Tuesday June 26, 2012
Where do we draw the line?
By NOR AZARUDDIN HUSNI HAJI NURUDDIN
Senior Fellow Islamic Understanding Institute
Where does nanotechnology cross the line and is seen as tampering with God’s creation?
TODAY’S work on nanotechnology is evolutionary. Hundreds of companies and universities are engaged in this work. Governments around the world are pouring billions of dollars into such research.
The United States is leading the way with its US$3.7bil (RM11.8bil) investments in nanotechnology through its National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI), ahead of Japan with US$750mil (RM2.4bil) and the European Union with US$1.2bil (RM3.8bil) (source: MIGHT Report, September 2006). Asia is now the hotspot for nano business in the world, driven by the rapid growth of economy in the area.
Our economic growth today is being driven by the application of knowledge and ideas, rather than the production and trade of physical goods. For example, traditional polymers can be reinforced by nanoparticles resulting in novel materials which can be used as lightweight replacement for metals.
Enhanced properties of materials will enable weight reduction accompanied by an increase in mechanical and thermal stability and improved functionality.
The world’s largest nanotechnology event, Nanotech 2012, was held from June 18 to 21 at Santa Clara, California. Thousands of leading researchers, scientists, engineers and technology developers were there to identify new technology trends, development tools, product opportunities, R&D collaborations, and commercialisation partners.
Among the interesting areas in nanotechnology discussed were nanoparticles, nanocomposites, polymer nanocomposites and cancer nanotechnology.
Globally, nanotechnology will eventually impact every area of our world. The development of nanotechnology comes from outside the laboratory. Observers such as policy analysts, advocacy groups, social scientists and freelance futurists worry about the dangers that nanotechnology might pose to human health or the natural environment.
But others have a different opinion. They are trying to create a new academic discipline called “nanoethics” to think through the societal, moral, and broader human implications of advances in nanotechnology.
For instance, research studies suggest that some nanoparticles are directly harmful to animals, and because they can be taken up by cells, they might enter our food chain to cause unknown effects on human health. Other research questions whether carbon nanotubes will be the next asbestos, since both elements have the same whisker-like shape that makes it so difficult to purge from our lungs if inhaled. And the flipside of creating super strong materials such as carbon nanotubes is their fate at the end of their product life cycle: Will these materials persist indefinitely in our land fills, as is the case with polystyrene or nuclear waste?
Nanoethics seeks to examine the potential risks and rewards of applications of nanotechnology.
Nanoethics means ethics for technologies that converge at the nanoscale. Nanoethics provides a philosophically and scientifically rigorous examination of ethical and societal considerations and policy concerns raised by nanotechnology and uncertainties surrounding nanotechnologies.
What are the issues of concern for nanoethicists? First is the question of safety. Researchers still understand very little about the health and environmental effects of nanoparticles. The second category of concern to nanoethicists could, for the sake of convenience, be labelled “social justice”. This category includes questions about equity, access, and socioeconomics. The third area of nano-ethical inquiry relates to vast and genuinely novel social changes that the development of nanotechnology might wreck.
A recent study by Philip A.E. Breyon, Anticipatory Ethics for Emerging Technologies (ATE), discussed ethical issues at the R&D and introduction stage of technology development through anticipation of possible future devices, applications and social consequences.
However, what is more important here is the relationship between technology and the well-being of people. Should the focus of technological research and development be on the individual or the environment of that individual?
Nanotechnology may never become as powerful and prolific as envisioned by its evangelists, but as with any potential near-horizon technology, we should formulate solutions to potential ethical issues before the technology is irreversibly adopted. We must examine the ethics of developing nanotechnology and create policies designed to assist its development while eliminating, or at least minimising, its damaging effects.
Given the potential health and environmental dangers, and the fear that nanotechnology will be used for weapons, especially in light of the added capabilities and difficulty in tracing them, then to what extent will “blocking the means” apply and how do we weigh them in light of the potential benefits?
Do nanoparticles of natural substances have the same ruling as the non-substance? For example, if nanoparticle gold takes on a different colour, does that make it permissible for men and women to use? Many more questions arise.
From the Islamic point of view, Islam encourages the use of science and the scientific method. Acquiring knowledge is obligatory for every Muslim.
In Islam, science and technology should be used for moral ends and serve humanity’s legitimate needs, and be considered as yet another means to understand and witness God’s power and glory.
However, for decades, Islamic countries spend little on research and development – less than 0.4% of their gross national product compared to the global average of 2.36%. Muslim nations need drastic changes in their approach to science and technology if they are to compete with the rest of the world.
The Islamic world also needs to integrate itself with the international scientific community by participating in regional cooperative projects and establishing global scientific collaborations.