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Social Implications

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Visualization of the cell junction of human epithelial cells by AFM: High magnification image with a scan size of 7 x 7 mm2 showing the detailed structure of cell junctions.
Image source: MSU Nano Manufacturing Lab

New technologies often have significant social and environmental implications, and these are not always obvious at the inception of the technology. Consider, for example, how major inventions and devices such as the telephone, the combustion engine, the DC motor, the television, and the smart phone have changed the societies into which they were introduced. Not surprisingly, new technologies are often accompanied by debates and controversies between the enthusiastic proponents who see economic progress and improved performance, and the opponents who fear harm to the social fabric, malicious uses of the new technology, and damage to the environment.

A key concern with nanotechnology is its potential toxicity. We found many bulk materials (lead, asbestos) to be harmful to health -- what about nanoparticles and other nanostructures? The toxicity of many nanoparticles and nanotubes have not yet been characterized, and their adoption in commercial products may be hampered by health concerns and the need for lengthy testing of their toxicity.

Scanning electron microscopy of Silicon Carbide ribbons.
Image Credit: Katya Vishnyakova and Gleb Yushin Drexel University

Many potential applications of nanotechnology have social implications. Enhanced computing and sensing, for example, can be very useful objectives in the right hands – they can improve human welfare, and support healthcare, safety, information exchange, and entertainment. However, in the wrong hands, these technologies also enable more effective surveillance and analysis of communication that may be detrimental to freedom and human rights.

Deeper questions on nanotechnology involve the interaction between humans and nature, and the boundaries between humans and machines. At one point, nanotechnology may provide us with tools that affect the course of human lives by, say, providing "replacement parts" that increase human life span by an order of magnitude. Do we understand the implications of such developments on the organization of human societies? On the environment?