel across international borders, it would be in the best interests of all to find common ground with respect to regulation and implementation of nanotech enhancements.

In addition to the creation of a new regulatory agency and a commitment to the international community, we would like to voice our concern about the potential use of nanotech for coercive behavioral modification, such as the use of implants to control prisoners.

It is also foreseeable that the application of non-reversible enhancing technologies in a military context would be the first step toward an arms race that would have as an inevitable result the complete dehumanization of future soldiers. Such forced implementation of these technologies should never be allowed in a free society, and therefore should be banned.


Nanotech is going to revolutionize the world. We believe that an informed public can help avoid the possible disastrous outcomes of a technology that runs rampant without proper regulation, and can ensure that nanotech is used for the greatest good for the greatest number.

Finally, we completely acknowledge and support the ability of our representatives to be flexible in accommodating these technologies as they become available. However, no matter how far nanotech advances it is never acceptable for our government to use such advances to usurp civil liberties and freedoms that are guaranteed to U.S. citizens under our Constitution.

Eric Brown, Teri Burgess, Nichole Carter, Abraham Eng, Starlyn First, Brett Kuenne, An Light, Ricky Lott, Patrick Mingus, Rose Murray, Alex Ramirez, Eldrine Richardson, Ariel Thomas, Tara Van Bommel, facilitated by Jennifer Schneider and Carl Mitcham.

Contact information for two Colorado facilitators of this NCTF activity:
Jennifer Schneider
Carl Mitcham

More information about this project at the National Citizens Technology Forum.